“Look at all the !$%#*& cars!” I exclaimed as we arrived at Zaleski State Forest Backpack Trail. Despite the great weather forecast, neither Bill nor I thought there would be such a crowd. It was, after all, November 7 and nearly all the leaves were off the trees. Whether we foresaw it or not though, the parking lot was full, the lot across the street was full and several vehicles were in the grass near the lot. It was obvious that any decent campsite would be taken and any dead wood nearby already scavenged and burned.
OK, the first choice for a (relatively) easy overnight backpacking trip was out. What’s the fallback plan? “How about Burr Oak?” Bill stated. “It’s not too far from here.” That sounded like a plan to me, so I pointed the truck north towards Nelsonville, Glouster and eventually Burr Oak State Park.
Entering the park from State Route 78 we parked at the Ranger Station. Though the station was closed, maps were available and the trail was just a few steps away. Since it is a 23 mile loop and one camping option appeared to be about ten miles if we started south, that’s the direction we took.
Almost immediately, the Park’s lodge is visible. As we were getting a late start, the option of staying with civilization for lunch was discussed. I had the choice of a couple Cliff Bars and Gatorade, or a burger and a beer at the lodge. Hmmm. What to do?
Once we finished off the drafts it was time to start hiking. After a couple initial hills, the trail generally held a fairly constant elevation; benched into the hillside overlooking the lake. In addition, the trail was well constructed and the nearly constant lake views were impressive.
After about 2 ½ miles we reached the first official camping area, alongside Dock #2. There are a couple newer latrines and several campsites located alongside a gravel spur. As there is a road to the area, don’t expect a wilderness experience. Fees are $17 off season and $19 in the warmer months. While you might end up next to another tent, or possibly a large RV, all the sites were empty on this day.
After a short stretch that might become swampy in wetter weather, the trail resumed its pattern of being reasonably level with nice lake views. After three more miles the trail leaves State Park Property onto US Army Corps of Engineers Property. As the lake is a flood control reservoir, The Corps manages the level of the lake. On the Corps property, we crossed the emergency spillway, passed through a grove of evergreens and walked the length of the dam. In this area are great views, a modern restroom and a very scenic picnic spot.
For the next several miles, the map shows the trail staying very close to the lakeshore. However, as Robert Ruchhoft states in his book, Backpack Loops and Long Day Trail Hikes in Southern Ohio, “Unfortunately the vagueness and inaccuracies on this ..(map)..are frequent enough to lead to some colossal misinterpretations.” When the trail leaves the lake, don’t panic. It is the map that’s wrong.
Eventually the trail returns to the lake near Dock #4. There is a short section of road walking after that, then an extremely steep climb up to the Park’s main campground. Like many state park campgrounds, here you will find plenty of water faucets, heated restroom and shower buildings and a small store (closed). The pop machine was working though. Only a few of the 100 or so sites were occupied so we picked one of the flatter ones with an hour of daylight left. There was a drop slot for the $19 camping fee. Between scavenging the nearby woods and the generosity of a fellow camper, we had an ample supply of firewood for the evening.
The sky stayed clear and the temperature dropped down to below freezing overnight. I awoke to a cold fog coming off the lake. My tent fly was covered with water and ice, but I stayed dry and warm in my 23 degree down bag. Bill’s single wall tent did what single walls do best in those circumstances, concentrate the moisture to the point that he was practically rained on. His 15 degree bag did keep him warm despite the localized rain shower though.
After breakfast and mopping up the tents it was back to the trail. We dropped down near the lake for less than a mile, had a pretty significant climb then stayed on the ridge for several miles, traveling by some interesting small caves and steep valleys. After a very steep drop down we walked into one of the more bizarre trail intersections I have ever seen. The yellow blazed trail split into two directions, both of which were very well marked with yellow blazes.
Trying to fit the map to what was on site, we picked the direction that appeared to stay near the lake. After a quarter mile it was obvious that this trail was taking us in the wrong direction. Perhaps it was a long bridle trail that bypassed the steep drop. I could never figure it out. Taking the other option from the intersection, which per the map should be a bridle trail, ended up being the right move. Eventually this trail took us out near County Rd 58 where we crossed the upper reaches of Burr Oak Lake and started down the other side.
If you have an interest in extending this hike, it is a short walk on the road to the trailhead of Wildcat Hollow Backpack Trail. This 13 mile loop travels through Wayne National Forest. There are several established campsites, but no facilities on that stretch.
Back in the State Park, The trail generally remains close to the shallow, upper reaches of the lake, though there is a short road walk.
After 3 miles without much grade change we reached Dock #3 and another camp area. The spots are right by the lake, sport a pit toilet and again, are accessible through a public road. The lake view is nice, but the campsites are adjacent to asphalt and exposed. One site had been taken by someone obviously car camping.
Immediately after leaving the campsites, the trail heads straight up the steep hill behind them. This is one of the sections that Ruchhoft was surely thinking about when he said the trail, “…must have been engineered by someone who hated hikers.”
At the top of the hill there is another decision. You can continue with lake overlooks or take the Buckeye Loop which leaves the lake for a more direct path towards the starting point. As it appears to be part of the official backpack loop, provides a change of scenery, and is the shorter option, Buckeye Loop got both votes.
After some forest hiking through some beautiful, and steep, valleys, we were back to the truck by midafternoon. That just left us with the opportunity to head back to the lodge for their Sunday buffet. Stick with the burger. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and by the way, we did not see another backpacker on the entire hike. They must have all been at Zaleski.