It can be difficult to time the perfect fall hike in Ohio. The trees can be noncommittal about changing their leaves. The presumably perfect weekend for peak colors can come with rain and wind. So when a free weekend presents itself in October and the sun is out, you just kind of roll the dice and hope for the best with a hike.
That’s just what we did on a free Saturday. The trees around I-270 in Columbus were beginning to look striking with their reds and oranges so we packed our bags and eagerly drove the hour or so to Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve, only to be puzzled when we arrived by the park’s verdant greenery. We enjoyed exploring the park’s tunnels and canal ruins, but our fall hike was not as perfectly timed as last year’s hike in Hocking Hills.
Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve is located 12 miles east of Newark, OH, right around where the great plains stop and the Appalachian foothills start. While there are several miles of hiking trails through the woods, the main attraction is the wide, paved bike path that runs through the gorge. This 4-mile stretch of the Licking River winds through sandstone cliffs and thick woods, but the bike path makes this an easy hiking alternative for those unable to handle rough terrain. The name ‘Blackhand’ originates from a black, hand-shaped petroglyph that appeared on a cliffside in the gorge, possibly pointing to a nearby mound or flint quarry. In good pioneer sense, it was obliterated in 1828 to make way for the Ohio and Erie Canal without any regard to the area’s existing culture and we have lost the petroglyph forever.
The canal wouldn’t be the only thing to cross through the gorge, though, and the park features an unusual amount of disused infrastructure. In 1850, workers began laying track in Blackhand Gorge for the Central Ohio Railroad. They blasted through 700 feet of sandstone to create the ‘Deep Cut’ which the railroad would run through. Trains came through the gorge all the way until the 50’s when a new dam forced the railroad to reroute elsewhere.
Later, in the early 20th century, an electric interurban train running between Granville and Newark was extended to Zanesville through Blackhand Gorge. After struggles blasting a tunnel through solid rock, the train began running through the gorge in 1903. Due to cars becoming a thing, the train’s popularity was short-lived. The final interurban train came through the gorge in 1929. However, the tunnel remains and is waiting to be an Instagram star.
The Ohio and Erie Canal
You probably don’t equate Ohio with ruins, but there’s no other way to describe the old locks of the Ohio and Erie Canal that linger around the region. Drivers on Route 16 headed to Coshocton will see several locks sitting alongside the road, covered in moss and weeds. One of the canal’s locks sits in the park, allowing for an up close and personal view. It’s no Machu Picchu, but the spirit is the same: explorers hiking through the woods are rewarded with a piece of history left to nature. The canal bed can be pretty weedy, but late enough in the season should allow for some easier exploration without fear of poison ivy. Full disclosure: the picture below is from our previous trip to Blackhand Gorge, when we missed the colors almost entirely on a mid-November run.
Some tips at Blackhand Gorge
Sorry for the crappy picture of the park map, but it’s helpful to know where all these things are:
- The main parking lot is along Toboso Road on the far right. There’s a bathroom, but it’s not very nice. This is the main place to access the bike path.
- The “Deep Cut” is along the bike path, designated by ‘F’
- The interurban tunnel and canal lock are both on the half mile trail north of the river. You can walk to the trail head from the main parking lot by crossing the bridge, or you can park next to the river on either side. It’s not a long distance either way. This hiking trail is not paved like the bike path, but is pretty flat.
One nice thing about Blackhand Gorge is that it seems to be off the beaten path, even for Ohioans. When we went two Saturdays ago, the sun was out, the temperature was hovering around 60, and there wasn’t an Ohio State game that afternoon. These are all ingredients for a packed park, yet there were no crowds.
As it turns out, we squeezed another hike in the following weekend. The morning’s clouds gave way to blue skies and perfect fall weather. We were treated to some vivid yellows at a favorite of ours: Highbanks Metro Park.
Where do you go for autumn leaves?