The first time I hiked the Zaleski Trail I thought it was some kind of sick joke. I’d never been on a trail that so aggressively attacked ridges and hollows—up, down, up, down, and up again. The ordeal went on for miles (24.9 if you do the whole thing), and my feet were killing me. If you’re a hiker, that’s pretty much what you want. Since Zaleski provides an adequate challenge, people from all around the country value the trail as a warm-up for hiking the Appalachian Trail.
You don’t think about mountains in Ohio, but in the heart of the Appalachian foothills is Vinton County—home to Zaleski State forest and its popular backpack trail. It lacks the dramatic changes in elevation, but whether you opt to go it on foot or avail yourself of the aggressive mountain bike trails in the nearby Lake Hope State Park, the rolling hills provide an invigorating challenge. Rock formations similar to those in Hocking Hills can be found throughout the forest, but they aren’t highlighted on the maps, nor are they readily accessible to those unwilling to put in the work. It’s not mountains, but it will do.
If you don’t want to put in the work, it’s OK. Several scenic byways weave their way through the county with points of interests accessible to all. The area is also popular with motorcycle enthusiasts who find State Route 247’s rolling and winding nature a most exhilarating ride.
The back roads meander through the forest, getting you ever closer to nature. One road leads you to a barely discernable pull off where you can take a short stroll to the allegedly haunted Moonville Tunnel. This abandoned railroad tunnel is plenty creepy by day, but if you’re bold enough to navigate the woods at night, you’ll be spending the entire time with your heart in your throat. Vinton County is also home to several covered bridges (if that’s your thing), and a host of antique shops and quilt barns.
Rural is the only way to describe Vinton County. Situated between Athens and Chillicothe, most of the county is dedicated to State Forest. The State Park and adjacent wildlife area add to Vinton’s rural feel, and the County Seat of MacArthur is little more than a crossroads on Route 50. It’s easily accessible for a day trip, but if you want to stay and play there are plenty of options for lodging and dining.
Lake Hope State Park has gorgeous cabins on a wooded hill overlooking the tiny lake. The nearby lodge has a full service kitchen, as well as rooms for rent. These cabins tend to get booked well in advance, but there are some camping cabins on the other side of the lake with fewer amenities that are more readily available. The park itself has a small beach, canoe rentals, and plenty of hiking trails—as well as the aforementioned mountain biking network. The campground is rustic and sits on a high ridge, which treats you to the sounds of the wilderness. Some sites have electricity, but a lot of people have a hard time dealing with the pit toilets. There’s also a fantastic nature center which offers insight into the area and the critters who call it home. A popular activity here is hand-feeding hummingbirds—you read that correctly, you can hang out under the canopy of the forest at the nature center and feed hummingbirds from vial of nectar.
Another lodging option can be found in New Plymouth at Ravenwood Castle (Yes, it’s a castle, and they definitely play it up). It’s got a campy medieval theme and an event schedule that includes Star Wars and/or Firefly-themed murder mysteries; Comic and Gaming conventions; and craft beer tastings. The vibe might not be for everyone, but there’s a restaurant and pub in the county that delightfully features a paucity of options. There are also a number of privately owned and operated cabins and cottages in the surrounding area.
Odds are pretty good that you’ll want to make a weekend of it. Living in Columbus can make Ohio feel a little crowded, but Vinton County reassures us that there’s still a some elbow room to be had. •