At the heart of Highlands Nature Sanctuary is the Rocky Fork Gorge, where Rocky Fork Creek has carved out 100-foot limestone bluffs and created a unique geological environment that supports an ecosystem unlike anywhere else in Ohio. The good news is that most of the sanctuary’s 16-plus miles of hiking trails take you to some point along the scenic Rocky Fork. The better news is that this destination is less than an hour and a half from Columbus.
The Highlands Nature Sanctuary is one of the oldest and best-known preserves of the nonprofit Arc of Appalachia, which acquires, stewards and protects wildlands in Ohio. It’s also its largest. So start off at the sanctuary’s Appalachian Forest Museum, where you can pick up a trail map and talk to a knowledgeable staff member. Be sure to ask what is currently blooming, nesting or otherwise worth seeing. (Hint: Ask about the pyramid of trillium in April.)
From here, pick up the 1.2-mile Etawah Woods Trail. Walk a level, forested path until the trail descends steeply into the Rocky Fork Gorge. End at the water and enjoy a large pool framed by dolomitic limestone cliffs and a front-row view of the Three Sisters: house-sized dolomite blocks standing sentry in the creek, each sprouting a miniature forest on top. On the way back, pick up the half-mile Valley of the Ancients Trail that takes you along the creek past springs, grottoes and caves (old-timers know this area as 7 Caves).
Local tip: The museum (with water and restrooms) is closed Nov. 15 through March 15. The Etawah Woods and Valley of the Ancients trails are also closed then, due to the potentially dangerous icy drop-offs. If you visit during the winter, hike the 2.5-mile Barrett’s Rim Trail instead, just a mile and a half upstream.
Plan ahead for your four-legged friend
Leashed dogs are permitted on only two trails. These are the 1-mile Ashy Sunflower Trail from the Crow Point Trailhead, and the 1.5-mile Restoration Trail from the Ridgeview Farm Trailhead. This trail includes an orchard of hybrid American chestnut trees that are resistant to the blight that destroyed nearly all American chestnuts in the first half of the 20th century.
Spend the Night
Check the map and reserve one of the cabins adjacent to the museum to fall asleep to the sounds of the creek below. Cabins are open on the same schedule as the museum, March 15 through Nov. 15.
There are several easy routes from Columbus to Highlands Nature Sanctuary. State Route 104 parallels the Scioto River down to U.S. 50, where you travel west to Cave Road.