BAINBRIDGE, Ohio — Little-known Highlands Nature Sanctuary is a gem.
The 2,200-acre preserve sits along the Rocky Fork Gorge west of Chillicothe in Highland County, Ohio, 65 miles from Cincinnati and 50 miles from Columbus.
It is a stunning wilderness tract that was acquired and saved from development over the last 17 years by a grass-roots group formed in 1995 by a husband and wife.
The sanctuary stretches 10 miles from Rocky Creek State Park east to Paint Creek State Park, with a wild, 100-foot-deep gorge of fossil-filled limestone with fern-filled grottoes, cliffs, springs, caves, waterfalls and old-growth forests.
Here are slump rocks that have toppled from cliffs. They create rock-filled gardens at the bottom of the narrow canyon.
It is cliff country, a vertical-walled place with a special beauty, an enchanting place of solitude. Ohio has other gorges, but most are not as big, long or imposing as Rocky Creek Gorge.
The sanctuary is one of my favorite outdoor spots in Ohio, especially since it has added hiking. I had visited in 2000 in its early days before any trails existed.
It was smaller, primitive, more a dream than reality. What was being developed by Larry Henry and his then-wife, Nancy Stranahan, both onetime state naturalists, seemed unlikely to ever take off. Preserving Eastern wilderness in southern Ohio seemed an impossible dream.
To date, there have been 53 acquisitions costing in excess of $9 million for the private nature preserve, thanks to donations and contributions. Perhaps two-thirds of the land identified in the sanctuary’s management plan has been acquired.
The newest purchase covers 85-acre God’s Country and Black Gum Woods. It adds nearly a mile of protected stream bank to the sanctuary’s western end. A new trail is planned there later this year.
Hiking in cliff country
Adding hiking trails is a big plus. To date, 14 miles of backcountry trails offer access to the heart of the sanctuary. It’s a hiker’s paradise.
The gray cliffs of dolomite dominate the preserve. They are powerful and striking, the rocks up to 420 million years old.
The gorge was created by a meltwater-swollen stream during the retreat of the last glacier. The stream reversed itself and carved the canyon.
The sanctuary, once a sacred spot for the Shawnees and Iroquois, offers spectacular spring wildflowers, among the best in Ohio, with its limestone-rich soil. Trilliums, bluebells and anemones abound in April. Columbines, bellworts, miterworts, cohosh and wild geraniums grow there.
There are rare and endangered plants, including white cedars, sullivantia (found in only three states), the three-bird-orchid and yellow wood poppies.
The scenery is very special. Great blue herons and bald eagles are found along the stream. Junipers are growing in what used to be farm fields. Cedars line the top of the gorge at the western edge of Appalachia. You’ll find white-tailed deer, pileated woodpeckers and wild turkeys.
The stream itself is pristine, among the cleanest in Ohio. It has pools and riffles that turn into whitewater at high levels. It houses lots of freshwater mollusks and 63 species of fish.
Caves that once catered to tourists have been reclaimed for bats, although the four species are threatened by disease. There are 23 caves, six of which have been closed to humans.
Three distinct bioregions meet here: Kentucky bluegrass, western Appalachian foothills and Midwest plains. It is one of America’s botanical hot spots.
The sanctuary celebrates the Eastern forest in its small forest museum that overlooks the gorge.
It is run by a nonprofit group but is a state-dedicated nature preserve. It gets no state money for operations, just a designation.
It also surrounds a state-owned nature preserve along the gorge: the 85.8-acre Miller State Nature Preserve off Barrett’s Mill Road. It is known for its snow trilliums, American columbo, pink shooting star, barren strawberry and Walter’s violet.
The Millers donated the land with its natural stone arch to the state in 1982. It is a geologic and botanical preserve.
My favorite trail on a three-day spring visit was Barrett’s Rim, a two-mile hike. The sanctuary touts the trail as being the jewel of the gorge.
The trail started crossing a tall-grass prairie and then slipped into the woods. It dropped into the gorge near pretty Kellogg’s Branch and ran under the cliffs and next to the gurgling stream.
Then, bam, the cliffs are there. They stand up to 80 feet tall and stretch for nearly a mile. It provokes a wild feeling, and you are sure that you can’t possibly be in Ohio.
The trail is tucked at the base of the dolomite cliffs and next to the stream. The rock is tough, gray-brown and filled with holes.
Barrett’s Rim is a botanical treasure, filled with verdant plant life. Vegetation thrives on the rock walls, turning them green. The cliffs are home to thousands of saxifrages, Sullivantia sullivantii. It is found only in Ohio and two other states.
The trail climbs past the Portal, a water-carved ravine, to ascend to the wooded plateau. It then returns hikers to the trailhead.
Both the 1.25-mile Cedar Run Trail and the two-mile Kamelands Loop offer access to the inner gorge. The Kamelands Loop also features a rock bridge along the trail.
The 0.33-mile Etawah Woods Trail begins near the forest museum and dead-ends on the creek near the Three Sisters, three picturesque house-size boulders that have toppled from the cliffs into the stream. There are 66 stone steps leading hikers into the rock-walled inner gorge.
It is one of the few places in Ohio where the gray polypod or resurrection fern grows.
“Foot for foot, this trail offers some of the most beautiful scenery” in the sanctuary and in the Arc of Appalachia, organizers say.
The Etawah (pronounced etta-WA) Trail was named after an American Indian maiden who reputedly leaped into the gorge to join a lost lover. On one occasion, Shawnee Indians tied captive Daniel Boone to a tree overnight in the gorge.
The Ravenswood Listening Trail offers up-high views into the Hozho Canyon. The Taloden Woods Trail, a one-mile loop with another one-mile spur option, climbs a forested ridge.
Hikers must have a day pass, $6 for adults and $3 for children. That includes admission to the Appalachian Forest Museum.
The preserve is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends from April through October. Members can hike daily year-round.
The most useful information sheet is the trail guide with directions to trailheads scattered across the preserve. Most of the trails are moderate in difficulty, but they are short. The longest is a three-mile loop. They may be steep, rocky, narrow and uneven.
Etawah Woods, a 47-acre tract, was the first to be acquired in 1995. It is one of the prettiest sections of the gorge with arborvitae on the cliffs and hemlocks and Canada yew deep in the gorge.
Since 2005, the sanctuary has been working to improve visitor services and build its appeal. The sanctuary offers lodging in four old houses it has acquired along the gorge.
What could be better than sitting on a deck with a favorite beer after hiking four trails, watching a full moon rise over the gorge with redbud in bloom and hearing coyotes howling across the gorge?