Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Rockbridge State Nature Preserve (Blog Hike #601)

Trails: Natural Bridge and Rock Shelter Trails
Hike Location: Rockbridge State Nature Preserve
Geographic Location: west of Logan, OH
Length: 2.8 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2016
Overview: A double loop featuring the largest natural bridge in Ohio.

Directions to the trailhead: From Logan, take US 33 west 5.8 miles to Dalton Road; there is a brown road sign for the preserve at this intersection.  Take a double right turn onto Dalton Rd.  Drive Dalton Rd. 0.8 miles to the small preserve parking lot at its end.

The hike: For my history of Hocking Hills hiking, see the previous hike.  The 202 acre Rockbridge State Nature Preserve sits in the hilly northern part of Hocking County well away from the area’s more famous and developed destinations to the south.  As its name suggests, the preserve features the largest natural bridge in Ohio.  Thus, Rockbridge’s scenery is as good as the region’s more popular areas, but the hilly terrain makes the bridge harder to access.  The preserve’s location and terrain keep the crowds down: my mother and I were the only people in the preserve on my May 1998 visit, and there were only 4 cars in the parking lot on my most recent visit on a hot July afternoon.
            Two loop trails traverse the preserve, and both loops are accessed by a common entrance trail that starts from the preserve’s only parking area.  The preserve’s steep hills make this hike one of the harder short hikes in the Hocking Hills region, and I took nearly 2 hours to hike both of the loops.  As detailed later in this trail description, you can see the natural bridge without hiking both loops, but the route described here explores all the preserve has to offer.
Trailhead: Rockbridge State Nature Preserve
            From the information kiosk beside the parking area, begin heading north through a narrow strip of natural area between two active farm fields.  The mowed-grass trail tops a low hill before heading into the woods, turning to dirt, and topping a larger, steeper hill.  Wooden boardwalks span wet areas between these two initial hills.
            At 0.5 miles and on the north side of the second hill, the trail splits to form the Natural Bridge Loop.  I chose to turn left and use the right trail as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The trail briefly traces the north side of a farm field before curving right and beginning a steep descent into the heart of the preserve.
Hiking along a seasonal stream
            The trail reaches the bank of a seasonal stream just before coming to a major trail intersection at 0.8 miles.  The Natural Bridge Loop continues to the right, but you will first want to hike the spur trail to the natural bridge, which continues straight.  In less than 200 feet, you reach the rock bridge for which this preserve is named.  Because you approach the bridge from above, you might first notice the 10 foot wide crack in the ground that separates the bridge from the main cliff line.  The asymmetric sandstone bridge measures 100 feet long, 10-20 feet wide, and 50 feet high.  A low-volume waterfall exists between the bridge and the cliff when water levels are sufficient, which they were in May 1998 but were not in July 2016.  This bridge is the highlight of the hike, so take some time and enjoy this scenic spot.
View of natural bridge from above

View of natural bridge from side
            The trail that continues downhill past the bridge leads 0.1 miles to the south bank of the Hocking River, and it is used by paddlers to access the natural bridge.  Feel free to hike down there if you want to see the river, but the trail dead-ends at the river.  Thus, you will need to turn around and retrace your steps to the major trail intersection, which is reached for a second time 1 mile into the hike.  If all you want to do is see the bridge, then the shortest and easiest return route is to retrace your steps by continuing straight at this intersection.  To see more of the preserve, turn left to begin hiking the north arm of the Natural Bridge Loop.
            The trail angles up the hillside through nice forest consisting of many maple and beech trees.  Just shy of 1.2 miles, you reach the ridgetop and another signed trail intersection.  The Natural Bridge Loop turns right here, and this hike will go that way to finish the Natural Bridge Loop eventually.  To explore the remote northeast corner of the preserve, turn left for now to begin the seldom-used 1 mile Rock Shelter Loop Trail.
Switchback on Rock Shelter Loop Trail
            The narrow Rock Shelter Loop Trail uses two switchbacks to descend the steep north side of the ridge.  Part of this descent appears to use an old road.  Some blue surveyors tape tied around trees marks this trail, as do some wooden posts engraved with arrows.  At the bottom of the switchbacks, you pass atop the sandstone rock shelter for which this trail is named.  This rock shelter looks a little like the area near the natural bridge but without the bridge.  Maybe erosion will form a natural bridge here at some point in the future.
Rock shelter
            Past the rock shelter, the trail climbs moderately up a small ravine to reach the fork that forms the Rock Shelter Loop Trail’s loop.  To make the climb a little easier, I chose to turn left here and hike the loop clockwise.  The very short loop climbs gradually and then moderately to almost regain the ridge crest before descending steeply to close the loop.  Retrace your steps to the Natural Bridge Loop, then continue straight to begin the final segment of the Natural Bridge Loop.
            The trail drops steeply to cross a wooden footbridge that spans the seasonal stream that forms the waterfall behind the natural bridge.  A steep climb then brings you back beside the farm field to close the Natural Bridge Loop.  Continue straight to retrace your steps 0.5 miles to the trailhead, thus completing the hike.

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