Great Day Hikes:
Map of this trail (look at lower-left quadrant and Sells Park insert)
Length: 4.1 miles loop (6.5 kilometers)
Difficulty: Easy with a few strenuous sections
Location: Sells Park in Athens, Ohio, and Riddle State Nature Preserve/Strouds Ridge Preserve/Strouds Run State Park
Directions: Take East State Street in Athens, Ohio, east from US-33, to Avon Place (at Larry Schey Chevrolet/Used Cars, directly opposite Athens Community Center). Turn left on Avon and go to the end at Sells Park.
Although you're never far from Athens City on this loop hike (and, unfortunately, often hear traffic noise), the Rockhouse Trail is one of the most scenic trails in our area, with plenty of beautiful rock formations and vistas. There are sections of this hike that make you feel like you're deep in the wilderness.
Begin from Sells Park on the Rockhouse Trail, to the left of the parking lot. This trail is blazed with a white arch painted on an orange-yellow rectangular background (some blazes may be missing the white arch). You'll first climb the ramp towards the dam, then veer off more uphill just before the dam. This will reach the bench level on the ridge side that will be the level of most of the rest of the hike. Shortly after leaving Sells Pond behind, you'll see the Lookout Trail to the left. It's worth going up to the lookout for the view. It's only about an extra 1/6 of a mile to go up there and back.
Again on the Rockhouse Trail, you'll next come to the old bridge over Sells Run. Just past the bridge, there will soon be a very short trail to the left to take you to the first rockhouse on the Rockhouse Trail. A rockhouse, or rock shelter, is a shallow erosional cave under a sandstone bluff.
Continuing on the Rockhouse Trail, you'll next go past a stamp box for an exploration exercise, then over another small bridge. The trail will then go on a much drier stretch of the hillside, where it will temporarily coincide with the Athens Trail.
You'll notice you're seeing bluffs and outcrops along the trail. The Rockhouse Trail consistently passes just below this bluff line. The main rock in these outcrops is Connelsville Sandstone, the most important rock formation in central Athens County.
Up to the point where the Sourwood Trail goes off to the left, you've been traveling a trail route that was originally created as a CCC project back in 1939-1940. After the Sourwood Trail, it's a completely new trail route for a while, and you shortly exit Sells Park and enter the Riddle State Nature Preserve (also owned by the City of Athens).
You'll come to Pillar Rock on your left, the second rockhouse on the trail. After this, there's an ancient road grade on your left, an old ridge road shown on the 1875 atlas map but not on any map since. You'll then cross the powerlines, at which point you'll leave the nature preserve and enter City of Athens preserve lands. Just past the powerlines is a short but interesting stretch known as Rock Hall.
Next is the Pawpaw Connector Trail to the left, one of the links to the Athens Trail. Next is Copperhead Point, with large bluffs to your left and a vista, masked by trees, over the valley to your right. Just after this, the trail is routed on an old farm road grade, which takes it far back into the valley. Notice how much moister the woods are on this side of the ridge. After a while, the trail will descend sharply and steeply to the right to the Cucumbertree Run bridge, a 32-foot long semi-suspension footbridge. If, instead, you bear left before the bridge, you'll be on the Basswood Connector up to the Athens Trail. After the bridge is the Cucumbertree Connector, which can take you back to East State Street, out past McLaren's Pond. Far up the valley to your left is another rockhouse, but it's hard to reach.
Staying on the Rockhouse Trail, it first passes from the City preserve lands into Strouds Run State Park, then into Boulder Cove note Window Rock on your left, another rockhouse, then two more footbridges. It's again on a very dry ridge side. Near the tip of the ridge is the White Ash Connector Trail to the left, at a grove of evergreen trees. A little past this, at the tip of the ridge, is an immense black oak tree to the right, the champion black oak of Athens County, more than 6 1/2 feet in diameter.
Then you'll come out on a clear vista overlooking University Mall. Going back this valley, you're again in a moist, rich forest area. Notice the northeast sides of these ridges are moist and lush, and the southwest sides are drier and more open. This is a function of exposure to the sun, with the underlying geology being the same.
Back this valley, you'll eventually come to the Blue Ash Rockhouse, back a short spur trail. This is the fifth and largest rockhouse along the trail. This is a great spot to take a break.
Leaving the rockhouse, you'll cross the bridge, then shortly turn to your left on the White Oak Connector Trail. This trail will give you a high view of the Blue Ash Rockhouse on its way up to the Athens Trail. At the Athens Trail, take a left. The Athens Trail is blazed with a white arrowhead, or modified A, on a red background.
The Athens Trail is a ridgetop trail. You'll pass, again, the White Ash Connector, then again enter the City preserve lands. You'll then pass the Basswood Connector, then the Pawpaw Connector, and re-enter the Riddle State Nature Preserve just after the third powerline crossing on the ridgetop. Shortly after this point, you'll go across a jagged rock outcrop on the ridgetop, known as the Molar. From here on, until you begin going downhill, Hawk Woods will be to your left. This is one of the most important old-growth forests in Ohio.
When the Athens Trail starts going downhill to the left, notice the large old chestnut oak trees. Just after the Sourwood Trail, the Athens Trail crosses a curious trough. This is an old drift mine, or hand-dug shallow coal mine. Shortly after this, when the trail turns left and begins going downhill again, you'll pass another old drift mine, then walk across an old tailings pile.
Shortly, you'll find yourself on an old, old road grade. We believe this to be the original route of the first public road in the area, the southern loop of the Chillicothe-Marietta Stage Road. Look sharp, and you may see an old wagon wheel groove in one of the rocks.
You'll repeat a short stretch of trail you already traversed near the beginning on the Rockhouse Trail, then veer off to the right to go downhill to Sells Pond, then back to the beginning.