Wayne National Forest-Marietta District, Ohio
Deep in the heart of Ohio’s Appalachian region there exists a 9.5 mile loop trail called Archers Fork. Hiking this trail offers up an intimate look at Ohio’s hill country, an area defined by its connection to Appalachia. Oil wells, coal mines, hollows, and yes a mountainous terrain can all be seen and experienced along this beautiful loop trail. Located in the Marietta District of the Wayne National Forest, Archers Fork provides the adventurous a place to escape to nature. The trail passes a natural bridge, the great cave, numerous spectacular rock outcroppings, and fords several streams. It sounded like the perfect place to join friends for a colorful fall outing.
The forecast called for isolated thunderstorms on the day our NBH hiking crew set out to hike Archers Fork Trail, but we were optimistic that the showers would not isolate over us. Besides, we figured our sunny personalities could outshine any measly rain shower. We set out for our hike, armed with rain gear just in case our sunny dispositions failed us, early on a Saturday morning. Eight of our crew would be driving from Columbus, a 2.5 hour drive, and one hiker was cruising over from Pennsylvania, also about a 2.5 hour drive, so that meant a pre-dawn departure in order to hit the trail at around 10:00am. The hike normally takes 4 to 5 hours to complete, but hiking with us today would be some rookie trekkers, so we wanted to give them plenty of time to enjoy their suffering. Nine hikers resigned themselves to turning out almost ten miles of trail, and every one of them brought a unique perspective to the hike. Comma, the newest of newbie hikers, showed us that her lack of hiking experience was not a liability. In fact, the strength she showed that day was admirable. She had never really hiked any long distance trail before and she was able to complete a 9.5 mile hike without a word of complaint—Comma Rocks!! Even Doc, a veteran NBH’er but a stranger to high mileage trails, did an outstanding job at conquering some pretty steep hills. Also joining us on the hike were Sully, who had not hiked with us since a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in 1996, and Zakamondie, also a veteran of that 1996 Smokies trip, who drove over from Pennsylvania to complete the reunion. Both of these guys are strong hikers and it is always a pleasure to share a trail with them. Rounding out the group were myself, Pick, Stix, Mac, and Marathon. Stix had joined us for many mountain biking expeditions, but this was our first time hiking together, and as always he was the life of the party. Mac and Marathon were also hiking with us for the first time, but they were no strangers to the outdoors. Mac, an avid orchid photographer, has made many treks in search of the elusive flower. In his search he has covered ground in many states, hiking through prairies and swamps alike. Marathon, best known for—you guessed it—running 6 marathons, had little problem walking nine miles. It was just an awesome ensemble, if I do say so myself, and we all had a great time. Okay, enough introductions, lets get down to describing this great trail.
Despite the gloomy forecast the sun was shining beautifully when we all arrived at the trailhead…those sunny dispositions! The trailhead is located at the end of Shay Ridge Rd (Township Rd 34) near a cemetery. We began our hike at 10:30am by following the white diamond blazes down a gravel road. At the bottom of the hill you will see a sign that reads HIKER TRAIL, take this and follow the white diamonds with blue dots, you will also see blue diamonds which mark the North Country Trail—the two trails overlap in certain sections. The first highlight of the trail, Irish Run Natural Bridge, is just around the corner. A sign marks a side trail off to the left that leads to the natural bridge. We hiked down to explore this natural wonder and were surprised at how large the bridge actually was, it measures in at 51 feet long and 39 feet high, and it is a sight to behold. There are plenty of opportunities to explore the bridge, you can walk over the top of the arch and climb down the steep hill to stand under the rock span. We had planned to get a group photo here, with some of us on top of the bridge and some of us under, but getting to a spot where you can get the right angle and then make it back before the 10 second self-timer goes off is no easy task. After much scrambling and failed attempts we finally gave up…if I would have just had my tripod (my famous last words).
