My Hocking Hills story beings as many of my travel stories do: mapping periodical cicadas. I had heard that Hocking Hills park in Ohio was a hotspot for the rarest of the three 17 year cicada species (Magicicada septendecula), so I traveled there to check it out. The reports were true… the cicadas were there in abundance… but no one had told me about the cave.
I’m a sucker for a good cave. I see a sign for a cave and I’ll drive 100, no, make that 200 miles to see that cave. Case in point: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. Back in 2014 I was in Cincinnati, started heading home (east) for New Jersey, but the next thing you know I’m 208 miles south at a cave! Sure, I stopped at the Jim Beam distillery along the way, but I ended up at a cave.
While wandering through the Hocking Hills state park — clutching my video camera, listening for septendecula, trying not to stand out amongst the dozens of tourists milling about — I saw the sign: “Old Man Cave”. Suddenly the sounds of cicadas dissolved from my mind and all I could think was “cave”.
That’s the third paragraph that ends in cave. Get the point?
Surprisingly Old Man Cave is not a “traditional” below ground cave. It is an above ground cave, because it has no ceiling. Perhaps it had a ceiling at one time; perhaps it collapsed. Had you asked me, I would have guessed that it was actually a canyon. As you’ll see from my photos and video, it still looks like a cave — limestone rock sculpted by the erosion of water — but it also looks like a canyon.
To get to the cave you have to enter a tunnel (the most “traditional” cave-like part of the journey). At the mouth of the tunnel were two healthy-looking young men; before I could enter, one stopped me. “Are you sure you want to go into the cave? It’s a hard walk even for me.” He advised me to go through the tunnel, enjoy the view, and then turn around and go home. He wasn’t an employee of the park — just another tourist.
I had to pause, if just for a moment, and ask myself: “how decrepit is my appearance?” Yes, I know I look like Lucious Malfoy: clearly middle-aged, with bone-white hair. And certainly, I could stand to lose a few pounds (more like 20). “How feeble and near death do I appear?”
I thanked the young man for his advice and concern and entered the tunnel. Upon exiting, the view was amazing. It’s hard to capture the magnificence with a photograph. To the right there’s a massive limestone overhang, slick with moisture and stained with streaks of green algae; straight ahead the cave/canyon drops maybe a hundred feet to the cave floor. It’s spectacular. At that moment I thought, “I have to do this; I have to experience this, even if the young man is right and I will die trying.”
The Old Man Cave trail passes under the massive rock overhang, and then winds and twists along the side of the cave until you reach the bottom, at that point you can enjoy the view of the waterfall, and then you hike back up the other side and continue around until you reach the start.
The hike down is long, and the hardest part is maintaining your balance and not falling to your death while taking a photo. Core strength is important. The hike up requires leg strength and stamina, but it isn’t all that bad. There were a few septuagenarians and little kids hacking it — it was fine. No worries.
Video from my hike:
After the Old Man Cave, I took a break… grabbed some water… made a video of some bugs…
And then walked across this funky looking bridge…
And then hiked up a hill into the woods and recorded some cicada song.
Along the path back to my car there were a group of young dudes debating on whether they should hop a fence and go swimming in the stream below. They were having a serious debate — you might think they were getting up the nerve to talk to some young women — no, just going for an illegal swim.
Crossing back across the bridge I could hear them splash into the river below. I thought “good, they’re living life, and taking chances as they should”.