I have visited Hocking Hills State Park in southeastern Ohio. Many changes have taken place since I originally wrote this article. In fact for my forty-eighth birthday my husband and I were just there this past weekend. I really have a special place in my heart for this park and I hope you’ll see why between my words and photographs in this article. (By the way when I wrote this article, I was still using film.)
My photo adventures have taken me to many national parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion and Bryce. While they are incredibly beautiful and I look forward to going to them again, and of course, visiting many more, I must say that the first park I ever visited still holds a special place in my heart. You ask, “What is its name?” It is Hocking Hills State Park. Why does it continue to capture my heart? Let me take you on an adventure in this park and it may beckon you to visit, too.
The park is located at the foothills of the Appalachians in the southeastern part of Ohio. Hocking Hills received its name from several Native American tribes including the Wyandotte, Delaware and Shawnee. Originally they named the river that ran through the valley Hockhocking meaning bottled river because the valley and river are shaped like a bottle. There are six different areas encompassing the park-Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Cedar Falls, Rock House, Cantwells Cliffs and Conkles Hollow Nature Preserve (which is “separate” from the park because it’s a nature preserve). Not only are they geographically different, but they are photographically different as well.
Old Man’s Cave
Old Man’s Cave is literally in the center of the park and is the most popular area. There is a modern visitor’s center at the front entrance of the cave where you can obtain geological information, as well as data about the park’s fauna and flora.
While called Old Man’s Cave, this is really a series of recess caves rather than one cave. It has five different areas – the Upper Gorge, Upper Falls, Middle Falls, Lower Falls and Lower Falls. I like to photograph falls, so I’ll concentrate my information on them. The Upper Falls is the easiest to get to and it best photographed in the early morning or late evening, since it is in the open. In between the Upper and Middle Falls is a place called the Devil’s Bathtub that is literally shaped like a bathtub. The bathtub eroded the sandstone and rock to form the shape. The water then continues into a small pool below. During the Great Depression there was a small concrete bridge built over the bathtub that provides an excellent view of what the bathtub looks like from above.
The Middle Falls is the next one on the hiking trail and is the hardest to photograph. The falls are in the open at the top and fall into a recessed cave at the bottom making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to photograph the entire falls in one frame. However, you can get some good shots if you do a section at a time. Usually, the best time to make images of the top of the falls is fairly early in the morning. The best light is found on overcast days since sunlight causes high contrast on the water.
The last waterfall in the Old Man’s Cave is the Lower Falls. It is the most remote part of the park, so, consequently, even though there are steps that lead to the waterfall, it is a little more difficult to reach. The best time to photograph this fall is when the light is a bit higher in the sky, since it is so deep in the woods and light barely reaches it.
What I like to do when I photograph the Lower Falls is to include objects in the foreground There are several large rocks, boulders and Hemlock trees that lay in front of the waterfall. They add a lot to the depth of field to the falls and allow you to translate the feeling of size of the falls to film. As with most of my scenics, experimenting with changing vantage points gives different angles and feelings of the falls.
Ash Cave received its name after a huge pile of ashes found by early settlers. No one knows exactly where the ashes came from, but there are three main theories. Some say they came from Native American campfires that had been built up over hundreds of years. Another theory if that Native Americans were smelting silver or lead from the rocks. Still another theory is there was saltpeter made in the cave.
The cave itself is the largest recess cave in Ohio. It measures 700 feet from one side to the other and is 100 feet from back to front. A branch of the East Fork of Queer Creek flows over the ninety foot rim to a small pool below. It is a stunning sight to see.
When I photograph Ash Cave, I make images in the evening or early morning. The best time to see the flowing water is early to-mid spring after it has rained. Additionally, the cave itself is quite beautiful and is fascinating to explore. In front there is a huge rock and on the floor of the cave you’ll find sand from the walls. The cave is easy to reach on a one-half mile paved walkway which makes it wheelchair accessible.
This waterfall lies deep in a Hemlock forest making in my favorite area of the park. The early settlers thought the trees were cedars, thus came the name Cedar Falls. There is a trail that links Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave and Cedar Falls. The trail is a twelve-mile round trip hike.
Cedar Falls is fifty feet high. While not the tallest waterfall in the Hocking Hills region, it does have the greatest volume of water running through it.
I like to photograph it in the later morning or early evening because the light has to penetrate through the thick forest. There are also Hemlock trees on either side of the falls and large rocks and a boulder in front of the waterfall. Obviously, these all make excellent foreground subjects. It is also fun to move in close and make tighter shots of the falls.
Photo Tips for Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave and Cedar Falls
All three of these areas are grouped together since they all have waterfalls. I basically use the same philosophy when making images of each of these. I use a small aperture, f/11 to f/22, with f/22, of course, giving me the greatest depth of field. That generally provides me with the opportunity to use a slow shutter speed, anywhere from eight seconds to one-fifteenth of a second, allowing me to translate the flowing waterfall in a soft, ethereal effect on film.
Conkles Hollow Nature Preserve
Conkles Hollow is a rocky gorge, one of the deepest gorges in the state of Ohio. The hollow was named after W.J. Conkle whose name along with the year 1797, was carved into sandstone wall on the west side of the gorge.
