OHIO OUTDOOR NOTEBOOK
By Laura Jones, Ohio Department of Natural Resources
In Ohio’s forests, the less traveled backcountry trail offers adventure and solitude
Sometimes a paved path through the park or a fully electrified campsite isn’t enough to satisfy the inner-outdoor enthusiast in us. If you’re looking for a little more challenge in your hike and a little less humanity along the trail, then grab your knapsack and visit the backcountry of Ohio’s green and growing state forests.
While it might be hard to imagine that in a state like Ohio we still have areas remote enough to be called backcountry, it is nonetheless true. These wild places are not like our parks and nature preserves where you must remain on designated, well-maintained trails. Forested lands are largely undeveloped, allowing hikers the freedom to go where their feet will take them. That means following the markings of a lesser-used, blazed trail or charting your own course of exploration.
Two of Ohio’s 20 state forests have trail systems specifically for backpacking and primitive camping: Zaleski in Vinton County and Shawnee in Scioto County. A recent trip to Zaleski showcased the many opportunities open to those seeking adventures off the beaten path.
More than 23 miles of trail parallel the ridge lines and hollows of this 28,000-acre forest. Some of these dirt trails are narrow, while others are wide enough to comfortably accommodate two hikers walking side-by-side. The most popular route is a 10-mile loop at the southern end of the trail, which features two of the forest’s three walk-in camp areas. Some people hike the loop in a day, while others make camp for the night.
As with much of Ohio’s southeastern region which includes the Hocking Hills interesting geologic formations can be seen at Zaleski. Sandstone outcroppings are covered by rich green carpets of moss, while rock ledges hang over the trail at a number of locations in this largely oak forest.
Yet if you were to have seen this land during the 1800s, you wouldn’t recognize it for the beautiful forest it is today. That era’s thriving iron industry, with its wood-fueled furnaces and coal mining industry, took a heavy toll on the area’s land and trees. Fortunately, through natural regeneration and sound management, a healthy forest once again covers the region, providing a multitude of outdoor activities as well as a carefully managed timber resource.
Other points of interest along Zaleski’s backpack trail, include a Native American burial mound, believed to have been built by the Adena tribe some 2,000 years ago. At different points, you’ll hike the original pioneer road that ran from Marietta to Chillicothe. You can also see the abandoned Moonville railroad tunnel, reportedly haunted by the ghost of a man struck by a train he vainly tried to wave down late one night.
The trailhead for Zaleski is located on State Route 278, about five miles south of State Route 56. Parking is available across from the historic Hope Furnace.
South of Zaleski is a region dubbed “Ohio’s Little Smokies” because of its steep hills and narrow hollows such is the terrain that makes up the more than 60,000-acre Shawnee State Forest. Backcountry hikers have access to nearly 45 miles of up-and-down trails and eight primitive camp areas. This beautiful hardwood forest has waterfalls and an abundance of wildlife, including wild turkey, white-tailed deer and many songbirds. Historically, the area was inhabited by the Shawnee Indians.
You’ll find the Shawnee backpack trailhead and parking lot on State Route 125, about 6.5 miles west of U.S. 52.
Backpackers might also want to consider visiting nearby Wayne National Forest, the only national forest in Ohio. Backpacking and primitive camping is allowed almost everywhere within this more than 236,000-acre forest of the Appalachian foothills.
For many, the remoteness and physical demands of backcountry recreation are what make the activity so appealing. Keep in mind if you are seeking a more casual encounter with nature or are particular about conveniently located restrooms that the backcountry might not be a place for you. For example, along Zaleski’s lengthy backpack trail there are only three latrines (no flushing required).
During the week these trails and campsites experience the least amount of use. Weekends get a little busier, but still provide a great backcountry experience. At both state forests, main trails are marked by orange blazes while side trails are blazed in white.
When building a campfire, remember to use the fire ring and burn only wood supplied by state forestry staff. Also, while backpackers should carry in their own water, there are pumps in close proximity to camp areas that provide a limited supply of drinking water.
Before setting out on any backcountry trip, study the available trail map and have a good feel for the terrain you’re about to hike. Long pants are a good choice, even in warm weather, and don’t forget a hat. If you intend to camp over, let someone know ahead of time and always register at the trailhead.
Lastly, keep these beautiful backcountry getaways clean by carrying out what you carry in. You might even go one step further and carry out anything others may have left behind.