Ohio Hikes: Zaleski State Forest South Loop



One mosquito.  This is why Fall hiking is the best.

Well, maybe a few other reasons too.  Comfortable day temperatures, cool nights for campfires, and the golden light of late afternoon sun filtering through the yellows and oranges of Fall foliage are just a few added perks.

Zaleski State Forest, located between Logan and Nelsonville South of 33, is a very popular backpacking destination for those in Central and Southern Ohio.  It contains a South loop and a North loop, which allow for configuring hikes of varying lengths depending on whether you have one or two nights to spend.  Water pumps are available at each campsite, which means you won’t have to carry more than 2-3 liters on you during the course of the day.

Looking at the beautiful weather we were due this past weekend, I decided a quick overnight trip to test out some new gear was in order.  As I sometimes do, I got a late start, pulling into the parking lot around 5:45.

Let’s pause here.  In case you were wondering, Zaleski is not a place you go for solitude, especially not on the weekend.  You will not be under any illusions otherwise.

So, I pull into view of the parking lot, and both lots are completely full.  As luck would have it, one car was just leaving as I arrived so I nabbed their spot.  A few minutes later, I had ascended up the first ridge, looking down at the parking lot and the remnants of the precious wetlands which once covered the low places of this region, before they were drained for roads and rail towns long since abandoned.

The trail along the South loop is pretty tame, snaking along the hardwood ridges for the most part.  Before long I reached Campsite 1, which is more of a tightly grouped congregation of suitable clearings lying just off the trail.  They were all taken, except for the far end of one of the largest clearings which became my home for the night.  As the night wore on, it became increasingly clear I had forfeited the prospects of a good night’s sleep with raucous laughter, shouts, and the barking of dogs ringing around the flanks of the hills, overwhelming the sounds of distant coyote packs vying for territory.  Still, the moonlight filtering through the trees and the smell of the forest were sufficient to remind me that I was, in fact, in the woods.

With the next morning came the next task; hike the remainder of the ~8 miles of the South loop back to the parking lot.  I could have not asked for better weather; bluebird sky, dry ground, and a slight breeze.  Approaching the East side of the loop, I took advantage of a hydration break by a cliff overlook.

Not long after, the trail alternates between dry hardwood ridgeline and cool, humid gulleys populated by ferns and a host of insects humming on an ambient level.  And then, through the canopy you can spot the approach of Bear Hollow and an unnamed pond, host to a chorus of frogs.

If there were any bears in this particular hollow, they likely disappeared shortly after the construction of the Moonville Rail in the 1870s, the remnants of which lie tucked just out of sight on the far bank.  As a point of interest, farther West along the railway looms Moonville Tunnel, which is the setting for a few ghost stories, if you lend credence to such things.

After crossing the gravel road, the final stretch of the loop proceeded without a radical change in environment back to the parking lot.  Reunited with my trusty blue Mazda, the siren call of Millstone BBQ waylaid me on my return journey to pack on the calories I had just burned over the weekend.

The Verdict:

  • Pros
    • Close
    • Loop Options
    • Beginner/intermediate terrain
    • Water readily available
  • Cons
    • Very crowded during peak times, for the above reasons
    • Can catch other background sounds, like the gun range at the nearby Fish and Game club, or heavy equipment
  • Gear “MVP”
    • Osprey Exos 58 pack – comfortable, and breezy
  • What I needed
    • Ear plugs

by ODS Staffer John T.