NOTE: These are safety tips for Hocking Hills. They may apply to any state or national park that has a similar terrain and accessibility.
Otherworldly. Awe-inspiring. Therapeutic.
Words like these cannot even begin to describe the scene that awaited our initial discovery of Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. Given the rocky terrain of the park, however, some parents might be worried their autistic child may not be able to handle the paths. I hope to reassure you by providing safety tips for exploring Hocking Hills and other parks like it.
Located southeast of Columbus, Ohio, this mind-blowing, beautiful place has attracted visitors from all over. Southern Ohio is a lot like southern Indiana and Kentucky…gentle-rolling hills with caves and deep ravines carved out by waterfalls.
But Hocking Hills is totally unique. Because its gorges are so deep, it hosts plant and animal species only seen in Canada or the Pacific Northwest. Giant hemlock trees dominate the landscape while Canadian warblers make their home here. On the upper rims you’ll find typical Midwest oak and hickory trees.
We felt transported to particular movie settings. To me, we stepped into the “Star Wars” forest moon of Endor where the Ewoks lived. My son said it looked like Pandora from “Avatar”, since the giant rock outcroppings appeared to be “floating”. My daughter simply said it was “nature’s Disney World”.
Hocking Hills is a sensory treat: stunning scenery; soothing sounds; and a plethora of tactile experiences.
That said, there are some very critical safety challenges while exploring Hocking Hills.
Autism families need to take special care to prepare themselves and their children for hiking the breathtaking, but rugged, terrain.
Hocking Hills is a hiking park with many trails. You will need to be able to walk, climb stairs and maneuver over rocks and tree limbs. You will also need to have a fairly good sense of personal safety.
Here are safety tips for Hocking Hills to help you navigate and overcome these challenges:
1. Very Limited or NO WiFi
The benefit is that you get to completely unplug from the outside world. You are truly escaping from reality. The problem is that you cannot communicate with one another if you split up, contact people back home, or (in the event of an accident on a trail) call up an ambulance if you don’t have good cell phone coverage. I called park staff about this issue: Sprint has some spotty coverage and sometimes you can get signal at the town or tops of ridges. I have AT&T and had no coverage anywhere. Park rangers are around but we didn’t see any during our visit.
- I suggest that the entire party stays together while hiking the trails. Have a designated “runner” to get back to the car quickly in order to get help.
- Determine a “meeting place and time” if your party gets split up; wear watches so everyone is in sync.
- Bring a few park maps in case you get lost. Don’t leave your phone in the car—bring it along as it has a GPS function to help locate your position even without wifi.
2. Weather Forecast
If you can, find out the weather for the day. (See if your lodging accommodation has its own WiFi or DirectTV access.) A hot sunny day will not be a burden if you hike in the deep gorges. Temperatures drop at least 10-15 degrees here and shade is abundant. Weather is very unpredictable in the summer months.
We got caught in a thunderstorm on top of the ridge. Standing in puddles of water in a high location was not good idea, so we walked back. Our trail turned into a raging stream, so we had to be extremely cautious where we stepped. People below on the gorge trail witnessed massive trees and rocks falling after being uprooted by the heavy downpours. Water always falls to its lowest point, so the water can rise extremely fast along the lower trails. (See the “before and after” photos of Conkle’s Hollow below.)
Before the rain…
After the rain…
- Download the AccuWeather app. Access the latest forecast online with a good signal. Then, when you don’t have wifi, you can still see the weather offline (for up to 15 without signal).
- If you hike in the rain, be sure to be on the lookout for rising waters. If there is a chance of storms or you hear distant rumbles of thunder, I strongly urge that you do NOT hike the trails!
3. Equipment Essentials
Some trails are long and have treacherous terrain. The right shoes are critical. Depending on how you want to spend your time on the trails, you’ll need to pack for a variety of needs: hunger, thirst, first aid, and capturing those moments for your memories. We put the first aid kit to good use after my nephew (with SPD and ADHD) scraped his knee up climbing the rock stairs.
- Wear shoes that have thick tread and won’t fall off. Do NOT wear flip-flops or Crocs without an ankle strap! Some gym-shoes are not appropriate as they can be slick on muddy, wet stone-stairs. I felt very safe wearing water shoes—never slipped at all.
- Bring a lightweight backpack big enough to carry what you need. Include snacks and plenty of water.
- Bring small sensory items your child may need in case the hike is overwhelming.
- Bring a good poncho and maybe a wide-brimmed rain hat on overcast days and if you anticipate the possibility of rain.
- And most importantly, don’t forget a small first aid kit with alcohol wipes, band-aids, gauze and bandage tape.
4. Pet friendly trails
Many people brought their dogs with them, little or large. They were all on leashes. Most seemed incredibly friendly. Still, it’s best to prepare for encountering a stranger’s pet. The only trail that does not allow dogs is Conkle’s Hollow.
- Know how your autistic child reacts around dogs. Is he or she incredibly scared or intensely fascinated with other people’s dogs? Create a social story that teach him/her the appropriate behavior about being around strange dogs, if necessary.
5. Accessibility & Body-Spatial Awareness
If I haven’t drilled in the idea enough, I’ll say it again: Hocking Hills has rough terrain. There are only two trails that are flat and paved: Ash Cave and Conkle’s Hollow Gorge Trail. They provide terrific access for wheelchair users to view the scenery in the gorges. BUT…they only go so far. A large boulder is blocking a good portion of the view of the waterfall at Ash Cave, and it’s impossible to see the end of the trail at Conkle’s Hollow as the paved trail turns rugged. Many areas of the trails have no rails to protect you from falling off a steep cliff. If you are taking a younger child or one who has bodily coordination issues, be extra careful in taking them through these trails.
- Download the Trails Maps before you go! Study them and decide which ones are best for your family. For each trail they indicate the number of stair-steps, how many miles, and how dangerous. You can also pick up a trail map at the Welcome Center.
- If your child has never been hiking in natural parks before, has not developed a sense of personal safety, or has poorer balance or coordination, start with some of the paved lower gorge trails previously mentioned. The short distance to the falls on rugged terrain would be good practice for learning how to navigate over rougher paths.
- If your child is very coordinated on unpredictable pathways, obeys safety commands, and understands what to do around dangerous areas, then feel free to hike the rim or overlook trails where you can enjoy gorgeous, birds-eye views of the park. Old Man’s Cave trail is a terrific hiking experience with incredible natural and man-made structures.
If you live in the Midwest but can’t get out to visit the Northwest Cascades any time soon, then come explore Hocking Hills. Consider staying at least three days to fully explore what it has to offer.
Before you arrive…
I recommend you visit the Ohio DNR site for Hocking Hills. Here you will find photos of some of the park sites. Explore YouTube for videos of the trails. All Ohio State Parks are free to visitors, by the way…
For a more complete vacation planning resource (including lodging and other activities besides hiking), visit the official Hocking Hills tourism website.
When you arrive….
To begin your hiking adventures, be sure to stop by the Welcome Center first. Speak with a park ranger or staff more familiar with the park trails for specific guidance and recommendations.
Hopefully I have addressed the most critical safety considerations for which autistic individuals and families prepare.
To be continued…
Now, let’s move on to the therapeutic benefits to be discovered at Hocking Hills! Click the link to access the article: An Autism Guide to Exploring Hocking Hills State Park (Part 2): “Nature Therapy”