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Zaleski State Forest Is An Underrated Gem. Here’s Your Guide To Hiking It

Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Zaleski State Forest is a beautiful, diverse area.

Zaleski State Forest is the second-largest forest in Ohio’s state forests with nearly 28,000 acres of stunning scenery. The forest is home to the only state-owned sawmill in Ohio, as well as the historic (and reportedly haunted) Moonville Tunnel.

The highlight of the Zaleski State Forest is the Backpack Trail. Established to provide backpacking opportunities to the forest, the main trail is a 23.5-mile loop with overnight camping available. For visitors looking to spend a little less time on the trail, there’s a 10-mile day loop trail as well.

Hiking at Zaleski is a great place to visit when you’re beginning your backpacking adventure. The trails are moderately challenging and they give inexperienced hikers the opportunity to get used to life on the trail before taking on more challenging hikes.

Within Zaleski State Forest, visitors will find Lake Hope State Park, a gorgeous 2,983-acre lake. The lake is a must-visit any time of the year, but especially if you’re planning an adventure in the hotter summer months.

There are some areas of the Backpack Trail that can be a bit boggy, so those hiking in the summer should definitely remember to bring the bug spray. The forest is open to visitors from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, but legal campers are allowed to be there overnight.

Parking for the backpacking trail is located off OH-278 across from Lake Hope State Park. You’ll find the remnants of Hope Furnace, a 19th-century relic across the road from the backpacking trailhead. At the end of the parking lot, visitors will find a kiosk that has all sorts of valuable info about the forest, including backpack trail maps and self-registration forms for overnight backpackers. There’s no fee for camping while you’re hiking the trail, but you do have to fill out a registration form.

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The trailhead is located about 100 feet south of the parking lot and is marked by a large sign that you’ll definitely want to take a selfie in front of.

Along the trail, you’ll find designated areas for camping. These campsites are primitive, which means you’ll need to bring everything you need with you in your pack. There is freshwater available for drinking, but it’s not a guarantee if the weather makes access roads impassable, so it’s best to bring what you need with you.

The main trail is marked with orange blazes, and side trails are marked with white blazes. If hikers become lost, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recommends that they follow water courses downhill to a road, usually within a mile. All hikers should carry a map and a compass in their packs, just in case.

You’ll see all kinds of interesting things along the trail, but the Moonville Tunnel will definitely be a highlight.

Moonville was a tiny coal town that peaked in the mid-1800s with barely 100 people. By the early 1950s, the town had been returned to the wilderness, with only a few abandoned houses along the quiet railway. Now, all that’s left is the imposing Moonville Tunnel, which may or may not be haunted.

Zaleski State Forest is located about an hour and a half southeast of Columbus. It isn’t as popular of a destination as other parks in the region like Hocking Hills State Park, but that’s what adds to its allure. The trails are busiest in the autumn, but it’s nothing compared to the trail congestion you’ll find at other parks in the area.

If you’d like to start planning your trip to Zaleski State Forest, you can visit their website here. You can also download the official Backpack Trail guide from ODNR here.

Want more like this? Check out 24 Hidden Spots & Natural Wonders Around Ohio