Backpacking the “Little Smokies” (Part 2)

Read Part 1 first!

It was around 4 AM when I determined that the 30 degree comfort rating on my sleeping bag was woefully optimistic. We were 6 miles into a 23 mile backpacking trip at Shawnee State Forest, about 2 hours east of Cincinnati, so picking up the 0 degree bag was going to be difficult.

The temperature bottomed out right around 30, so, while I wasn’t cozy, I wasn’t facing hypothermia either. The rain fly on my double wall tent was covered in condensation, but I had stayed dry. The ultra-light single wall tent of Bill’s captured the condensation and actually filled the interior with ice crystals. Per Bill, the design worked best on dry, breezy, warm summer nights. (In other words, when you don’t really need a tent at all.)

Bring on the cold!
Bring on the cold!

After a breakfast of freeze dried sausage, potatoes and eggs (good thing I brought a lot of gorp), we started on the day’s target distance of nearly 13 miles. I warmed up fast, not so much because of the sun, but due to the climb out of the camp area of approximately 350 feet in just over a quarter mile. It was just the first of four “epic” climbs that day.

The weather turned out great with a blue sky and temperatures climbing to 60. While most of the leaves had dropped, allowing for some great views, there were still a few oaks and maples holding on to provide a splash of color.

Shawnee tree

We reached Camp 2 of the North Loop by a bit after noon, were able to refill our water bottles, and broke for lunch. Immediately after passing Camp 2 we walked into what turned out to be the toughest climb of the entire hike. In his book, “Backpacking Loops and Long Day Hikes in Southern Ohio,” Robert Runchhoft describes the hill there as an “agonizing obstacle” and the climb as “grim.” Bill and I came up with additional descriptive terms, and most of those were four letters as well. It seems the trail designers had never heard of the term switchback because nearly every hill was attacked straight up.

Thankfully, after the climb, the trail stayed on a ridge for quite a while and we were able to enjoy great views and another perfect day. We also passed by the only other people we’d see on the entire trail, two squirrel hunters and a small group day hiking near a road crossing. With an hour of daylight left, we arrived at Camp 3, which had been moved from the top of a ridge into a hollow, and uncomfortably close to State Rt. 125.

We had time to set up camp and enjoy some freeze dried pasta primavera (just like mom used to make) before darkness and the temperature fell. Colder than the previous night, the fire became less about atmosphere and more about staying warm. Climbing into the sleeping bag later, I hoped wearing pants, two pairs of socks and three shirts would lower the comfort rating of the bag to match the temperature.

Backpack tip # 273  if you are using  a flashlight that fits on the bill of a ball cap, make sure you actually bring a cap with you. Otherwise you may find yourself in the woods wearing a less than fashionable cap from Dollar General.

Morning of day three arrived crisp and clear. The viewing window in my tent’s rainfly had frosted over and there were icicles hanging from the tent poles, but I had stayed warm enough for a good night’s sleep. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and Advil, I was ready to break camp and tackle the final 5 miles back to the car. By now, most of the food was gone and my pack was nearly as light as Bill’s was when he started, so hiking would be easier.

This final stretch is shared by both the North and South Loop of the Shawnee Backpack trail. Much of the route parallels State Rt. 125 and the vehicle noise detracts from the “wilderness feel” the rest of the trail provides. Despite the occasional sound intrusion, the trail remains scenic with stretches along a stream and views of Turkey Creek Lake before dropping out of the woods, to the car and the two hour ride back to Cincinnati.

Crunching through dry leaves, we didn’t spot much wildlife, though deer and turkey are prevalent and even bear are spotted on occasion. Traveling earlier in the season would have resulted in more wildlife sightings, but less of the grand vistas opened up by the leaf drop.

The Shawnee State Forest Backpack Loops are seriously challenging and should not be taken lightly. The trail is long, rugged, steep and secluded. Having potable water and a latrine at each camp area is a nice touch though. The trail is a great adventure unto itself, but could also serve as a good trial hike for those contemplating a significant mountain backpack trip. As the Guidebook mentioned before says, be prepared for a strenuous, arduous struggle. Bring plenty of gorp, it will be fun!

Ohio State brochure on the trail


Backpacking the “Little Smokies” (Part 1)

In his book, “Backpack Loops and Long Day Trail Hikes in Southern Ohio” Robert Ruchhoft describes the very first hill of the Shawnee State Forest Backpack Trail, North Loop as a “lung buster.”  He continues with, “If you suffered real agony, feeling that this climb has pushed you over your level of endurance and you wished to God you were someplace else you’re probably not ready for this trail.” While there are several options for backpacking within a couple hours drive of Cincinnati, this could well be the most challenging.

“Sounds like fun,” was the consensus as Bill, a former co-worker and fellow hiking enthusiast, and I discussed trying this hike. About two hours east of Cincinnati, the area is nicknamed the “Little Smokies of Ohio” with good reason. Though not as tall as the famous mountains to the south, the hills have the same rugged beauty. This trail in Shawnee would also prove as difficult as any I’ve encountered in or around the namesake National Park.

Arriving at the trailhead on a Friday afternoon, we were prepared for 3 days of hiking with nighttime temperatures predicted to drop to the upper 30’s. Bill, a big fan of ultralight equipment, was carrying a pack weighing 20 pounds, plus two liters of water. I, on the other hand, apparently enjoy suffering and carried a pack that came in on the north side of 30 pounds, plus water, Gatorade and a huge bag of trail mix, or gorp. (I may have also had a flask.)


Despite my initial disbelief, the guidebook was indeed correct with the first “lung buster” hill climbing 300 feet in under a half mile. Looking ahead, there were multiple hills with descriptions that included words such as: very strenuous, arduous, struggle, exhaustive frustration, and other equally positive terms. However, it was a beautiful day and with most of the leaves on the ground, the views were amazing.

The leaves did hide the trail though, so keeping an eye out for the orange blazes painted on the trees was necessary. Also essential were walking sticks. With the steepness of the trail and the leaf covering, a third point of contact with the ground was often crucial. Without sticks, that third point would have certainly been a body part other than feet; most likely my back or face.

After four hours of walking through a gorgeous late fall afternoon and up a couple of “epic” climbs, we covered the six miles to Camp 1, which consists of a drinking water source, latrine and a couple relatively flat areas to pitch tents. We had just enough time before dark to set up camp and gather some firewood.  After a dinner of delicious freeze-dried beef stew and my daily allotment of nearly a pound of gorp, I settled in by the fire with some fortified hot chocolate. The temperature was dropping fast and it would be another 13 hours till sunrise. (To be continued.)

Backpacking tip #117  When setting your tent up under an oak tree, be sure to remove all the acorns from where you intent to lay. Cracking nuts with your hips and shoulder blades through the night tends to produce a less restful sleep.

Can’t wait to read Part 2? Click here!