Posted in Hiking, Park review, Southwestern Ohio

Highlands Nature Sanctuary

In early September we visited Highlands Nature Sanctuary near Bainbridge, Ohio. The sanctuary is operated by the Arc of Appalachia Preserve System. The sanctuary consists of over 2000 acres of land between Rocky Fork State Park and Paint Creek State Park. The main location contains a museum, three hiking trails, and several cabins that visitors can rent. We stayed at a cabin perched on a ledge overlooking the Rocky Creek gorge.

“Battleship Rock” immediately ahead on this side of the creek
“The Three Sisters” are three slump blocks that lie beyond it on the other of the creek.

Appalachian Forest Museum
On the opposite side of the road from the museum. Visitors can find parking for the museum and its trails by going through the arch and to the right at the fork. There’s also a picnic shelter near the parking lot.

The preserve has roughly 14 miles of trails scattered over multiple locations. On our first day at the preserve, we spent all of our time hiking on the three trails adjacent to the Appalachian Forest Museum. The trails are a quarter mile each. You’d think that we could cover that in under an hour. You’d be wrong for a couple of reasons. Since the gorge is deep, it takes a while to go up and down its sides. But the main reason is that every time we turned a corner, we discovered a new wonder and had to stop for several photographs. It was slow going.

The first trail we hiked was the Etawah Woods Trail. It proceeded east along the rim of the Rocky Creek gorge and then descended into the gorge itself. It ended with a view of the creek traversing through a set of slump blocks beautifully carved by swiftly moving water known as The Three Sisters.

Steep cliffs make up part of the gorge walls that surround Rock Fork Creek.
Here’s a photo of me on the floor of the gorge near one of the cliff walls.
From this angle you can see that two of the slump block “sisters” lean together to make an arch. Rocky Fork Creek flows through the “eye of the needle”.

The second trail we hiked was the Valley of the Ancients Trail. This descended into the gorge to the west of the museum and featured tall dolomite cliffs, mazes of slump blocks, several side canyons including a narrow canyon with mysterious caves embedded in the cliff walls. This section was very slow going indeed, but we took a lot of pictures.

Looking over the handrail of the bridge.
One of the caves along the trail. It’s big enough to walk into.
Inside one of the caves. As you can see you can go in one “door” and out the other.
Going down the side of the cliff toward the gorge floor. There were zillions of jewelweed in blossom here.
Jewelweed blossom
More caves in the cliff wall. The white blossoms on the plant below are “White Snakeroot”.
Blossoms of the White Snakeroot.
Descending stairs to gorge floor.
Stone stairs between stump blocks.
The trail went between a number of slump blocks.
Two slump blocks leaning against each other to form an arch. The trail passes through here.
Liverworts growing on a boulder near the creek.
Deb’s crossing a small, stone bridge over a feeder stream for Rocky Fork Creek.

The final segment of the hike was the Beech Woods Trail, which featured a hike through a forest of towering mature beech trees. Here we found another large fungus, perhaps another variety of chicken of the woods? Beechdrops (another plant without chlorophyll) were in bloom here, but Deb plans on featuring them in a future post.

Beech trees – you can recognize them from their smooth, silvery bark.
Another big fungus. We think this may be another variety of “Chicken of the Woods”.
Additional information


The address for the preserve is: 7660 Cave Road, Bainbridge, OH 45612

Highland Sanctuary is located on US-50 west of the town of Bainbridge, OH. From US-50, turn onto Cave Road. Follow the road for several miles and it will lead you directly to the Appalachian Forest Museum. Check-in at the museum to obtain a hiking permit and a trail map. Parking is up the hill on the side road opposite the museum.

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© Deborah Platt, Robert Platt and 2012 to 2021

9 thoughts on “Highlands Nature Sanctuary

  1. You can still go inner tubing in the Rocky Fork, but access is denied to the caves because they are full of healthy bats who are under attack by a very contagious fungus right now. The fungus is transmitted by people walking in and out of caves, among other ways.

    The trails are enough to write home about though– some of the most stunning in Ohio– and the open trails have plenty of caves anyhow.

    My favorite times to visit are in the spring for the amazing wildflower displays and in the fall when the leaves turn. Sublime!

  2. It’s too bad you can no longer go into the caves. When I was a kid we went there every summer, back when it was knows as Seven Caves. We also floated down Rocky Fork Creek on inner tubes and sometimes stopped at that gravel bar near Battleship Rock area for a picnic lunch. While i understand the mission of the ARC, I do feel they should allow more access.

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