Some of the most beautiful places to view fall colors are the Hocking Hills State Parks of Hocking County in Southeastern Ohio. These parks can also serve up their own brand of haunted place and produce goose bumps at the least when one stands small against the power of nature illustrated there.
In autumn especially, a feeling of other worldliness can creep upon the visitors to the caves in the parks. Dead leaves rustle across wooded trails from a chilly breeze. The cool, mossy smell of the woodland floor speaks of earthiness and the dead of winter soon to come. Overhead, a gray sky broods while darkness lurks beneath rocky cliffs and overhanging rocks. Was that a shadowy form there or an active imagination kicking in?
Once the mind starts dwelling upon ghosts, classic Alfred Hitchcock-type eerie feelings are stirred. Ears strain to hear that small unusual sound repeat itself to determine what it is. You look around and wonder about those forgotten first people, both Native American and Whites from times past, who used the gorges and rocks as shelter, living and dying perhaps on the very spot upon which you walk.
Old Man’s Cave is the best known park in Hocking Hills
The name, Old Man’s Cave, is somewhat misleading. No true underground cave is to be found here in the way we would think of a cave where one can go back into the earth from an opening to the outside. These are known as recess caves which are rock shelters formed above ground. Special geological history and information about the Hocking Hills region are provided by the Department of Natural Resources here.
Old Man’s Cave’s gorge was formed by glaciers, and its recess caves of overhanging rocks and huge boulders were left behind when the glaciers melted. Erosion by the meltwater worked to sculpt and scour the landscape over time, and water continues to this day to flow into and through the gorge by way of the cascading upper falls to the lower falls. In some places, the creek flows like a lazy stream and other places, as rapids which swirl for example into the smooth basin of the rock formation called the devil’s bathtub. Some plant species that are not normally found in this area grow courtesy of the glacier which transported them down from Canada. An imaginary hobbit’s house would not appear foreign here.
The bridges and pathways in the parks of Hocking Hills were originally built or upgraded through President Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration or WPA program. The parks are now maintained by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Richard Rowe is the old man
Long before tourists and hikers came along, a trapper and hermit by the name of Richard Rowe frequented the gorge. Richard is the old man that the cave is named for and legend has it that he is buried somewhere under a rock ledge. Nobody knows where. According to the Old Man’s Cave Visitors Guide at the Hocking Hills website, Rowe would travel to the gorge during trapping season in autumn. The story goes that he went to the stream to get water one day only to discover that the stream was frozen. When he used the butt of his gun to break the ice, it discharged hitting him in the head. Some say Native Americans and others say trappers in the area found him and buried him under the ledge.
Due to the fact that Rowe let it be known that he had a stash of money in the gorge, one wonders how the story of the manner in which he died came to be known in lieu of the fact that he was found after he was dead. Did the discoverers of his remains surmise how he was killed or did they do it themselves? We will never know, but it is said that pioneers in the area kept their children from playing near the dangerous cliffs by telling them ghost stories about the old man. Haunted Hocking reports a legend on their website that sometimes campers at Old Man’s Cave campground hear the baying of Richard Rowe’s hunting dogs on full moon nights.
Two brothers, Nathanial and Patrick Rayon, also are said to have lived in or around the gorge and are buried somewhere in Old Man’s Cave.
But are the state parks really haunted places?
Judging by the fact that many historical people are known to have been particularly partial to frequenting the caves in Hocking County, the odds are that more than a few ghosts could still linger for many reasons. Dr. S. P. Hildreth who was on the first geological survey of Ohio in 1837, wrote an article which was published in “Silliman’s Journal of Science” and is preserved in the Historical Collections of Ohio (1847) by Henry Howe on Page 928. We can read between the lines and see a decided contrast between positive and negative experiences in the Hocking Hills. These kind of experiences–whether they are good and spirits don’t want to leave after death, or bad and they have unfinished business–are typically believed to be the underlying cause of hauntings. Hildreth wrote:
“One of the favorite descents of the Indians was down the waters of Queer creek, a tributary of Salt creek, and opened a direct course to their town of old Chillicothe. It is a wild, romantic ravine, in which the stream has cut a passage for several miles in extent, through the solid rock, forming mural cliffs, now more than one hundred and twenty feet in height. They are also full of caverns and grottos, clothed with dark evergreens of the hemlock and cedar. Near the outlet of this rocky and narrow valley there stood, a few years since, a large beech tree, on which was engraven, in legible characters, “This is the road to hell, 1782.” These words were probably traced by some unfortunate prisoner then on his way to the old Indian town of Chillicothe. This whole region is full of interesting scenery, and affords some of the most wild and picturesque views of any other of equal extent in the State of Ohio.”
To experience these picturesque views and enjoy the fall colors in the state parks of Hocking County, take State Route 664 South from the city of Logan which is called “the Gateway to Ohio’s Scenic Wonderland.” Old Man’s Cave is approx. 12.5 miles. Perhaps you, too, might hear the baying of the old man’s hunting dogs.