“It’s Halloween in there, Mama?” my 2-year-old asked, gripping my hand tightly as we took in the dramatic tableau before us: a sandstone cliff, more than 100 feet high, cleaved neatly in half by a long, narrow cave. I could understand his trepidation: From our vantage point on the hiking trail, the opening in the rock looked like an endless maw. But, as we soon discovered, Old Man’s Cave — named for a hermit trapper who lived there in the 18th century — is a recess cave, a hollowed-out space with a gigantic rock ceiling. It’s also the perfect spot for a kid to play, or, in the case of my son, Everett, scamper about hooting like an owl.

Recess caves abound in Hocking Hills State Park, a compact natural wonder of hemlock forests, waterfalls, ravines and gorges in southeastern Ohio, accessible via a well-maintained trail network ideal for families with young kids. Most hikes, which follow an organized, one-way system, are short and relatively easy, yet showcase knock-your-socks-off scenery.

Having spent the pandemic hiking almost every weekend, my D.C.-based family of three is already used to long hours in the car getting to outdoor destinations. So, when my Indiana-based in-laws, Diana and Allan, suggested meeting up over July Fourth weekend to hike at an Ohio park I’d never heard of, the roughly seven-hour trip didn’t seem so daunting. In fact, for highway driving, it was beautiful — the first time I’d driven straight across the lush state of West Virginia. My husband, Everett and I left on a Friday morning, and by 6 p.m., we were relaxing with my in-laws at our secluded log cabin outside the park, equipped with a hot tub, pool table and fire pit — not to mention loads of free entertainment for Everett in the form of catching (and releasing) fireflies.

The next morning, we woke up early to tour the state park’s huge new visitor center, where we learned that native peoples had inhabited the region for centuries, the most recent being the Delaware, Shawnee and Wyandot peoples. European settlers took over the land in the 1700s, wiping out nearly all the original old-growth forests. Ohio began protecting the land in the 1920s, and in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built much of the state park’s infrastructure, such as its stone steps and trails, and replanted many of the lost trees.

The park’s dominant black-hand sandstone — a label inspired by an ancient petroglyph of a handprint carved into a nearby cliff — formed about 350 million years ago, when a vast inland sea drained away, depositing sand and gravel that compacted over time into the impressive rock formations. During the last ice age, glaciers came close to Hocking Hills, leaving behind species, such as eastern hemlock and Canada yew, more often seen on the alpine tundra. Hocking derives from a native word, “hockhocking,” which means “bottleneck,” a reference to the Hocking River’s narrowed shape. As we absorbed all this history, Everett amused himself by running through the visitor center’s play cave and mini hiking trail.

We set off on the 1.5-mile Old Man’s Cave loop trail, following Old Man’s Creek as it tumbled downstream, traipsing over bridges and past fern-blanketed cliffs. We stopped to admire Upper Falls, which pours into a jade-green pool, and Devil’s Bathtub, a basin of swirling water (a natural hot tub of sorts) scoured out by millennia of the creek’s relentless flow. Everett ran excitedly into a long tunnel gouged into the rock, which led to that impressive wide-angle view of Old Man’s Cave. A little farther south, at Lower Falls, Everett skipped rocks into the waterfall’s large, clear pool, framed by a halo of stately hemlocks. Though the holiday crowds were sparser here, we were disappointed to see people swimming in the waterfall pools, despite the many signs stating it’s not permitted.

In search of more solitude, we opted for a strenuous spur trail to Broken Rock Falls, which dead-ended in a single jet of water streaming from above, a more intimate waterfall experience that allowed us (and one delighted toddler) to feel the spray and hear its thunder. On our way back to the visitor center, we climbed up rock stairs through another CCC-hewn tunnel, dutifully looking for bats, at Everett’s suggestion. (We had no such luck.) “Bye, hike!” Everett called as we emerged from the forest, the air noticeably warmer than the refreshing coolness of the caves.

