Hocking Hills: Birth and rebirth

Hocking Hills State Park

Jim Schaefer is a northeast Ohio native who’s dedicated his life to “improving Ohio.” Jim and his wife, Joan, have a particular passion for Hocking Hills State Park, where their family has visited for more than 30 years.

Indeed, the Schaefers’ enthusiasm for the undulating, sylvan southeast corner of Ohio is widely shared. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources doesn’t track visitation because the entire state park system is free, but Hocking Hills Tourism Association estimates more than 4 million people visit annually, making it Ohio’s most popular state park.

Hocking Hills is nationally known for its interesting geological formations and waterfalls, such as Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, and Cedar Falls. Since 2017, another pair of hiking destinations have been drawing crowds — and their story is one of persistence and timing.

The Schaefers were a driving force in getting the previously unused Hemlock Bridge Trail reopened and in starting the process that led to the opening of a new spur trail to the little-known but astonishing Whispering Cave — one of Ohio’s largest recessed caves.

Jim is a retired Cleveland businessman. He’s never worked for ODNR nor any park system. He is, however, a self-described change agent, with the skills to get complicated projects done. When asked what it takes to get a new state park trail or an old one restored, Schaefer is succinct: “Persistence.”

In 2014, he read an article in The Plain Dealer calling for suggestions about new services in Ohio’s parks. Schaefer proposed restoring a then-dilapidated trail that started at Hocking Hills Lodge’s former dining hall (which burned down in 2016 but is being rebuilt as part of an overnight lodge and conference center, slated to break ground in 2020) and led to an observation deck and ultimately to Old Man’s Cave.

He articulated three advantages to reopening Hemlock Bridge: It would increase trail mileage in Ohio’s most popular park, it would increase patronage at the desolate dining hall (which has an adjacent 180-space parking lot), and it would ease parking congestion at Old Man’s Cave’s crowded lot because hikers could park at the lodge and walk the half mile to Old Man’s Cave.

Schaefer encountered reluctance because of the amount of staff that would be required to restore and maintain the trails, but he had answers for every objection. He found an energetic ally in Gary Obermiller, ODNR’s chief of state parks at the time. The pair hiked Hemlock Bridge Trail together and Obermiller immediately got on board. “Hocking Hills is our premier state park and anytime we [ODNR] can offer additional recreational opportunities — well, that’s our job,” he says.

Along the way, Schaefer and Obermiller discovered a remarkable recessed cave that hardly anyone knew about — some local firefighters practiced rappelling there, but that was about it.

The restoration process was complex. It required building a new swing bridge over a small, flood-prone creek along the Hemlock Trail and getting people and equipment down to Whispering Cave — which required rappelling. Schaefer says the Hocking Hills maintenance staff loved working on the project because of that.

Since the two trails opened in May 2017, Obermiller, now retired from ODNR, says he can’t even quantify all the positive feedback the department received about them. “It was worth all the effort. Even most of the Hocking Hills staff didn’t know about these trails, and now they’re among the most popular there. I’m a big believer that we’re public servants. Anytime we [ODNR] have the chance to redistribute people on our trail system, we’re interested.”