Travel to Ohio's Highland County

Morning fog on Taloden Pond on the heavily wooded Taloden Woods Trail at Ohio's Highlands Nature Sanctuary. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / April 7, 2012)

BAINBRIDGE, Ohio - Little-known Highlands Nature Sanctuary is a gem.

The 2,200-acre preserve sits along the Rocky Fork Gorge west of Chillicothe in Highland County, 65 miles from Cincinnati and 50 miles from Columbus.

It is a stunning wilderness tract that was acquired and saved from development over the last 17 years by a grass-roots group formed in 1995 by a husband and wife.

The sanctuary stretches 10 miles from Rocky Creek State Park east to Paint Creek State Park, with a wild, 100-foot-deep gorge of fossil-filled limestone with fern-filled grottoes, cliffs, springs, caves, waterfalls and old-growth forests.

Here are slump rocks that have toppled from cliffs. They create rock-filled gardens at the bottom of the narrow canyon.

It is cliff country, a vertical-walled place with a special beauty, an enchanting place of solitude. Ohio has other gorges, but most are not as big, long or imposing as Rocky Creek Gorge.

The sanctuary is one of my favorite outdoor spots in Ohio, especially since it has added hiking. I had visited in 2000 in its early days before any trails existed.

It was smaller, primitive, more a dream than reality. What was being developed by Larry Henry and his then-wife, Nancy Stranahan, both onetime state naturalists, seemed unlikely to ever take off. Preserving Eastern wilderness in southern Ohio seemed an impossible dream.

To date, there have been 53 acquisitions costing in excess of $9 million for the private nature preserve, thanks to donations and contributions. Perhaps two-thirds of the land identified in the sanctuary's management plan has been acquired.

The newest purchase covers 85-acre God's Country and Black Gum Woods. It adds nearly a mile of protected stream bank to the sanctuary's western end. A new trail is planned there later this year.

Adding hiking trails is a big plus. To date, 14 miles of backcountry trails offer access to the heart of the sanctuary. It's a hiker's paradise.

The gray cliffs of dolomite dominate the preserve. They are powerful and striking, the rocks up to 420 million years old.

The gorge was created by a meltwater-swollen stream during the retreat of the last glacier. The stream reversed itself and carved the canyon.

The sanctuary, once a sacred spot for the Shawnees and Iroquois, offers spectacular spring wildflowers, among the best in Ohio, with its limestone-rich soil. Trilliums, bluebells and anemones abound in April. Columbines, bellworts, miterworts, cohosh and wild geraniums grow there.

There are rare and endangered plants, including white cedars, sullivantia (found in only three states), the three-bird-orchid and yellow wood poppies.

The scenery is very special. Great blue herons and bald eagles are found along the stream. Junipers are growing in what used to be farm fields. Cedars line the top of the gorge at the western edge of Appalachia. You'll find white-tailed deer, pileated woodpeckers and wild turkeys.

The stream itself is pristine, among the cleanest in Ohio. It has pools and riffles that turn into whitewater at high levels. It houses lots of freshwater mollusks and 63 species of fish.

Caves that once catered to tourists have been reclaimed for bats, although the four species are threatened by disease. There are 23 caves, six of which have been closed to humans.

Three distinct bioregions meet here: Kentucky bluegrass, western Appalachian foothills and Midwest plains. It is one of America's botanical hot spots.