A Spelunking We Did Go

Twenty-twenty-one, the year that we were able to wander again. With caution, of course. Our home base happens to be near the busiest international border crossing in North America, the Ambassador Bridge, which straddles the Detroit River. * For nearly two years, Covid and the river have separated families such as ours. Pre-Covid, we could pop over to Detroit for an afternoon or evening. Family members could cross the bridge or tunnel for a day visit. We clearly took for granted being able to cross the land border. So, armed with our Canadian passports and vaccine passports, we crossed the bridge soon after the US government allowed us to do so for the first time in two years (November 8th). The timing was good since the temperatures had just begun to plummet in early November. Crossing the bridge, we were greeted by a big sign which welcomed us back and waived the bridge toll. Thanks, Ambassador Bridge Corp!

In November, travelling through northern US states can be tricky for campers since most campgrounds have closed for the winter. That means we had to plan our route knowing how many hours we were comfortable driving and, second, which campgrounds are open in the winter.

Other factors which were essential to our route planning:

  1. Our preference is for routes that avoid interstate highways
  2. We generally opt for camping options that offer beauty as opposed to convenience
  3. Given the choice, we choose to travel a route we have not previously travelled
  4. After not being able to cross the border for two years, we were keen to once again visit a Trader Joe’s where we could stock up on enough food to last for a week
  5. To combat close to freezing overnight temperatures, campsites offering services, electrical, and water were top of our wish list. We chose to drain our water tank and water lines in October in case of below-zero temperatures. There was a faint chance we’d be able to make it south before winterizing was necessary. We carried our big blue water carrier, which we filled up before leaving home just in case. However, the availability of running water for dishwashing, tooth brushing, and the toilet was undeniably attractive.

And with all of the above factors in mind, we decided to drive to a location about 5 hours south of Amherstburg called Hocking Hills State Park, about an hour south of Columbus, Ohio. It checked all the boxes. Not only was it a route we had not previously travelled, but once we passed Toledo, we were able to veer off of I-75 South onto secondary highways. And the best part of this route was that it offered an opportunity to shop at Trader Joe’s in a lovely suburb north of Columbus, where we stocked up on a variety of delicious foods.

We made it to Hocking Hills by late afternoon with barely, but just enough, daylight left to explore the Old Man’s Cave. The trail system that connects Old Man’s Cave to Cedar Falls to Ash Cave is part of the Ohio Buckeye Trail. We already know we want to return and explore during a slightly warmer camping season.

It didn’t take us long to discover why the Old Man decided to spend his life in this gorge. We think you’ll agree it is gorge-ous! Richard Rowe remains here in death, too, having been buried beneath the ledge of the main cave. Before Richard resided here, it was home to the Wyandot Nation. The area’s name, Hocking Hills, comes from the Wyandot word, ‘hockhocking,’ which refers to the Hocking River’s bottle-shaped gorge. The moist, cool climate makes for a happy home for northern tree species such as the Eastern Hemlock and Canada Yew. This part of Ohio should not be missed by anyone interested in geology.

Before setting out on our hike, we read warnings of bobcats and black bears on the trails. So with quickly fading daylight and plummeting temperatures, we filled up on as much of the incredible beauty of the gorge, caves and trails as possible before high-tailing it back to camp. We had the luxury of both electricity and water at this park. We chose not to fill our water tank that night since the overnight forecast was a little too close to freezing. We were snug as bugs in our tiny home on wheels.

The following day we included a stop at nearby Ash Cave. We hadn’t considered the possibility that this cave could surpass the beauty of Old Man’s Cave but wow! We wondered aloud if declaring a place your trip favourite on day one was too soon.

It is usually the case that visiting a site you know very little about and experiencing without expectations can become part of an extraordinary grouping of favoured memories.

As it turns out, Ash Cave is the largest recess cave in Ohio. We were in awe of the beauty surrounding us as we made our way through the towering trees and then pow! There it was. Dwarfing us and everyone else. It literally left us speechless. The horseshoe-shaped cave is massive. It measures 700 feet from end to end, is 100 feet deep, and the rim soars to 90 feet high, from which a small waterfall cascades into a small plunge pool below. Duff was immediately drawn to the plunge pool, and he did as Duff does, plunged.

There are a bunch of theories as to why the cave is called Ash Cave. A massive pile of ash built up over hundreds of years was discovered by early settlers. It is believed to have been created by ash from campfires, smelting silver or lead, or the making of saltpetre by the area’s Indigenous people. An excavation done in 1877 revealed sticks, arrows, coarse grasses, animal bones, pottery, flints and corn cobs. It is also believed that the cave was used for shelter and a resting place for travellers along the main Indigenous Trail, now known as State Route 56. Thanks to its size and acoustics, the cave has also been used for gatherings. There are two spots under the recess which have the qualities of a whispering gallery, so be careful what you say because you don’t know who is listening.

Travelling through places during off-seasons or when the weather is not super hospitable for camping means moving faster than these three wanderers like. The extended weather forecast for our chosen route south, including Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina, was colder and colder. That meant that the first three days of driving were longer than average. We decided to make a beeline for Claytor Lake State Park in Virginia on the second day. Again we made it to the park by late afternoon, enabling us to fit in a warming hike before darkness fell and we could no longer feel our fingers. We always try to stop for the night before it is dark since we like having some idea of what and who we’ll be waking up next to. To our surprise, the campground was FULL. Virginians, it turns out, are a hearty bunch. Many were camping in tents, and the overnight temperature was about 26F/ -3C. We were glad we hadn’t filled the water tank in Ohio the night before! There were signs throughout the park letting campers know to disconnect water hoses overnight. It was a pretty park with lovely trails and clearly popular with the locals. It was nice, but we were anxious to be where the daytime and overnight temperatures were in the double digits. We’ll continue our southbound travelling tales in the next post.

*The Ambassador Bridge, as of the time of this writing, is being held hostage by a group of truck-driving freedom seekers who wish to be exempt from vaccination to cross the international border. This protest began in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa on January 22nd and continues to grow and divide citizens of this country, not unlike how national borders do worldwide.