Travel to Fort Hill State Memorial in Ohio

A trail kiosk at the 1,200-acre Fort Hill State Memorial in Highland County, Ohio. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / April 5, 2012)

CYNITHIANA, Ohio - Fort Hill State Memorial is a place with interesting options.

It is home to some of the best hiking in the state, interesting geology and rare plants in a surprisingly wild corner of southwest Ohio. It is also home to ancient and little-known Indian earthworks, which are the biggest attraction.

That's a lot of options at the 1,300-acre site that is owned by the Ohio Historical Society and managed by the Arc of Appalachia Preserve, a grass-roots group.

One trail every visitor should hike is the 2.2-mile Fort Trail, which will take you to the plateau-top earthworks in southeastern Highland County.

Fort Hill is home to one of the best-preserved Indian hilltop enclosures in North America, a structure built at least 1,500 years ago. The earthworks were built on the flat-topped ridge by the Hopewell Indians between 300 B.C. and A.D. 500.

They stretch 1.5 miles and the 34 sections encompass 35 acres atop the hill, which is isolated with steep slopes. In places, the wall sections are 15 to 20 feet high and are irregularly spaced, with 33 gateways.

The Hopewell culture is known for its immense geometric earthworks built in Ohio floodplains in the shape of precise circles, squares and octagons. Often these enclosures encircled burial and ceremonial grounds. Thousands were built in southern Ohio, although most have been wiped out.

What you see now at Fort Hill are earthen banks from 6 to 15 feet high and three shallow pits where the dirt came from. Not all are easy to spot amid the trees and vegetation. Many visitors on the main trail walk right through a gateway without realizing it.

The best time to visit is late fall through early spring, when the leaves are off the trees and the view from the top is the least obstructed.

The Fort Hill earthworks were initially thought to be a fortress because they were atop high ground. But that is now seen as unlikely because the trenches are inside the earthworks, not outside, and because of the size of the enclosure, experts say.

That makes it more likely that it was used for religious, ceremonial or social purposes, they say. But no one knows for sure. No artifacts have been found inside the enclosure.

It is one of perhaps a half dozen similar hilltop earthworks built by Hopewell Indians in southern Ohio. They include Fort Ancient in Warren County, Fort Miami in Hamilton County and Spruce Hill in Ross County.

It appears that the Hopewells built circular earthworks not far from Fort Hill in the Brush Creek Valley to the south. It is accessible to Fort Hill visitors off the Buckeye Trail at the southern end of the park.

The red-blazed Fort Trail is a loop that follows the earthworks atop the hill and then drops down off the plateau before returning to the parking lot. It gives you a chance to see the earthworks up close.

The site, acquired by the state in 1932, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Natural Landmark.

From 1952 to 1954, Raymond Baby of the Ohio Historical Society directed excavations near the base of the hill. There were two circular earthworks there and many artifacts were found in surrounding fields, leading archaeologists to believe a village was there.

A well-preserved earthwork forms a circular walled enclosure with a diameter of 170 feet and a height of 2.5 to 3 feet.

Because a Hopewell bladelet was found in the mound, it is believed that the mound is about 2,000 years old.

Archaeologists have discovered two concentric circles of postholes directly beneath the circular earthworks, but there are no supporting posts in the middle of the enclosure. The original structure may have looked more like a fenced wall or an arbor than a roofed building.