You may feel inadequate driving through Ohio's Hocking Hills in anything other than an SUV bristling with canoes and mountain bikes. But, hey, you always can say your hiking boots are in the trunk.
Head southeast from Columbus on US-33, and you'll hardly settle into a comfortable road rhythm before the view through your windshield begins to reveal this dramatic, ruggedly appealing side of the Buckeye State. Soft-shouldered ridges and humps begin interrupting a broad plain about 40 miles beyond the city's suburban checkerboard.
The landscape fractures into a forested regiment of bluffs rising above the Hocking River, as you wind southeast. It's easy to see why outdoor enthusiasts come to renew their spirits in this section of Appalachian foothills.
But don't worry. You won't need to exert yourself to have a good time. Some visitors come just to sightsee, particularly in the spring, when dogwoods and redbuds light up forest fringes with pastel blooms. Few other areas temper these sorts of memorable views with such an easygoing pace.
Parks and preserves are the crown jewels of this mostly wild region. At Hocking Hills State Park, hikers tramp Old Man's Cave trail through narrow canyons past the amphitheaterlike "recess" cave. Spring runoff fuels the park's many small waterfalls.
A path unfurls unnervingly near sheer cliffs that frame stretches of the deep, forest-floored Conkles Hollow canyon, a neighboring nature preserve. At Burr Oak State Park, the lodge overlooks an oak-framed lake, where the fish always seem to be biting.
If you don't pitch a tent or tow an RV, unpack your bags at a state park lodge or one of the area's many bed and breakfasts or cabin compounds. Two of the best include Glenlaurel Inn & Cottages and the Inn at Cedar Falls.
Once, miners and loggers ruled the hills. Now, the region provides inspiration for artists and crafters. You'll find their creations at galleries in Logan, Nelsonville and Athens. These towns form the main links in a 30-mile-long chain of mellow communities along the Hocking River.
In Logan, northern gateway to the region, visitors in forest-green canoes and yellow kayaks shove off from Hocking Hills Canoe Livery. Nearby, the Olde Dutch Restaurant serves hundreds of fried chicken dinners daily, plus other Amish-inspired fare. At Logan Clay Products, you can browse and buy artisans' planters, pedestals and birdbaths in a showroom that once was a house-high conical brick kiln.
Hocking Valley Scenic Railway excursion trains embark into the woods from the old depot in Nelsonville. Behind the station, visitors shop for bargains on outdoor shoes and clothes at the Rocky factory outlet.
Cyclists park their cars in Nelsonville and pedal 17 miles to Athens on the riverside Hockhocking-Adena Bikeway. However you get there, be sure to visit Athens.The 200-year-old hometown of Ohio University climbs tiers of hills, with church steeples and cupola-topped college buildings peeking from a canopy of century-old maples and oaks.
Funky college-town shops and galleries fill many of downtown's restored 19th-century brick and stone buildings. Whether your tastes run to burgers or tofu, this is a good place to fuel up before lacing those hiking boots and hitting the trail again.