I was eager to get to the park’s marquee attraction: Ash Cave, a 700-foot-long recess cave that’s the largest east of the Mississippi. A short, flat walk through a narrow gorge gave way to the monumental space, capped by a 90-foot-high ceiling that stretched like a giant C over our heads. Settlers dubbed it Ash Cave when they found huge piles of campfire ashes, probably left by people who had sheltered here over the centuries. Native American arrows and pottery remnants, for instance, were discovered among the debris. “It’s the beach!” Everett cried when he saw the wide expanse of sand, plopping down to dig. Rock pigeons cooed and gurgled inside small crevices in the cave walls, marred in places by graffiti from long-ago visitors.

Ash Cave was hushed, its grandiosity begging you to slow down, to stop envisioning that silly Instagram picture and let all its natural goodness fill your cup. As we walked along the cave wall, covered in places with patches of lime-green lichen, my husband, Brian, said he felt a “cave kiss,” the term for a drop of water that hits you inside a cave. “It could have been a rock pigeon kiss,” Allan joked. On the far end of the cave, a thin waterfall emptied into a pool ablaze with a ray of late-afternoon sunshine, like a spotlight at the theater. We lingered as long as a 2-year-old would let us, sitting on boulders scattered around the cave floor and gazing upward at the massive overhang.

Over the following two days, we immersed ourselves in more Hocking Hills delights, such as Cedar Falls — the park’s most voluminous waterfall, misnamed by settlers who thought the hemlocks were cedars — and Conkle’s Hollow, one of the deepest gorges in Ohio, where super-tall hardwoods and hemmed-in cliffs block out almost all sunlight, enveloping you fully in the green, dewy valley.

One of our last — and most special — hikes took us into Rock House, the only true enclosed cave in the park, which boasts a 200-foot-long, tunnel-like corridor and 25-foot-high ceilings. Water eroding the sandstone over time scoured tall windows into the cave, providing multiple entrances through which to scramble into the main chamber.

This unique cave has long been a draw: In the 1800s, a 16-room hotel complete with a ballroom and U.S. post office stood not far from Rock House, and bandits allegedly hid out here, giving it the moniker “Robber’s Roost.” Carvings and other archaeological evidence show it was visited by native people, who carved out troughs in the cave floor to collect drinking water and used its hominy holes — horizontal openings in the rock — as baking ovens by building a fire inside. (I envisioned a delicious cave pizza, made in the Neapolitan brick-oven style.)

By this point in our trip, Everett was no longer wary of caves — or their inhabitants. As we scrambled out of Rock House, he looked up at me and smiled, his entire body caked in dust. “No ghosts!” he announced happily.

Dell’Amore is a National Geographic editor based in the District. Find her on Twitter: @cdellamore

Please Note

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus

If you go

Where to stay

Cabins With a View

11264 Walnut Dowler Rd., Logan


Spacious, modern cabins — a one-bedroom and two-bedroom — are set on 18 acres. Fully equipped kitchens, provided linens and fireplaces make for a luxurious wooded retreat. Cabin rates change seasonally. Two-bedroom cabin from $185 per night on weekdays, $235 weekends; one-bedroom cabin from $165 weekdays, $195 weekends. (A new Hocking Hills State Park Lodge opens in 2022.)

Where to eat

The Olde Dutch Restaurant

12791 State Route 664, South Logan


A family-friendly spot with homestyle meals and all-you-can-eat buffet. Try the chicken and noodle soup with Amish egg noodles and the Dutch apple pie. Entrees from $9; dinner buffet $15 Monday to Thursday, $16 weekends.

What to do

Hocking Hills State Park

19852 State Route 664, Logan


Marvel at enormous caves and impressive waterfalls in seven major hiking areas. Ash Cave and Conkle’s Hollow are partly paved and wheelchair- or stroller-accessible. The rugged gorges of Cantwell Cliffs and the six-mile-long Grandma Gatewood Trail, which connects Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls and Ash Cave, are more challenging climbs. Trails open a half-hour before sunrise and close a half-hour after sunset. Free entry.

Hocking Valley Scenic Railway

33 W. Canal St., Nelsonville


Chug along the historic “Buckeye Route” on this 1800s-era railroad offering a variety of excursions, from an all-caboose ride to an elegant dinner train. The Nelsonville East Logan trip stops at the Robbins Crossing Historic Village, where you can tour 19th-century log cabins from the region. Rides from $16 adults, $14 seniors and $11 children ages 3 to 12.