Tag Archives: fall hiking

Trail Report: Wildcat Hollow Trail

Most backpacking in Ohio is fairly regimented. The trails are well marked, which is a good thing. Camp areas are typically laid out with a restroom or privy, set spots to camp and potable water nearby. Again, nice to have. However, there’s a more natural option; a trail where there is no restriction on where to camp, no restrooms and no potable water. For some, this type of backpacking seems better; less domesticated and more wild. In Ohio, a trail that fits that description is Wildcat Hollow.

Located in Wayne National Forest, the trail is near the town of Glouster and Burr Oak State Park. Its 15 mile length wanders through rolling hills and stream bottoms. A privy is located at the trailhead parking lot, but that is the extent of the amenities. If you want any other creature comforts, you need to bring them with you.

Here’s your water

I’ve backpacked several of Ohio’s loop offerings in the past with an old work colleague, Bill. Looking for a different challenge, we decided to give Wildcat Hollow a try. Looking at an early November weekend, the weather looked promising; no rain, not too cold, so we headed out on Friday.

Not wanting to shock the system too much, we eased into the experience with a big lunch at nearby Burr Oak Lodge. The food is great and, not that I would care, they have an extensive selection of beer on hand.

At the trailhead at 2:30, there were several other cars in the lot. The day was cloudy and cool, nearly perfect for hiking. We both shouldered relatively heavy packs containing 3+ liters of water and headed out. Almost immediately we came to a creek crossing. Recent rains had expanded the width of water a bit, but after a short search, a spot was found to cross while keeping my trail runners somewhat dry.

After a quarter mile the trail forks and we decided to walk the loop clockwise. In retrospect, the other direction might have been better. There were several creek crossings over the next mile or so that would have been easier (and dryer) had the streams been given another day to recover from the recent rains. The other direction on the loop quickly climbs out of that valley.

Regardless of the calendar, there was still some fall color

Despite slightly damp feet, the hike was pleasant. The trail was well designed and maintained and there was still some significant fall color to enjoy. Several nice campsites have been established by previous campers early on the trail and a couple of those were occupied. We met no other hikers actually on the trail however.

The trail includes a short road walk (1/4 mile) past an old abandoned one room schoolhouse before returning to the woods and major pine plantings. Other signs of past disturbance included multiple small oil wells along the path.

Night comes pretty early in November and a bit over 5 miles in, we spotted an established campsite near a small creek that would work for the evening. By 6 pm, the tents were up and my freeze dried entrée was history. I suppose the creek water could have been filtered, but we had packed in enough to avoid that decision. Plenty of downed wood was in the area so we had ample heat as the temperature dropped through the 40s.

Morning arrived clear and cool, perfect for hiking. The trail continued in the same manner with rolling hills and an occasional creek crossing. Apparently, in the summer months the creeks tend to be dry so don’t count on them for water. In addition, ongoing signs of previous mining and oil extraction would make me think twice about drinking even filtered water from the streams. The best bet is to bring all your own water and just enjoy the scenery. There are no major overlooks, but pleasant just the same. We only met two other folks that were hiking the entire route. They were two friends that met up every five years to hike the trail.

By afternoon, it had warmed up enough for cold blooded hikers

The day rolled by with more of the same, though fewer creek crossings. There were a number of great campsites and all of them more than a mile from the parking lot were empty. The sites among the pines looked especially inviting. Eventually, we dropped off a long ridge to the end of the loop and out to the parking lot. The original plan was to make the short walk over to Burr Oak State Park’s backpack trail and hike a few miles to one of the official park campsites. While a lake view, water hydrant and restroom were appealing. Its location right next to a parking lot was not.

Since I had stashed additional water in the truck, a change of plan was easy and obvious. We refilled our depleted water bottles (possibly also grabbing a few beers) and headed back into the wild, Wildcat Hollow, to camp among some towering pines.

Some items are worth the extra weight

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