Cave Canyon

Cave Canyon Ohio is an excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler by Robert Carpenter

It seems to be a law of nature that the best things are not easily acquired. If achievement is effortless the result is never fully appreciated, according to the natural decree.  So it has always been with Cave Canyon, and admiration of this natural wonder has never diminished.

There was a time when the forests of southern Ohio were so dense over rough terrain that the only way to reach the canyon was by horseback or wade up miles of Rocky Fork Creek from an access point in a little town called Paint—no longer on the map. Regardless of the difficulty, thousands of people made the trek to view one of nature’s premier showplaces.

Today entry is more obliging, but still a little hard to find. It’s south of SR50 about halfway between Chillicothe and Hillsboro, just west of the Highland/Ross county line. You have to watch for the sign and Cave Road. Recent maps still list the site as Seven Caves. That’s what it was called until this past year.

Cave Canyon Nature Preserve, as it is now titled (officially the Rocky Fork Gorge) is part of the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995. It is unusual that such a spectacular landscape is not part of the state’s park system, but in fact owned privately for more than a century.

In 1928 Clyde Chaney visited from Indiana and was so captivated with the gorge he went home and convinced five other investors to buy the property. Chaney improved the track now known as Cave Road, cleared trails, constructed rock steps, ran electric lights into the seven caves, and increased admission from the previous owner’s dime to 25 cents.

It is to Chaney’s credit that access was made available to volumes of nature lovers but it was also unfortunate to be a time without regulations or full appreciation for nature preservation. There were thousands of stalactites formed over thousands of years hanging from cave ceilings, but souvenir hunters removed every one.

However, there were always more appealing caverns in Ohio, and the caves in these canyon walls were never the main attraction. They are shallow–ranging from a few feet to a few hundred feet. Other than sanctuaries for fleeing desperados in early days the caves were a necessary habitat for cave-dwelling species, especially bats. Currently the caves are dark and off limits to visitors and fast being returned to their natural inhabitants.

It’s the visual impact from the creek’s edge that first strikes most people—the waterfalls running between dolomite canyon walls rising one hundred feet. Towering hemlocks at the base seem to lend support to ancient white cedars clinging to the cliff’s edge.

For serious botanists and naturalists the appeal is the plant life and climatic conditions existing in the canyon that differs drastically from the environment above. At the base there is a micro-Canadian ecosystem, so called because of similarity to weather formation hundreds of miles north—and of course unique to the latitude of southern Ohio.

There are three self-guided trails for exploration, ranging in length from one quarter to one third of a mile—not long but a lot of up and down travel. One trail follows the Rocky Fork Creek with panoramic views of the soaring trees and canyon walls. Another takes you along the rim with a breathtaking sight of the canyon floor, and a third is through an old-growth beech forest—an intact ecosystem and forest community, as close as can be duplicated to frontier experience.

A fourth trail is available only with a guide and limited to Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The guide assumes the persona of William Sullivant, a 19th-century naturalist who steers you along springs, sinkholes, and cave entrances and points out the geological beauty and botanicals. Most rare of the flowers is a saxifrage discovered by Sullivant and named Sullivantia sullivantia for obvious reasons. Previously unknown to science, it has since been found only in a few parts of the world.

It is recommended that the best time to visit Cave Canyon is the month of April and early May during the spectacular display of wildflowers said to be the best in the state. Known as the Pyramid of Trilliums are the large-flowered trilliums tumbling out of side valleys by the thousands. At the same time there are masses of the more rare diminutive snow trilliums clinging to the bare rocks of the canyon walls. By mid-summer the vertical dolomites are so densely blanketed with bulblet ferns, wild hydrangea, and ginger that the rocks are virtually hidden, but there is no time during their open season from April through October when the scenery of this geological and botanical paradise is not impressive.

For an adult entry fee of $10 and $5 for children, enjoy a slide presentation and roam the trails to your heart’s content. Also greeting you is the newly renovated museum that interprets America’s eastern temperate forest as it was when covering the eastern third of the entire country. To capture the spirit of this rich historical region you should bring a camera and binoculars. If you plan to spend the day bring a lunch because there are no food concessions—and above all bring a good pair of hiking shoes.

For more information call 937-365-1935 or go to

By Robert Carpenter
Robert Carpenter was born and raised in the New Philadelphia, Ohio area.