In 1955, a 67-year-old homemaker named Emma Gatewood famously became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. But her favorite path was close to home: a 6-mile jaunt from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave in the scenic Hocking Hills of southern Ohio. Locals now know the beautiful—and challenging—trek as the Grandma Gatewood Trail.
Prehistoric glaciers stopped at this swath of the Buckeye State, and millennia of erosion left behind a dramatic Blackhand sandstone gorge with some of the Midwest’s most unusual topography. With the leaves down, winter is a good time to see the scenery, when the water that seeps, drizzles, and cascades down the rock walls in warmer months freezes, frosting the landscape with fairytale-quality icicles—the backdrop for the Annual Winter Hike at Hocking Hills State Park (January 21) near the hamlet of Logan. The outing began in 1965 with a couple hundred enthusiasts tramping together to Ash Cave, a spectacular swoop of stone that’s 700 feet across and 90 feet high, where a sleek column of ice forms below the dripping roof. As many as 5,000 hikers now show up for the event. Granted, that’s a crowd. But it’s a one-way trip, and at the end walkers hop a shuttle back to their cars, so participants are spread out and headed in the same direction. Rangers and guides answer questions, and the local Kiwanis serves bean soup, cornbread, and cocoa at the halfway point, Cedar Falls. (“Cedar” actually refers to the rare Eastern Hemlock trees that cling precariously to the gorge rim.)
The trail can be tough if you’ve spent weeks on the couch. One minute, it’s a wide, dry course; the next, a narrow passage over algae-slicked slabs and ankle-twisting tree roots. And there’s ice. Consider investing in a pair of trekking poles, which will help keep you upright.
A display at the visitors center dedicated to Emma Gatewood shows a 1968 diary entry in which even the seasoned outdoorswoman noted that she fell five times. So, you know, keep a tight grip on those poles.
Indy’s Rusted Moon Outfitters has trekking poles (and just about any other outdoor equipment).
Grandma Faye’s grocery near Logan sells pizza, bandages, and whatnot.
Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls—nice lodge rooms and on-trend dining.