When you get to a certain age the last thing you really need in life is more stuff. I like to keep things simple. So it was that when Ben asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I told him I wanted to go away in the RV for the weekend—to Hocking Hills State Park. It’s just slightly over an hour’s drive from our front door. Not an epic trip, but relatively easy and quite scenic.
Southeastern Ohio and Hocking Hills are some of the most scenic areas of the state. The area is filled with cute cabins and cottages, several RV campgrounds and the Hocking Hills state park. I like the state park because it’s possible to walk from your campsite to Old Man’s Cave and all the other trailheads. Hocking Hills has some of the most spectacular waterfalls and rock formations that rival sights in Glacier National Park. Hocking Hills state park was established in 1924 and while the campground has has updates over the years, campsites weren’t really designed for today’s big fifth wheels and RVs. Wrangling a behemoth like our RV into a site could be tricky. I called the ranger to discuss our site logistics. She assured me that we would fit in our site, but ended with a caveat; “Of course, the sites were built before all these slides and things, so it might be tricky, but we’ll get you in.” Bold souls that we are, we packed up and headed out.
We planned our arrival early in the day to avoid the rush of after-work arrivers, but there was still a line waiting to get in. Our 40-foot rig dwarfed most of the trailers and campers in the line at the park entrance. We un-hooked the Subaru and started the trek up the narrow winding road to the campground, me leading the way. As I rounded the bend I came upon a little box turtle that was making its way across the road. I immediately sprang into action by jamming on the brakes and jumping out of the car. I scooped up the turtle, who rewarded my good deed by hissing a bit and trying to pee on me. I gave it an express trip across the road. Ben tooted the horn at me and I waved him off, hopped back in the car and went on up. I assumed he was telling me to hustle because of the people behind us on the road. What I didn’t realize was that he had run off the road and one wheel was precariously downhill—there are no berms on the approach road, just uphill and downhill, and when a big vehicle goes off on a slope, very bad things can happen. Fortune smiled on Ben and somehow he managed to get straightened out. The RV lumbered up and around a few more scary turns and we arrived at our site, where we stopped to discuss our next moves with military precision. After some anxious three point turns, backup and pull-forward manuevers, we were parked in our tiny spot. We immediately broke out the adult beverages to celebrate. Then we set up camp.
In our 30,000 plus miles criss-crossing the country we’ve parked in every imaginable space from abandoned parking lots to heart-stoppingly expensive RV parks. At fancy RV parks with cable TV and good WiFI, when dusk settles in people retreat into their metal cocoons to watch TV and play video games. The only people you’ll see outside after dark are fellow dog walkers, and one or two knots of people huddled by the RV watching Wheel of Fortune on their outside TV. Hocking Hills has no such accommodations—the hills and lack of area infrastructure means that there’s no cable, over the air TV signals and WiFi are hard to come by. For entertainment you must rely on your own ingenuity. The result is that everyone is outside until quiet time. Kids raced up and down the road on foot or on things with wheels—skateboards, bikes, scooters and the like and adults roam up and down the road chatting up anyone who will say hi—which meant Ben met just about everyone in our loop. An occasional dog would trot by chased by apologetic owners, and the scent of campfires hung in the air. There aren’t many places where kids are allowed to just zoom around on their own these days, and more rare for kids to play in a huge group at dusk and do stuff like mess with flaming s’mores or sleep in a tent without adults. Friday night there was a movie in the campground amphitheater; “Marley, the Puppy Years.” Not grand cinema, but one that would offend no one but a movie snob. We walked down to see the crowd for a bit. Parents, kids and dogs were huddled on the benches under the stars with snacks, blankets and bug spray ready. After the film, we heard them coming back, little kids jabbering and giggling about the movie. They ran in the night their flashlights bobbling like giant deranged fireflies. I remember doing things like that when I was a kid. And like magic, at 10PM all went quiet except for the bugs that are just starting to sing out at this time of year.
The next morning we hiked the excellent trails with several hundred of our new best friends. Trails follow a series of cliffs, gorges, above ground “caves,” and waterfalls. It was an early summer weekend and yes, they were crowded, but only enough to provide people-watching entertainment. To get a nature shot without out lots of photobombers took some careful setup maneuvers. There are spots along the trails where waterfalls create swimming holes. We watched teenagers jump off rocks to plunge into the water below—activities that make us adults cringe. As an adult I am supposed to disapprove of this activity but I can remember doing the exact same thing in the exact same location years ago when I felt invincible. That leaves me in no position to pass judgement today. The natural tendency to ignore consequences in youth can go against us, but that gets lost in the moment. People get badly hurt in Hocking Hills—the rocks are permanently slippery with moisture. The accessibility of the area is a siren call to rookie hikers who routinely walk in bad footwear and venture too close to the edge for a “better view.” The life-flight helicopter took one such unlucky hiker for medical attention during our stay. We hiked with our sensible boots and trekking poles which Ben calls “senior sticks.” We, being in the older wiser and achier group felt a little silly walking among people wearing Crocs and flip flops until one kid told us he wished he had taken his along for the walk. “I hiked out west with poles, and I kind of wish I had them now.” We felt vindicated by his youthful approval.
We stayed at the park through Monday which allowed us to watch the mass exodus on Sunday morning. As we sat drinking coffee families finished up their last camping breakfast while kids made one last visit with new friends as they sped around one last time and exchanged “Instas.” It’s probably a lot less traumatic than camp breakups in my day what with cell phones. Two little girls who had fallen in love with our Red Dogs came over for last pets and to say goodbye. Parents barked orders to kids and quibbled over where to put objects that no longer seemed to fit. By noon our loop was largely empty. Monday was a quiet day, and we did our own packing. Crows flew in to check out the empty campsites for snacks, with an assist from some squirrels. Ben took Gumbo for a walk through the quiet campground. They rounded a corner in time to see a raccoon take advantage of a tent camper who hadn’t zipped the door shut. The raccoon snuck in the tent flap, rummaged around for a a few minutes and then left, apparently disappointed and went off to check more lucrative sites. We finished loading, Ben put the key in the ignition and the RV rumbled to life. The pull-out went a lot better than the pull-in, and there were no emergency turtle stops on the way down. The stop to refuel and dump our holding tanks added a half hour to our return time.
It was a great birthday weekend. Saturday night some of my family made the drive down to join us for dinner. We crammed ourselves in the patch of grass next to the RV and grilled. They even brought me birthday cake, and I happen to be bonkers for birthday cake. Only the store bought kind with the unnaturally colored flowers makes me happy. Other cakes are OK, but they are not, I repeat NOT “Birthday Cake.” I even had birthday cake for breakfast the next morning.
People tend to head for what I call “glamour states;” Colorado, Montana, California, Utah and the like, that are famous for jaw dropping scenery and well-known national parks to view natural wonders rather than to look for what exists close by. I visited Hocking Hills many times until my budget got to the point where I could go further. I hadn’t been back there since the mid-80s. Give your state parks a shot—they may amaze you.
Here are some photos of the weekend.