Trail Report: Shawnee State Forest South Loop

While taking long hikes is a good way to get in shape for a long backpacking trip, nothing gets you in shape for backpacking better than actually backpacking. As I have a trip coming up soon, it was definitely time to see how my “backpacking” fitness was doing. In addition, I’d picked up some new equipment that needed testing “in the field.” The question became, where to go?

Recent heavy rains had flooded portions of Kentucky and eastern Ohio, but I was looking for a challenging hike, hopefully with a shorter drive than down to Great Smoky National Park. With the wet summer, local trails had become fairly overgrown and not that pleasant to hike. I then thought of Shawnee State Forest, also known as the “Little Smokies” due to the rugged topography of the area. In addition, the trail is only about two hours east of Cincinnati. Since I had last hiked there, much of the trail system had been “improved” through the use of a bulldozer so I was also interested to see how that turned out.

One of several expansive views
One of several expansive views

Not knowing if the recent storms had impacted the trails there, I called the forestry office to see if I could get an update on their condition. After a little phone tag I was told, “We got 3 ½ inches of rain and high winds the other night. No one has been on the trails yet because we’re still trying to get the roads clear. I’m sure the creeks will be up, but it’s supposed to be nice weather for the next two days.”

That settled it, Shawnee would be the destination. The main trail can be walked as a 40 mile long loop, or split into a 23 mile North Loop and 28 mile South Loop. I was shooting for a strenuous 2 day trip and decided on the South Loop. (A review of the North Loop can be found here.)

I arrived late morning on a sunny humid day. Starting at the Backpack Trail parking lot and heading counterclockwise it’s a short walk along Turkey Creek Lake before the trail begins a steep incline at the edge of the woods. It’s obvious there was a recent storm with the trail littered with leaves and small branches. The path was a narrow single track of dirt and what I took to be sandstone. Hiking poles came in handy, not only due to the steepness of the climb, but to break through all the spider webs crossing the trail. Since the parking lot only had one other vehicle in it, I wasn’t counting on anyone clearing the webs off the trail in front of me; but a guy can hope. Of course, people in Hell hope for ice water too.

It had been great weather for mushrooms
It had been great weather for mushrooms

Before very long, the trail widened to the width of a small bulldozer and it would have been easy to walk side by side with another hiker. The “natural” feel was somewhat lost however, more like walking on an old dirt or gravel road. In addition, the dozer driver was obviously talented as the new trail was often blazed straight up or down some extremely steep slopes. The path had previously been generally devoid of switchbacks, but it seemed like the new route even more directly attacked the hills, if that was possible.

The dozer must be about this wide
The dozer must be about this wide

On the plus side, the wider trail made it a little tougher for spiders to bridge the distance with webs. Tougher, but not impossible. On most long solo hikes I eventually end up singing or humming the same tune over and over again. On this day the words, “Friendly neighborhood Spiderman” were sung more than a few times. Mostly it was hummed in an effort to keep the webs (and stray arachnids) out of my mouth though.

Bigger wildlife also made appearances. The first of several deer was spotted within a mile of the start. I also had turkeys fly off from near me on more than one occasion. While the forest was generally pretty thick, the new bulldozed route provided several good views of the impressive hills of the region.

The hike was definitely a workout. Per my GPS, in a single mile stretch the trail climbed from 1,000 feet to 1,300 feet and dropped back down to 900 feet. This process was repeated several more times through the two days.

Most, but not all of the designated camp areas have a cistern nearby with potable water. My plan was to stay at Camp 6, about 10 miles from the parking lot. This is the one site without a clean water supply. To make sure I’d have enough water for dinner and breakfast, after 5 miles I swung down the side trail to Camp 7, a pretty significant downhill detour. After 10 minutes or so I made it to the hydrant, filled my Gatorade bottle which I had already emptied, along with 2 one liter bottles. Although the hike was becoming a sweat fest, I hoped 3 liters would be enough to get me 5 miles to camp, two meals, overnight and another 3 miles to the hydrant at Camp 5. Of course, people in Hell hope for ice water. Wait, I already used that one. Hmm.

