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Hocking Hills, Ohio is a Family Blast for Hiking, Zip Lines

September is a prime time for Southeast Michigan parents and kids to explore caves, waterfalls, trails and some speedy thrills with awesome views of nature

Hocking Hills feels like a world apart. The towering, thick trees give way to gorges, caverns and waterfalls just begging you to have a look. For a weekend escape that's a little over a four-hour drive from metro Detroit, head to Hocking Hills State Park, about an hour southeast of Columbus, Ohio.

While the area receives around 3 million visitors each year, making it the state's most popular state park, September is a great time to go. Summer crowds are long gone, the leaf-peeping season doesn't really start until October – and temps begin sliding to an average 77 degrees.

Plan a few days away: There are a few chain hotels nearby, though most families rent a cabin (there are plenty!) or camp. So pack some good hiking shoes and extra socks, tap into your adventurous side and get ready to explore.

Navigating the hills

Hocking Hills State Park isn't in one big area. It's spread into pockets of geological wonders and preserves with well-marked hiking trails. In other words, you'll drive from one hiking area to the next and walk the trail to your destination.

For example, there's an easy one-mile hike to Old Man's Cave (the most popular site here). Many hikes are relatively short and offer a couple options – a simpler, partially paved path or a more challenging route with inclines. Take your pick depending on your time and physical ability. Maybe go to a few of the sites and do shorter hikes one day, then let your kids pick a favorite area to visit again and go on a longer hike another day.

Just don't veer off trail: It can be tricky to spot cliff ledges until you're right next to them! But if you really want to stray a bit, sign up for a guided hike. Hocking Hills Adventure Trek offers hikes to families in areas accessible only with a special permit they've obtained from the state. It's your own private tour led by a naturalist.

When your kids ask, "What kinds of birds are those?" or "Why is there a waterfall here?" the naturalist has the answer. Prices start around $20/kids and $36/adults based on the distance, duration and season.

Zipping along the way

Hiking isn't the only way to experience Hocking Hills. Known as the "zip line capital" of the Midwest, there are over 50 zip lines here. They're often only available for older kids, but Hocking Hills Canopy Tours has a new one just for ages 5-12. The Dragonfly sports eight just-right zip lines giving younger kids an adventure, too ($29/two rounds).

Or go a bit crazier with the SuperZip, where you zoom on your stomach down a quarter-mile line ($30/ride; must be 8 years and at least 70 pounds). A canopy zip-line tour is for ages 10 and up and includes 10 zips and five sky bridges, running around 2 1/2 hours ($89/ride).

Not ready to take flight? Horseback riding, canoeing and ATV rentals are available. You can even feed the hummingbirds if you go in the summer.

Must-see spots

Good luck getting your smartphone GPS to work in Hocking Hills. Part of the fun is remembering how to use a map (the paper kind!). Luckily, these hot hiking areas are well marked. Here are a few we suggest:

  • Old Man's Cave (1 mile): This aforementioned large recess cave peers out from a gorge. There are two rock tunnels to go through to get here.
  • Ash Cave (1/4 mile): As the largest recess cave east of the Mississippi, you'll feel dwarfed by the soaring rock ceiling.
  • Cedar Falls 1/2 (mile): Water races down the large rock face of this picture-perfect place.
  • Conkle's Hollow (1 mile): Cliffs rise 200 feet above you as you make your way on the trail that ends in a hollow of rocks that has a waterfall trickling overhead.
  • Rock House (1 mile): The name says it all – rocks form a labyrinth that seems like some sort of prehistoric house.

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