Thousands gathered at Hocking Hills State Park on Saturday morning despite mud and freezing temperatures for the 51st Annual Winter Hike. Together the group embarked on a six mile hike.
As it has for the past 50 years, the winter hike from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave was held on the third Saturday of January, rain, snow or shine. Park officers anticipated at least 2000 participants but estimated an attendance nearly double what they had predicted.
“Usually when there’s snow on the ground, it tends to bring a lot more people, but the crowds are definitely milder than they were last year,” said Park Officer and Investigator Charles Carlson, “but we usually average between 3,500 and 4,000 every year for the last six to seven years.”
At the first winter hike there were only 60 hikers in attendance and in 2010 the hike attracted a record 5,400 people.
According to Carlson, the hike is the largest winter hike in the state.
“Usually when you’re out here it’s not nearly this busy, but Hocking Hills is kind of the mecca of all Ohio parks,” Carlson said.
The winter hike is the most popular hike that Hocking Hills has to offer. Guests who usually shy away from the cold and icy weather are able to witness the changing weather and freezing waters and are inspired to return year after year.
“We take in the transformations as if it has been months, years or decades since we have seen them before. And that is what brings us to Winter Hike-the transformation of winter and the observance of this change,” the Hocking Hills Travel Guide website states.
A few local officers guided the hike but several officers came from miles away. Carlson traveled from Dayton to work on the hike.
“Most of us are park officers, but I’m an investigator and I actually got to put on a uniform today which I don’t get to do that often,” Carlson said.
Along with the safety precaution of extra officers, the trails were marked and specific pathways were blocked to keep all of the hikers on the same route. The lower trail was closed off completely.
“We just encourage people to stay on the trail,” Carlson said. “Since 2014 we’ve had around eight or nine people fall off of the trails and usually it’s raining and you can get too close and fall, and usually it’s not a minor accident.”
Shuttle busses were available for hikers to travel from the end of the trail at Ash Cave back to the beginning at Old Man’s Cave.
At the halfway mark of the trail by Cedar Falls, Kiwanis members served soup beans, cornbread and hot chocolate to the hikers to refuel them for the three miles ahead.
Although the snow and winter scenery was replaced with sleet and mud this year, people from hours away decided to visit anyway and carry out the tradition of the annual winter hike.
“Year after year since that first hike 51 years ago, hardy hikers have shunned frozen toes and three layers of clothing seeming to add four extra pounds to take the hike from Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls and then Ash Cave,” the website explained.
There are special events and hikes held throughout the year at Hocking Hills, including the Maple Syrup Festival and Sweetheart’s Hike. A list of events is available on the Hocking Hills website.