Satisfied that we had explored every crevice of the arch, we returned to the main trail and continued hiking the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. We hiked for several yards, all of us commenting on how beautiful the fall leaves were, when we noticed that the blazes on the trees were only blue, but when we turned around the trees were marked with the correct Archers Fork blazes (white diamonds/blue circle in center). Interesting, we hadn’t even hiked a mile yet and we had already lost the trail…or had we? We turned around and headed back to the BRIDGE sign to see if we had made a wrong turn, everything seemed to be in order, so after a brief discussion (the first of many) we continued on our earlier path in hopes that the blazes would soon appear. Sure enough the Archers Fork blazes picked up again, and if we would have just walked 50 more feet the first time we would have seen them…go figure! Just a little further down the trail we came to an old road where we were faced with the choice to turn left or right. A recent storm had knocked many of the trees down, including the ones with blazes on them, and so we weren’t sure which way to go. As we were deciding, Mac noticed a broken limb with the ever important blaze attached; he picked it up and tried to ascertain which direction it should be pointing. It was determined that it seemed to point left, or downhill, so off we went. As I am sure you have guessed, especially if you know our history, this was of course the wrong way. Oblivious to our mistake, we joyously hiked, skipped, and ran down the hill…Stix was responsible for the running, that boy is one live wire! If he isn’t racing Pick up a hill, then he is swinging on a vine, or pulling dead sticks out of trees…hence the trail name. But along the way Stix made a pretty cool discovery, he spotted a stick bug that was walking around on some fallen leaves. Most of us had never seen one before so it was pretty exciting.
At the bottom of the hill we saw a road sign that read Irish Run Rd, and that is when we realized our mistake. Luckily, we had a primitive map and we could see that if we continued on down the road we would soon pick up the trail again. We all thought that sounded like a good plan, especially Comma, who really didn’t like the thoughts of hiking back up the hill. Comma, by the way, got her trail name by being a butterfly charmer. Everywhere we went on the trail butterflies would flutter by and land on her, particularly a type of butterfly called Polygonia comma. It was like she was wearing nectar perfume or something, and it was really cool watching them follow her down the trail.
After a short hike down the road we came to where Irish Run must be forded, yes even the roads require this too. It was easy enough to handle since the water levels were pretty low. On the other side of the stream, the roads forked, and reaching Archers Fork Trail again called for a right turn onto Route 36. As we walked down the gravel road we scanned the hillside to our left for any blazes, but this scrutiny was unnecessary as the trail was quite visibly marked with signs. We were once again back on track. At this point the trail climbed steeply up to a ridge, passing by a recess cave off to the left of the trail. This cave was obviously used by someone as a makeshift shelter because we could see tree limbs covering the opening. A closer inspection yielded an interesting hangout complete with a creepy lounge chair, prompting the haunting chords of “Dueling Banjos” to emerge from the recesses of my memory, and setting me on a beeline for the main trail.
The nine of us climbed to the top of the hill and then decided it was time to rest and enjoy the bright yellow foliage that was all around us. The fall colors were at their peak in the Wayne National Forest, and on this day the canopy of color and the carpet of yellow leaves provided the perfect place to stop and eat lunch. It was so relaxing sitting under the trees and laughing with friends, it was yet another great day out on the trail!
Panoramic photo courtesy Zakamondie, copyright ZSwope 2004
When everyone had finished their lunch, and had sampled from Sully’s magic goodie bag full of fruit leather, meatless jerky…yes scary!, and candied ginger, we packed up and trekked a little farther down the trail. You see, every group needs a resident pacifistic, vegetarian hiker, and Sully represents just one of several in our motley crew. So with Sully, Stix, and Doc hopped up on fruit leather, we braved the muddy trail that was ahead of us. Recent rains, caused by the onslaught of hurricanes in the summer of 2004, had caused serious flooding in Southeast Ohio, and puddles of water were still standing along this portion of the trail. Deer, and raccoon tracks were easily visible in the muddy soil so at least we had something to distract us from the sloppy mess. The muddy trek didn’t last too long, and we were soon on drier ground.
Everyone did their best limbo as we ducked under a gate, which marked the end of the muddy road. At the gate there is a junction with an access road, keep going straight along your current path. In another 0.3 miles we came to a junction with the North Country Trail, here you will see a sign for Archers Fork leading into the woods. Soon after passing the sign the trail will fork. Take a left at the junction, following a double track path down a hill. At the bottom of the incline the trail forks, one trail going straight and up the hill, and the other taking a right turn and heading down hill. Take the right turn to stay on Archers Fork Trail. While hiking downhill Stix and Zakamondie stirred up a grouse that took flight, and if you have never been near a grouse when it takes flight you will be surprised at the loud noise their wings make as they fly. Doc, Comma, Sully, and I just missed seeing the bird, but we nonetheless heard it flying off. Pick, Mac, Marathon, Stix, and Zakamondie were leading the downhill hike, taking care to let the rest of us know what the terrain was like. The terrain on this part of the trail was quite rocky, very steep, and kind of slippery due to the leaf litter that covered the ground. You really had to take your time hiking down this steep section to keep from falling. We were now pretty much half-way through our hike and everyone was still in high spirits, mostly due to the crisp autumn air and the awe-inspiring scenery all around us.