There were two different trails. The first is a three-mile round trip hike that winds its way around the top of the gorge. The second is a one-mile round trip hike through the bottom of the gorge. I like to take the second trail to photograph the vegetation and also the creek that runs through the gorge.
There are wild ferns, many varieties of wildflowers (particularly in the spring) and various trees, including Hemlocks and maples. As you hike further down the trail you will discover a huge sandstone cliff. In fact, the vertical cliffs surround the trail leading up to the narrow half-mile ravine rising over 200 feet high. As the trail continues, the gorge narrows to only a distance of 300 feet from one cliff to another.
How I Photograph Conkles Hollow
When photographing in Conkles Hollow, I recommend that you photograph in the morning, because it faces the east. And, it goes without saying, that a slow speed film with good saturation will best reproduce the vivid greens of the gorge. If the wind kicks up and blues the vegetation, it could be seen as ruining your images. However, sometimes experimenting with blurring vegetation can be pretty interesting, too.
This is truly the most difficult area for me to photograph in the park. It is also one of the toughest and roughest trails to hike.
The Rock House is the only true cave in the Hocking Hills region. It is a tunnel-like corridor within a 150-foot high cliff of Blackhand sandstone. It has a ceiling of twenty-five feet, while the main part of the corridor is 200 feet long and 20 to 30 feet wide. The corridor was eroded out of the middle zone of the Blackhand sandstone.
Over the past several thousand years, nature has hewn out seven Gothic arched windows and great sandstone pillars which hold up a massive roof. There have been many residents at the Rock House over the centuries, especially early Native Americans. Small roles and recesses in the back of the Rock House served as small ovens for the people who lived in the cave. When they would build fires in the holes, the rock would become heated on all four sides and the food would be baked. there are also troughs dug out of the stone floor of the cave. when it rained heavily, springs of water came out of the sandstone and ran into the troughs which when filled up ran across the floor out of the windows. So, whoever lived in the Rock House had found a way to create a small supply of water.
Rock House Photography Tips
While there really is not one certain way to photograph the Rock House, I have found it almost impossible to photograph inside the cave without using flash. Even if you were using fast speed film, the cave is too dark to photograph with available light. However, you can photograph outside the cave and make a fantastic image of the gorge below.
Cantwell Cliffs is the farthest of all the areas in the Hocking Hills State Park Region. It is sixteen miles north of Old Man’s Cave. People use the park for rock climbing and repelling, as well as nature hikes. There are two hiking trials that lead to the bottom of Cantwell Cliffs. The most popular site on the trail is an area called the Fat Ladies Squeeze, where two wall protrude and are really close together. So, you need to be careful when carrying a lot of equipment, because you might get stuck if you do not use caution when hiking through this area.
When you finally wind your way down to the bottom of the gorge, you’ll discover a huge wall of different layers of sandstone and a small recess cave, along with several varieties of wild ferns, trees and wildflowers. There are even wild ferns growing out of the large boulders and on the wall of the cliff.
Photo Tips for the Cantwell Cliffs
This is probably the second hardest place to photograph. The reason I say this is because it is really almost impossible to photograph just the cliffs. You need to add something in the foreground like a tree, boulder or even a person to give the feeling of depth and scale, so the viewers will appreciate how large the cliffs actually are. I also like to photograph the ferns and other vegetation found at the floor of the cliffs.
Smells and Sounds of Hocking Hills
I love the smells and sounds of the park: The wetness of the forest, especially after a spring shower, wild garlic and wildflowers floating in the air.
The sounds of songbirds, the wind whistling through the trees and water washing through creek beds, over rock and over hills to create waterfalls.
Hocking Hills is fifty-six miles southeast of the state capitol, Columbus. There are two main towns between Columbus and Hocking Hills, Lancaster and Logan. Lancaster is fairly a large city with many hotels and restaurants. To the east of Hocking Hills is Logan, smaller but still offering a few hotels and some restaurants.
If you arrive by air, the best air prices are obtained by flying into Columbus International Airport. They, of course, have the major rental car companies on site at the airport.
Places to Stay
The area is known for its bed and breakfast inns and for cabins. Additionally, there are lodges and campgrounds, including a State of Ohio campground that is extremely affordable with electric hookups. It is located at Old Man’s Cave. There is also a really nice lodge, forty cottages and restaurant in the park. You’ll need to call for reservations because Hocking Hills is busy all year round, including winter.
I have lived in Ohio all my life and was not aware the state had this type of scenery until I went to Hocking Hills State Park. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hocking Hills, I probably would not be photographing anything today. Eight years ago (now 26 years ago) I was ready to quit photography. Actually, I pretty much quit until my husband and I decided to take our vacation at Hocking Hills. My husband told me to go ahead and take my camera just to try to get some vacation pictures. Well, by the time we came back I could not put the camera down.
If, like I once did, you’ve ever asked the question, “What could possibly be in Ohio to photograph?,” please come down to Hocking Hills. This locale will change your mind about Ohio. Editor’s Note: This should serve as an inspiration to all of us who think we have nothing to photograph around our homes. Often our own backyards are beckoning and we just don’t hear it. Let’s give them a chance.
I must also add that Hocking Hills is not only a great place to visit in the spring and summer, it is also an excellent place to visit in fall and winter. As beautiful as it is with the vegetation a rich, vibrant green, just imagine what it looks like with fall color decorating the trees and the landscape covered in snow in the winter.