Zaleski State Forest Backpack Trail
County: Vinton, Athens, Hocking
Nearest town: Nelsonville
Total distance: 29.1-mile main trail beginning from the backpacking trailhead; 13.3-mile south loop beginning from the backpacking trailhead, 10.9-mile south loop beginning from the day hiking trailhead; 15.6-mile middle loop beginning from the backpacking trailhead including a visit to camp area 3 at Point P, 8.8-mile middle loop beginning from the day hiking trailhead not visiting camp area 3; 6.8-mile north loop beginning from camp area 3 at Point P
Hiking time: Approximately 5 to 9 hours each for the south and middle loops, 3 to 4 hours for the north loop, or up to 3 days for all loops in one trip
Trail conditions: Well established
Blazes: Main trail blazed orange, camp side trails and day hike cutoff blazed white
Water: Available at three backpack camping areas (Points D, I & P)
Highlights: Secluded backcountry camps, Hewett Fork overlook, magnificent pine plantation, multiple interpretive stops
Contact info: Zaleski State Forest, P.O. Box 330, S.R. 278, Zaleski, Ohio 45698-0330, phone: 740-596-5781; Lake Hope State Park, 27331 State Route 278, McArthur, OH 45651, phone: 740-596-4938
Getting there: To reach the backpacking trailhead at Hope Schoolhouse (27800 Wheelabout Road, McArthur, OH 45651) from the town of Nelsonville, Ohio, take State Route 278 south for approximately 14.2 miles and turn left onto Wheelabout Road (across from the Lake Hope dam). Wheelabout Road will make a sharp right turn in 0.2 mile, the schoolhouse and trailhead are just ahead on the left. The day hiking trailhead is located on SR 278 1.2 miles north of Wheelabout Road. Look for this trailhead across from the historic Hope Furnace.
Trailhead coordinates: The backpacking trailhead at Hope Schoolhouse – 39° 18’ 57’’N, 82° 21’ 05’’W (WGS84); UTM 17 383476E, 4352491N (NAD27). The day hiking trailhead on State Route 278 – 39° 19’ 53’’N, 82° 20’ 24’’W (WGS84); UTM 17 384503E, 4354204N (NAD27).
Covering almost 27,000 acres, Zaleski State Forest is Ohio’s second largest state forest. Along with Lake Hope State Park located at the center of the forest, the region is rich in nature, outdoor recreation and history. The 120-acre ‘C’ shaped Lake Hope lies at the center of the state park and provides fishing, swimming and paddling recreation. Rental cottages and a beautiful dining lodge are located on a ridge above the middle of the arcing lake and a 187 site crowd-free campground is located on scenic Furnace Ridge, just to the north. Over 20 miles of top rated mountain bike trails twist and turn along the ridges throughout the park.
If not for remnants of the Hope Furnace across State Route 278 from the day hiking trailhead, you wouldn’t know the Zaleski area was once at the heart of a very important iron-producing region known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region. The Hope Furnace, starting in 1854, along with others in the area, blasted 24 hours a day for nearly twenty years and produced high-quality iron, some of which was made into ammunition and weaponry for the Union Army during the Civil War. Charcoal required for the smelting process came from mighty trees gracing the surrounding hillsides. By the time the furnaces shutdown, thousands of acres of real estate were almost completely stripped of their timber. Coal mining also had a period of prosperity in the region and many tangible remnants of this activity can be found throughout the area.
The path to development of the forest followed one similar to that which led to the development of Tar Hollow State Forest. In the 1930s, federal funds were used to purchase neglected lands for conservation and reforestation. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was installed in the forest and became a temporary home for relief workers brought in to build roads, trails, structures and other improvements.
Hiking or driving throughout Zaleski State Forest is a unique experience. The forest is big and solitude is not hard to find (except on the south backpack trail loop in October). Wildlife and birds are plentiful and beaver activity abounds in many valleys. Rock cliffs can be found on steep hillsides and overhang caves at the head of many ravines. The human history of the Zaleski area adds to its intrigue. Old roads, abandoned homesteads and towns, old cemeteries, mining ruins and even the abandoned and allegedly haunted Moonville train tunnel are reasons for you to stop, explore and ponder the past. The Moonville Rail Trail utilizes an old railroad grade running through the forest–and the tunnel—on a route between Red Diamond and Athens.
A wonderful oak-hickory dominant second-growth forest covers Zaleski’s hills. Native pines grow near dry rocky outcrops and hemlocks populate some cooler ravines. Unfortunately, a questionable forest management plan, with a history of igniting newsmaking protests, has brought large timber harvests close to trails and sensitive areas. These areas create localized eyesores but are not noticeably widespread throughout the forest.
The ridges on which Zaleski’s trees are firmly rooted reach an average elevation relief of 300 feet, topping out at 1000 feet above sea level or slightly higher. Ridgetops are narrow and slopes are steep. Raccoon Creek is the largest drainage feature in the forest and its lowest point, exiting the southeast corner of the forest at an elevation of 690 feet above sea level.
The Zaleski Backpack Trail is one of the state’s most—if not the most—popular overnight hiking destinations. Many Ohio backpackers and group outings make the Zaleski Trail an annual stop on their backpacking schedule. It’s no wonder so many return so often, Zaleski has a lot to offer. This scenic trail passes by many points of biological, geological and historical interest, several of which forest managers have highlighted in text (included at the end of this document) and marked in the field by lettered signs, making this the only self-guided interpretive backpack trail in the state.
Most of the main trail’s 29.1 miles are laid out in a long contorted loop, with a cutoff side trail at the southern end and a one-mile section of two-way trail connecting a smaller northern loop. In 2016, a new backpacking trailhead was created at the historic Hope Schoolhouse just south of Lake Hope resulting in a 1.9-mile section of two-way trail connecting the new trailhead to the south loop.
Most hikers refer to the sections of the Zaleski Trail in terms of its south loop, middle loop and north loop. The configuration of the trail offers many trip options for both day hikers and backpackers alike. Any of the loops can be easily completed as a single night backpack trip, but plan on a double-overnighter to hike all three loops in one trip or to complete the 22.3 miles of a combined south and middle loop trip.
The complete trail report, trail notes and trail map for the Zaleski Backpack Trail is available as a 12-page downloadable eTrailsOhio PDF file for $6.95. This is guaranteed to be the most complete set of information for the Zaleski Backpack Trail to be found—updated to include the new backpacking trailhead established in 2016. BUY IT NOW.