Hiking in Ohio: Old Man’s Cave

Hocking Hills State Park in the southeastern part of Ohio is arguably the state’s most popular park. The park’s cliffs, waterfalls, and rock formations draw millions of visitors a year, and a growing list of accommodations, outdoor recreational opportunities, and other attractions surrounding the park make the region a prime destination for a weekend getaway. Some of the best hiking trails in Ohio are found right here.

The Old Man’s Cave part of the park in particular has lured visitors for thousands of years. “Cave” is a bit of a misnomer; Old Man’s Cave is actually a recess cave, where water over the span of millions of years eroded the soft sandstone. What you get is a massive cliff overhang, or a “rock shelter” as some call it. Though not subterranean, the rock formation is no less impressive to stand under, and people have been doing so for thousands of years. Evidence of the Adena culture in the area’s recess caves date back to around 5,000 BC. In more recent history, Wyandot, Delaware, and Shawnee tribes lived or traveled through this region and used recess caves such as Old Man’s Cave as shelters (nearby Ash Cave is named for the giant piles of ash the first white settlers saw when they discovered the cave, evidence of campfires from local tribes). In the late 18th century, a hermit named Richard Rowe took residence within what is now Old Man’s Cave, inspiring the name for the spot.

Growing up in Ohio, Old Man’s Cave was one of the default family hiking trips. While always popular, its exposure seems to have only increased over the years, with parking a problem during peak weekend hours. As such, and as the parent of a small child, I’ve tended to stay clear of Old Man’s Cave in recent years. We had family visitors who’d never been to Hocking Hills, though, and we had a Monday off, so it seemed like a good time to revisit the old stalwart.

There’s more to this part of the park than Old Man’s Cave itself. The rock shelter is only one part of an impressive gorge, deeper the further south you go. There are waterfalls throughout, though some disappear or are reduced to trickles in dry weather. We were fortunate to go in late March after some substantial recent rain: the waterfalls were on point.

Upper Falls at the northern trailhead of Old Man's Cave
Upper Falls at the northern trailhead of Old Man’s Cave
Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills State Park
Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park

The best thing to do is to start at the north end of the trail, at the Upper Falls. From here, the gorge gradually descends and you find yourself increasingly immersed in this world carved by millions of years of passing water. Temporary, trickling waterfalls descended into the gorge from the recent rains, adding more ambience than scenery. The trail continues to follow the water until you reach Old Man’s Cave itself.

From here, you have two options: ascend under the awning of the “cave” back up to the top of the cliff toward the parking lot, or continue down the gorge. We did a little of both–we went up into the cave and then turned around to continue hiking.

The foot traffic decreases considerably after this junction. From here, the trail continues with some mild up and down until another junction appears: if you have a few hours you can go left and hike to Cedar Falls and back. I’ve done it once; the trail is fairly easy as it remains at the bottom of the gorge, but it’s much too long with a toddler. Instead, we took the other option to the right and approached a pool and the Lower Falls. This was a much quieter spot than the rest of the Old Man’s Cave area; we stayed here for at least 20 minutes and had it to ourselves for most of that time.

Lower Falls near Old Man's Cave
Lower Falls near Old Man’s Cave

After the Lower Falls, there’s one last choice to make: turn right and make your way up and out of the gorge and back to the parking lot and visitor center, or turn left for one more waterfall: Broken Rock Falls. As many times as I’d been to Old Man’s Cave, I’d never actually hiked to Broken Rock Falls even though it’s only an extra quarter mile. The inspiration for the name is soon apparent as you pass giant boulders strewn about the gorge’s floor. The falls descends down a crevice, nearly hidden from view until you are close to it. It’s worth the extra hike!

Broken Rock Falls near Old Man's Cave
Broken Rock Falls near Old Man’s Cave

And from there, we headed back toward the car. Staying in the Old Man’s Cave area is a short hike: a 1-mile loop if you stop at Old Man’s Cave and a 1.5-mile loop from Lower Falls (with a little extra thrown in if you check out Broken Rock Falls). This length was very doable for our two-year-old son, who enjoyed (a little too much) the opportunity to climb around, throw rocks in the water, and in general make his parents nervous. Indeed, the worry here isn’t so much the length but the trail itself, which at times veers a little close for comfort toward steep drop offs, over bridges with minimal railing, or next to water. You’ll find plenty of families, even those stubbornly trying to use a stroller through what is a very not stroller-friendly trail, but you should exercise caution and keep young children close by. You’ll also want to watch out for slippery spots when wet: there are steps and even tunnels along the trail.

The cliffs of Old Man's Cave
The cliffs of Old Man’s Cave
Muddy trail at Old Man's Cave.
Navigating the stepping stones through mud.

Old Man’s Cave is just one segment of Hocking Hills State Park. The rest of the areas similarly offer short hikes through interesting formations and waterfalls. It’s easy to tackle two or three in a day, and they all are among the best hiking in Ohio for scenery. Have you been to Hocking Hills? What’s your favorite part?

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