Posted in Hiking

Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve

For those who enjoy hiking by cliffs, outcroppings and caves, Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve is a tiny preserve in Hocking County with an abundance of such features. Although it is only 14 acres in size, it contains four significant recess caves. Two of the caves have 8-foot tall ceilings, mouths that are more than 100 feet wide, and chambers which extend back more than 120 feet into the bedrock. Another cave actually consists of three, vertically stacked recess caves. And a final cave has a decent-sized chamber with two smaller openings. The preserve is named after a white mineral deposit, saltpetre (potassium nitrate), which can be seen in patches on some of the cave ceilings.

Standing in the opening of one of the caves


To visit Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve, you have to submit an application for a permit from the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources (ODNR). ODNR does not publish the preserve’s address to discourage people from visiting the site without going through the permit process. Instead visitors are expected to submit the Application for an Access Permit at least two weeks prior to a planned visit. Once your permit has been processed, ODNR will provide you information on the site’s location. Most permit-only preserves are designated as such because they are either ecologically sensitive, or there are limited facilities at the site. In the case of Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve, I’ll note that there is only parking space for about four vehicles.

Getting Oriented

I photographed a map of the preserve at the kiosk, then traced the relevant sections as seen below. The solid, gray line shows the preserve’s boundary. The solid, black lines are the trails. The dotted black line shows where the line of cliffs is located; a line of cliffs like this is usually called a ridge or an escarpment. The dotted blue lines are small streams. The caves are identified by numbered stars. Note that there is a gap in the trail between cave one and cave two. After viewing cave one, we ascended back to the top of the ridge and followed the trail till we encountered stairs leading back down over the ridge. After descending the stairs we went to the right, so we ended up viewing the caves in this order: 1, 3, 4, and 2.

Map of Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve
Getting started

Visitors park in a grassy space to the side of the road. After parking your cross the road and follow a gravel drive. After a while you will cross a concrete bridge over a small creek. The trailhead is located on the left shortly after crossing the bridge.

You park along the side of the road opposite from the state nature preserve.
Follow the gravel drive beyond this bridge.

The trailhead is a dirt pathway leading from the gravel drive into a hemlock forest.


Shortly after entering the hemlock forest, you will find a kiosk to your right.


You’ll go uphill for a while, and then the ridge will come into view.

The outcropping at the top of this small hill is the beginning of the ridge.

At this point a post with two orange arrows shows that you can go right or left. To see cave #1 go left. The trail to cave #1 dead-ends at the cave. You will have to return to this point and then go right along the top of the ridge to see the remaining caves.

Go left to see cave #1.
Cave #1

If you have been to Cantwell Cliffs in the Hocking Hills State Park, you may have pushed through a portion of the trail known as the Fat Woman’s Squeeze. You get to relive that experience here as you make your way to Cave #1.

Deb being squeezed
Looking back through the squeeze

It turns out that cave #1 has two openings. This is the first one that we encountered.

First opening into cave #1.

As soon as you enter it, you see light from the second opening.

Just inside the first opening, you can see the second one.
The 2nd opening of cave #1
Using a flash to illuminate the walls around the 2nd opening.
Here’s a look at the ceiling.

A look at the ceiling in cave #1
The ceiling gets lower and lower as you move to the rear of the cave. Note the white stuff on the ceiling; presumably that’s the saltpetre.

The rear of the cave
We exited the first opening of the cave. From this point it kind of looks like you can keep advancing on the trail. We went a short ways, and we got a glimpse of cave #2 below. But we really couldn’t get to cave #2 from here, so it was time for us to backtrack and follow the trail above the ridge.

From the vicinity of cave #1, you can get a glimpse of cave #2 on a lower level.
Along the ridge top
If you look at the map, there is a little stream that passes over the ridge and between caves #1 and #2. When we got to that point, the stream bed was basically dry, but there was a bridge, and you could see where the stream probably pours over the ridge edge in the spring.

Crossing bridge over dry stream bed

Where the stream would pour over the cliff in the spring
On the map between caves #2 and #3, you can see the black line of the trail crossing over the ridge. Where that occurs there is a wooden staircase.

Stairs lead from ridge top to ridge base between caves #2 and #3.

You can even sit for a while if you like.

Bench on a landing of the stairs
Cave #3

Once we descended the stairs and were at the base of the ridge once again, we could go left toward cave #2, or right to cave #3. We decided to go right and see cave #3 next.

Wide mouth of cave #3
Inside Cave #3
Cave #4
Cave #4 – this is just the top level of a stack of recess caves.
Cave #4 viewed from the other side
Looking down at lower levels of Cave #4
Excursion to Creek

After viewing Caves #3 and #4, there is something of a side trail that goes toward a creek that is on the preserve’s boundary. To one side there is a rope barrier marking the trail. As you go along you’ll pass a very nice bench, and the bottom of a wood-framed, dirt staircase that leads toward Cave #2. We checked out the creek first, then returned to the dirt staircase and up to Cave #2.

Following the trail besides a rope barrier
A place to relax

The bench actually faces away from the creek and toward the recess caves.

The creek

Once you get back to the area with the fancy bench, there are stairs leading up toward Cave #2.

The steps consist of dirt held in place by the boards.
Going up toward Cave #2
Cave #2

Cave #2 features a really wide mouth with a massive amount of rock overhead. There is a large slump block on the other side of the trail as you approach it.

Arriving at Cave #2. Note the large slump block toward the left margin of the photo.
Bob in Cave #2
Standing near the rear of the cave
Looking out through the wide mouth of Cave #2

After checking out this last trail, we headed back to the staircase that takes guests back up to the top of the ridge.

We had a great time. Speaking for myself, even one of these caves would have made the trip worthwhile. Since the preserve is so small, the whole thing is a relatively short hike.

Additional information


Other than stating that this preserve is located in Hocking County, you will have to apply for the permit to visit the cave in order to get the exact location from the Dept. of Natural Resources.

More on Hocking County

© Deborah Platt, Robert Platt and 2012 to 2021

4 thoughts on “Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve

  1. Hello,

    Would you happen to have any historical information on these caves? Had they been inhabited in the prehistoric period; or are there any vestiges within the caves themselves?

    Thank you,

    Douglas Thornton

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