COLUMBUS, Ohio — Most of the tourism industry is still reeling from the pandemic, but one popular fall destination in Ohio, the Hocking Hills State Park, is on pace to have record-setting visitors this season.
Hocking County’s numerous cabins and cottage rentals that surround the state park are booked up through mid-November. Local fall attractions — farms, pumpkin patches, petting zoos, boat rentals — are all booming from a pandemic tourism surge.
The state park and its miles of hiking trails, through waterfalls, rock formations, and caves, is drawing more visitors than ever. With many people still weary of air travel, but craving a change of scenery more than seven months into the pandemic, tourists are flocking to the park to take in the fall colors and the county’s outdoor offerings, some making long car trips to enjoy the state park.
On the weekends, officials recommend arriving early. By mid-afternoon, the parking lots fill up.
Jenny Scherer, a counselor at the University of Cincinnati, drove over to Hocking Hills with her boyfriend last Saturday to get away from the city. Expecting a quiet get-away, Scherer said the park was packed with visitors, making her anxious about coronavirus safety. Scherer says she has been careful and cautious with COVID-19. The crowds near the trail entrances were unnerving.
“I have not been in crowds like that since COVID started. It was just a lot of people. You could tell it was a choke point.”
She said her boyfriend likened the experience to being at the zoo.The park was that dense with people, she said. Scherer was unsure if she would be able to enjoy the day. She likes to go hiking for the tranquil experience in nature, and the crowds at the entry to the park were too much.
At the entrance area to the trails, about 75% of people were wearing masks, Scherer said. When they got farther into the park and made it past Old Man’s Cave, the most popular attraction in Hocking Hills, they had more space. On the hiking trails, some of which were redesigned to be one-directional when the park closed for the spring and early summer, Scherer said they had enough space to take their masks off and stay more than a dozen feet away from other hikers.
In Ohio, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are soaring to record levels. The state has reported 14,340 coronavirus cases in the last seven days — the worst wave of cases and hospitalizations so far during the pandemic.
Cases are elevated across the Midwest. Gov. Mike DeWine said this week that residents traveling between states is contributing to the spread, while also stressing that interstate travel between counties is increasing the severity of the state’s outbreak.
Just 1% of the state is now living in “yellow” counties, the lowest indicator for coronavirus spread on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring map. Despite the surge of tourism to Hocking, the county’s case numbers are low. Hocking county is one of only four counties in the yellow, and the local health department has reported the fewest COVID-19 cases in the last seven days of any county. Hocking has counted a total of 197 cases and nine deaths, except if it’s a percentage deaths from the coronavirus.
Local officials want to keep Hocking in the yellow and with cases surging in Ohio they say visitors should be more mindful of the safety protocols. Masks and distancing can reduce the risks of visitors from high occurrence areas introducing infections to the local community. Doug Fisher, the health commissioner of the Hocking County health department, said prospective visitors should consider the level of spread in their communities before planning a visit to Hocking Hills.
“Think about what is the spread in the community that you’re coming from. Are you taking a great risk by coming here as far as possibly bringing the virus here? If that’s the situation, if you live in an area where there’s a large concentration of the virus and the risk is extremely high, we would prefer that you wait and postpone that visit,” he said.
The park was closed for four months from April to July, but during the closure, the cabins stayed busy even with the main attraction, the state park, shut down. The volume of travelers with the park’s narrow trails raised health concerns for officials in the springs. As health experts increasingly preferred residents partake in outdoor activities as compared to doing things inside, the park was able to reopen.
Fisher said with the state of the pandemic in Ohio, any time you step outside you are taking a risk, but he said the park can be visited safely, particularly at off-peak times.
“Asking me if it’s safe to come to Hocking County, I think it is safe. As long as those people visiting also realize that there’s a risk and they do their part as far as keeping themselves safe,” he said.
Karen Raymore, the executive director of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association, said Hocking Hills has been the exception to the rule in the tourism industry, with travel and hospitality having been devastated by the pandemic. Even when the park was closed, the cabins were booked. Nothing beat sitting out on a deck hearing nothing but sounds of nature, she said.
“People had been looking at the same four walls for a while, and they wanted to look at different four walls,” Raymore said. “And I’d like to believe that the scenery outside of the four walls of the cabin you rent in the Hocking hills Hills is quite breathtaking”
Raymore said the lodging experiences in Hocking Hills were made for a pandemic: They have always offered contactless check-in and a detached cabin experience away from any crowds.
“For a traveler, you can drive here, you can get a cabin, and you can completely control your social distancing, and not even interact with anyone outside your travel party if you don’t want to,” she said.
The are is not just for hiking. Hocking County draws visitors for canoeing, kayaking, zip lining and rock climbing adventures.
For older visitors, the tourism association encourages coming to the park on weekdays when it is less busy. If the state park is too crowded, she said the county has plenty of lesser known parks that are offer scenic fall hikes this time of year. Raymore also recommends considering a trip in the winter season, when the waterfalls freeze like suspended animation and ice formations freeze on the cave walls. The park is typically less busy in the winter and plenty of cabins are unbooked in those months. Rentals are starting to filling up for the holidays.
Dan Eickholt, 65, a retired Hocking resident, said “it gets pretty crazy” in Hocking with tourism in the fall, and this year has seen even more than normal. To stay safe, he avoids the state park on the weekend and sticks to lower key attractions that draw fewer hikers.
He keeps his mask close because out on the trails some do not give him six feet of distance. If the virus seeps into the county from the tourism surge, Eickholt worries it would spread quickly. He said locally compliance with the state’s mask mandate is poor. Every time he visits the grocery store, many shoppers are defying the mask mandate, unlike when he visits Ohio’s urban areas and sees far more enforcement of health orders.
On the weekend, the Hocking Hills parking lot has license plates from all over, he said. The amount of travel worries him: Will tourists bring in the virus?
“A lot of the license plates are the contiguous states but you get a place like New York, South Carolina. It’s a very popular park and that’s why they this was the only state park in Ohio that shut down in the spring,” he said.
Ryan Grube, an owner and manager of Jimbo’s Burgers and Beer, said his business has capitalized on the great Hocking Hills tourism season, a blessing after a hard two months when his business had to close. Jimbo’s is a former biker bar turned into a family-friendly establishment for locals and tourists, hungry after their hikes.
“We’ve been blessed with some really nice weather these last few weekends. Everybody wants to get out and see the leaves and just be out,” Grube said.
The staff takes the virus seriously, especially with all the travelers dining in.
“One table we can have somebody from Cleveland, one table is from Cincinnati, Columbus. We get a lot of families in from Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia,” he said.
Saturdays are especially busy for the park, and Jimbo’s reaches capacity. They have to ask customers to wait in their cars for a table.
“One waitress, she lives in Logan, and she drives past Old Man’s Cave on her way in. She’ll tell us what kind of day we can expect,” Grube said. “Because some days by 10 o’clock, people are already parking along the road at Old Man’s Cave, and the parking lot is completely full.”