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Rocky Fork Gorge Is A 100-Foot High Steep-Walled Canyon An Hour From Columbus

Is there anything better than discovering a new, beautiful part of Ohio to explore?

I’ve genuinely fallen in love with the Ohio countryside, which is a statement that 10-year-old Chelsea never thought I’d make. Growing up on the southwest side of Columbus, the landscape was pretty flat. Mostly it was fields and while they can be pretty in their own way, I found them very uninspiring.

It wasn’t until my high school days that I began to really appreciate the varied geography we have here. One of the most beautiful regions of the state is, without a doubt, the foothills of Appalachia. Throughout southern Ohio, you’ll find beautiful caves, rushing waterfalls, gorgeous prairies, and stunning forests.

Tributary of the Rocky Fork Creek at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary. Photo via Arc of Appalachia Facebook

One of the most underrated spots in the region is the Highlands Nature Sanctuary. The Highlands Nature Sanctuary is a 2900-acre preserve and its centerpiece is the breathtaking Rocky Fork Gorge.

This 100-foot high steep-walled canyon is renowned for its rock formations, ancient white cedar trees, wildflower displays, caves, springs, and stone arches.

While the natural beauty of the region has been around for centuries, it rose to a different kind of popularity in the 20th century. 7 Caves was a nature and children’s theme park where families would come to go camping and tour the small caves on the property.

The park was open from 1930 until 2005. When it closed, the Arc of Appalachia purchased the 7 Caves land and buildings and the land became part of the Highlands Nature Sanctuary. The caves have been returned to their natural state. With the 1930s-era push-button lights that once illuminated the caves going dark, the caves are once again giving refuge to four species of bats, one of which is federally endangered.

While most of the caves are now closed to the public, visitors can still check out Marble Cave when hiking the Valley of the Ancients Trail.

The hiking throughout the sanctuary is superb. Several trails cut through the 2,600-acre property, but if you’re hoping to get the best views of the gorge specifically, we’ve got some suggestions.

Barret’s Rim Trail is a 2.5-mile moderate loop. The trail is mostly level with one short descent and ascent. Following along the Rocky Fork Creek along the base of a vertical rock wall, the area is often called the “Jewel of the Rocky Fork Gorge.”

The Prothonotary Trail is another fantastic option for impressive views. This trail is a .5 mile moderate loop that goes down into the canyon floor and then back up along the rim. From this trail, you’ll see Rocky Fork Creek, beautiful wildflowers, and interesting rock formations.

The Valley of the Ancients trail is probably the most popular trail at the sanctuary. It’s an easy hike and the views are jawdropping, plus you’ll want to check out the Appalachian Forest Museum while you’re in the area. Sadly, this trail, the museum, and a couple of other trails are closed until April 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns. But the rest of the trails at the sanctuary are open to the public daily, from dawn until dusk.

via Arc of Appalachia Facebook

Visiting the Highlands Nature Sanctuary may be more than a day trip if you’re hoping to really get a chance to get out and explore. But don’t fret! There are accommodations at the sanctuary where you can book a stay, including the unique Earthstar Lodge, a state-of-the-art monolithic dome house.

Highlands Nature Sanctuary is located at 7660 Cave Road, Bainbridge, OH 45612. For directions and more information, you can visit their website here.