There were a few small trees down across the trail so far. That changed when, on a steep side slope, the crown of a good sized elm had dropped square on the pathway, costing a few minutes to climb through. Through it all, the spider population stayed strong along with a large crop of gnats. Mosquitos were pleasantly absent, perhaps stopped by the gauntlet of spider webs. I can only assume the gnats were either more evasive flyers or just overwhelmed the web defense through sheer numbers.

Near 6 PM I arrived at Camp 6, the most remote campsite on the loop. All the others are near access for a water truck. I still had 2 ½ liters of water and felt that should be enough. The site is right by a very pretty little creek, and if need be, I could boil some of stream water for cooking. In fact, the best spots of the site are actually across the creek, and there was enough flow that I pulled my shoes off to wade it.

Set up on Camp 6
Set up on Camp 6

The site was complete with several flat tent areas and fire rings. A latrine was also nearby. It was not one where anyone would want to settle in with the sports section, but certainly serviceable. I had my choice of spots and set up near the creek. Rather than a typical freeze dried dinner I combined instant potatoes, Freeze dried vegetables and a cut up Slim Jim into a filling, delicious feast.

Despite the recent rains, there was enough semi-dry wood around to build a fire that I enjoyed with some fortified hot chocolate. And again, no mosquitoes. Just a great evening.

It turned out to be a great night for sleeping as well. The weather stayed dry and cooled off just enough, the brook babbled and my new Exped SynMat Hyperlite Sleeping Pad gave me a great first impression. It was quiet, comfortable and despite only weighing 12 ounces, contains insulation to provide an R value of 3.3. Plenty for three season sleeping.

Breakfast was a Mountain House bag of biscuits and gravy. It was a freeze dried trip to Bob Evans. Tasty. I was packed up and wading back to the trail by 7:30, but the sun was already up and the heat was building. By the time I started hiking there was about 8 ounces of drinking water left, certainly not an oversupply. Finishing a steep 400 foot climb about 2 miles into the day, I finished the water. I covered the next mile to Camp 3 a bit thirsty, but with a light pack.

The morning sun begins heating the trail
The morning sun begins heating the trail

There were a few more 400 foot climbs and drops through the day. The high spots had some impressive views and the low spots still contained remnants of the recent storms. I eventually gave up trying to keep my feet dry and just slogged along the path/creek bed. Lunch was alongside a scenic pond near Camp 4. Somehow I missed the hydrant at that spot and again walked while hoping for some ice water until getting to Camp 3 and a side trail back to parking.

Once you reach the side trail, it’s not like a quick jaunt back to the car though. That stretch is over 5 miles, as steep as anywhere with plenty of large, slick rocks to navigate. There is an option to cut a little of the distance through road walking the last mile or so on Rt 125. Tired of the gnats and spiders, and interested is getting a better view of Turkey Creek Lake, I dropped onto the road. Getting back to the truck at about 5:30 PM, it was close to 90 degrees, but the lake had a small beach. It wasn’t like the beach in Hawaii, but the water was cool and wet.

Some might say you can’t get in a good hiking workout in Ohio; at least not comparable to walking in the mountains. Those people would be wrong. While the hills at Shawnee State Forest aren’t tall, they are steep and they keep coming. Just a little comparison for you. The AT is approximately 2,175 miles long and, per the Interweb, has 515,000 feet of elevation gain and drop. That averages out to 236 ft/mile. The Colorado Trail has 177,000 feet of gain and drop along its 486 miles for 364 ft/mile. Per my GPS, on the 28 miles I hiked, there was 17,258 feet gained or dropped for an average of 616 ft/mile. I’m assuming the GPS was more sensitive to small changes in elevation than the methods used on the other trails. But still, the trails at Shawnee are as steep or steeper as any I’ve been on. Next time I’ll bring some ice water.