Following Doc down the steep hill made me chuckle, because strapped to the bungee on her backpack was her trail mascot, a stuffed squirrel known by the alias “small woodland creature”. SWC, as he is known to those of us in the circle, has accompanied Doc on many trails, and his cameos in photographs are famous throughout the world…well, okay maybe just central Ohio. At any rate, we were proud to have Doc and SWC along for this trek.
The going was pretty uneventful until we came to a stream crossing where we weren’t sure which path to follow. We had three choices at this point, we could follow the single track path up the hill or take a left or right on an old access road. More debating ensued and the whole thing really became quite comical. We finally just decided to stay on the single track, even though we could tell by our map that taking the road would cut off a few miles, but who wants to do that! We were totally loving the infamous Ohio PUDS (pointless ups and downs) encountered on this, and many other Ohio trails. No westerner should scoff at the elevation found on hikes in the Midwest, because sometimes climbing the same hill upwards of twenty times is just like gaining a thousand feet on a more straight forward trail. It is truly enough to set you crazy, especially when you climb without switchbacks. Ohio trails love to just send you scrambling straight up a hill! So, up the hill we scrambled until we came to a nice flat ridge with great views of Jackson Run to the left in the valley below. It was along this part of the trail that Mac made a cool discovery. While searching the leaves of a paw paw tree he came across a doomed caterpillar infested with wasp eggs, the wasp deposits its eggs on the surface of the caterpillar, where they create a type of cocoon and proceed to devour the poor bug from the inside out. Leave it to Mac to find such a rare discovery.
In a few more miles we came to another stream crossing, and then we knew that we had made the right choice by climbing the single track. We were now at mile 6.0 where the trail connects with the Ohio View Trail, and it was 2:00pm. The trail is actually very well marked at this point, there are signs, believe it or not, that point you in the right direction. No guessing is required at this intersection…yay! This is a good thing too, because the Ohio View Trail is also blazed with white diamonds/blue dots, I wonder what genius made that decision? We forded the stream, actually it was more like boulder hopping across since the water was so low, and then began climbing another steep ridge. This climb even managed to sneak in a couple of switchbacks to ease our pain…nice! Especially since the climb right after crossing Township Road 14 rises from 740 feet to 1100 feet in 0.3 miles. This was a pretty good test of endurance for our rookie hikers, and everyone proved that they have what it takes to push themselves and succeed.
At the end of a few more climbs we were once again on top of a scenic ridge. Scattered all along the ridge were these amazing boulders and rock shelters. Marathon and I both stopped to take some photographs of one beautiful moss covered rock outcropping, the green color of the moss really stood out amid the orange and yellow leaves of the surrounding trees. But that rock was soon out done by a series of towering boulders encountered while beginning our descent towards Township Rd 58. These rock outcroppings are off to the right of the trail and appear to be tediously stacked on top of each other. They are perfect for climbing and crawling around in their numerous recesses. Pick, Comma, and Stix all climbed up to the rocks to explore every crevice, which made for pretty good individual portraits.
Township Road 58 crosses the trail at the bottom of the hill and then the trail continues on the other side of the road. Almost immediately after crossing the road the trail descends to another stream, ford this stream and then pick up the trail once more. The trail then follows a grassy path, and from the trail you can see the hillside that you will be climbing next—head in that direction. Shortly you will notice some power lines that you will need to cross under in order to begin your ascent. This is the last steep climb of the trip, so enjoy it while you can. Once again there are several really cool rock outcroppings along this ridge; you will see them off to the left of the trail. We walked out to stand on top of one the larger boulders, and I can tell you that it offers some great views down into the hollow. There are also several gaps between the rocks that can give someone with a fear of heights a bit of a scare.
We all rested at this scenic spot for a few minutes before wrapping up our hike. The remainder of the trail descends back towards the end of the loop, and the last highlight of the hike—the great cave. A short side trail off to the left leads to a nice view of this recess cave. From there it is just a short climb back up to the cemetery and your parked car. We arrived at our cars at 5:45pm for a total hiking time of six hours.
On that October day we enjoyed a beautiful fall weekend with good friends, both old and new. It is always nice when everyone in a group just clicks, and we honestly all enjoyed each others company as well as the autumn scenery. Archers Fork Trail is a great way to get out and get some exercise and to get acquainted with the Ohio countryside. If you want a trail that provides views of natural bridges, rock caves and outcroppings, and tall deciduous trees then gather up your friends and head for Southeast Ohio, the Wayne National Forest is waiting for you!