Rockbridge — Most visitors to Ohio’s lovely Hocking Hills come for the scenic hikes, or for the cozy or luxurious (or spartan, if you’re into that) woodland lodgings, or even for the region’s small but growing foodie scene.
But adventurous visitors who are looking for more diversions will also find plenty of off-trail activities from which to choose.
Rock climbing: High Rock Adventures
My first step was a doozy at High Rock Adventures in Rockbridge (10108 Opossum Hollow Road, www.highrockadventures.com). The site contains 150 acres of woods and magnificent natural rock formations and offers a wide variety of activities, including rock climbing, rappelling and a “rock challenge” as well as eco tours and nature therapy and “forest bathing.” The activities are offered for all skill levels, including beginners.
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I had never rappelled before my visit to High Rock last week, but knowledgeable guide Martin Strange put me completely at ease — until that first leap of faith.
We put on our climbing gear at High Rock’s visitors center and followed Strange up a winding, verdant path to our rappelling sites atop gorgeous sandstone formations birthed in the ancient sea that once covered the area.
Along the way, Strange stopped at several places to point out interesting or attractive plants and trees, especially those such as sassafras and witch hazel, which have culinary or therapeutic uses.
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Once in the rappelling area, Strange demonstrated the very simple, very safe technique we would use for descending — deep breath — cliffs.
We scrambled up a boulder-strewn path and arrived at our first jump-off point. As I planted my feet and leaned backward into space, I tried to remind myself that what I was doing was, statistically speaking, far safer than the drive down from Columbus.
As it turned out, it was a lot more fun, too. After that first breathtaking step, I was able to enjoy the thrill of what I was doing, and the incredible beauty of my surroundings as seen from an entirely new angle. Now I can’t wait to return and try rock climbing.
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Zip lining: Hocking Hills Canopy Tours
Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in Rockbridge (10714 Jackson St., www.hockinghillscanopytours.com) offers zip lines through deep forest and above the scenic Hocking River. The site has become popular since it opened in 2007 as one of the first major zip-line destinations in the Midwest.
The site’s popular Canopy Tour combines thrill-park fun with beautiful, treetop scenery and a bit of a natural history lesson.
I’ve zipped the Canopy Tour several times and still can’t say which is best — the birdlike experience of buzzing through the treetops, or the bird’s-eye view of the lovely Hocking Valley. Or, maybe it’s the always witty, always informative, patter of the expert guides who accompany each group.
The site also offers an X-Tour, a more “extreme” zip experience with more and longer zips.
And on my last visit, I tried, for the first time, the site’s SuperZip, a quarter-mile zip across the Hocking River. It’s also the only zip you can make horizontally, stretched out like Superman and flying, if not faster than a speeding bullet, at up to 50 mph, which feels pretty super when you’re doing it. SuperZip has two parallel zip lines, so you can race a friend to Metropolis.
The tours often sell out, so it’s wise to book in advance.
Kayaking: Touch the Earth Adventures
A gentler — some might even say spiritual — experience awaits guests of guide service Touch the Earth Adventures (touchtheearthadventures.com).
Owner and guide Mimi Morrison, who says she has found her own spiritual connection with the water and trees of southeastern Ohio, offers a variety of outings, including a range of kayak tours at regional lakes or on the Hocking River.
Tours include birding by kayak; sunrise- and full-moon paddles; and night astronomy/kayaking tours among many others.
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I was in a group that joined Morrison at Lake Logan, in Vinton County south of Logan, for a sunset paddle in search of North America’s largest, and perhaps cutest, rodent, the beaver.
A storm had just passed, and the clouds still formed an ominous yet beautiful backdrop stretching out behind the lake as the sun set and the sky darkened.
Before we even set out, we heard the unmistakable call of a migrating loon, something rare for the region and something that Morrison and, of course, the rest of us had never heard there.
In some cultures, the haunting cry of a loon is a harbinger of evil. I say fie on those cultures. There are few things more beautiful, more heart-touching, than a loon’s cry at sunset. And though we didn’t hear the loon again, we did experience a serene, peaceful and beautiful paddle to a cove housing several beaver lodges. Along the way we were accompanied by flocks of swallows flying just above the water, dive bombing, on occasion, their unseen prey. At one point, a bald eagle (it’s redundant to add “majestic”) flew silently above our heads across the lake.
When we reached the lodges, several kayakers saw the heads of beavers as the rodents swam to or from their lakeside dwellings. I didn’t, although I did hear, all around me, the sharp cracks of their distinctive tail-slap alarm on the water’s surface.
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As night fell, we paddled back and heard fish jumping around us, perhaps hunting the swallows’ prey from the opposite direction.
When we were on our way back, a fish jumped into Morrison’s kayak, startling her.
“That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me,” she said. “It felt as big as a shark.”
When we could finally retrieve it, the fish turned out to be a small, unlucky bluegill. Perhaps the loon had called for him.
Steve Stephens is a freelance travel writer and photographer. Email him at [email protected]