Sometimes you find a hidden “travel gem,” a destination that’s unique and relatively unknown, and you want everyone you know to experience it, too. That’s how I feel about the Hocking Hills region of Ohio. Nestled in south-central Ohio, just an hour southeast of Columbus, the lush Hocking Hills region takes the stage in full glory each spring and fall, and is a fabulous place to enjoy birds, wildlife, hiking, photography, and a good dose of rest and relaxation.
Nature enthusiasts are drawn to the thick forests, cascading waterfalls, deep rocky gorges, and incredible rock formations found in this region. It has primarily been the process of surface erosion that has sculpted the beautiful Hocking Hills. The entire southeastern part of Ohio is considered Allegheny Plateau, and the most interesting region is the Hocking Hills. Within the 2,000-acre Hocking Hills State Park system are Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Cedar Falls (where grows what might be the tallest tree in Ohio, a hemlock); Conkle’s Hollow (considered to be the deepest gorge in Ohio), Rock House, and Cantwell Cliffs. All include miles and miles of hiking trails, and forests teeming with birds and wildlife.
While beautiful in all seasons, I spend time birding there each spring, enjoying trees dripping with migrating warblers, budding trees, and flowers, and all the smells and sights of springtime. But if fall is your favorite season, you won’t find a more beautiful destination in the month of October. I recently spent a few days of personal retreat in Ohio’s Hocking Hills, and thought I’d share my glorious experience with those of you in need of an affordable, COVID-cautious getaway.
The Hocking Hills region is an easy drive from the Columbus airport, as well as from surrounding states (Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan). Most Ohioans know about the renowned Hocking Hills , but they may not know about the many charming lodging options it offers. From rustic state park campsites and A-frame cabins to luxury niche-boutique-inns and spas, there’s something for every birder’s budget!
I recently stayed at Glenlaurel, a luxury lodging destination, and the only authentic Scottish Country Estate in North America. Glenlaurel is a member of Select Registry, a prestigious lodging association of distinguished lodging establishments, which consists of only 300 of the finest inns, bed and breakfasts, and unique small hotels throughout North America. Glenlaurel delivers a comprehensive lodging experience featuring charming rooms, an attentive staff, and world-class cuisine. Dining at Glenlaurel is a truly special experience consisting of six- and seven-course meals by candlelight, accompanied by bagpipe music, poetry, and more!
Everything at Glenlaurel bears a strong Scottish influence. The charming inn and crofts (cottages) feature stone and stucco walls, dark timbered beams, and wrought iron posts evoking the elegant atmosphere of a Scottish estate tucked away in the woods. Each croft is secluded and unique, perfect for a romantic getaway. Named after historically renowned Scots, each croft includes a private deck with hot tub, luxurious furnishings, bathrobes, a fireplace, mood music, and hot breakfast brought to your front door (upon request). Most guests of the inn and crofts meet for dinner in the inn’s main dining room. During non-COVID times, guests gather for happy hour in the festive basement pub to chat and enjoy cocktails before their lavish dining experience.
I have been a guest at Glenlaurel several times during the past few years, and I keep returning because it’s one of my favorite getaway destinations. I’ve visited in spring, summer, and twice in December, celebrating my mid-December birthday. Each stay has been wonderfully unique, and I’ve particularly enjoyed my winter visits. This year, however, was my first visit during October. I’m usually busy with work travel during the fall and haven’t had the opportunity to do much personal travel at that time of year for more than a decade. Since my business travel was curtailed in 2020, I decided to visit Glenlaurel during my favorite month of the year. I invited my boyfriend, Will, to join me, and we happily headed to the Hocking Hills on what was perhaps the most glorious week of the year.
We stayed in the Makenzie Royal Suite located in the inn, and it was my first time to stay in the inn itself rather than in one of the crofts on the estate grounds. The suite exceeded our expectations, and I particularly enjoyed the beautiful canopy bed, whirlpool tub, rich fabrics, and picturesque views. We were even welcomed by nature music with some of my favorite bird sounds—wood thrushes, spring warblers, bluebirds, and more.
Dinner was exquisite, as expected. Our main course was quail, and was bookended by a variety of salads, appetizers, and a delicious potato soup. Dessert was strawberry crème brûlée, which happens to be my favorite, so all my “foodie vibes” were in full effect during our stay. Cocktails, wine, and beer were also available, made to order. Breakfast the next morning included scones, quiche, oatmeal, coffee, and juices. Glenlaurel has a talented full-time chef who prepares all meals and brings their sumptuous menu to life with culinary flair and finesse.
Although I’d seen this on the grounds during my prior visits, I had never played their famed Scottish Links Golf Course. I’m not a golfer, but Will is, so I gave it a try! Nestled in the beautiful rolling hills and meadowlands on Glenlaurel’s Estate are eight links-style holes. The experience replicates that of Scottish golf from over 100 years ago, while playing on actual sand greens and tees and using original, antique Hickory Shaft Clubs and sand tees.
Sand greens and tees use no water, fertilizer, pesticides, or energy sources for their maintenance, which fits with Glenlaurel’s approach to environmental stewardship, as well as what Hurdzan/Fry has championed for decades. If you’re a competitive golfer, this experience is not a usual experience. But for me, it was a lovely way to enjoy the gorgeous October weather and see the estate from a new perspective.
Although we weren’t there at the birdiest time of year, we saw some great birds: black and turkey vultures; Cooper’s, red-tailed, and red-shouldered hawks; bald eagles; northern flickers and downy and hairy woodpeckers; plus bluebirds, mockingbirds, and more. I’m sure the fall migrating warblers had made their way through the grounds just a few weeks prior, but they had moved south by the time we visited. Still, silhouettes of raptors on a bright blue October sky are always a thrill to any birder’s heart, and they did not disappoint! My binoculars were in hand during our walking, sunset watching, hiking, and golfing, and it was a delightful experience for a nature lover like me.
If you’re looking for a couple’s birding and nature getaway, Glenlaurel is the perfect destination. I also highly recommend the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls as another posh destination in the region.
If luxury, casual lodging is not your cup of tea, there are many other options! Hocking hills has dozens of cabin rentals that sleep from 4 to 25 people, and it’s a great place for group weekend getaways. If you search “lodging in Hocking Hills, Ohio” you’ll find a multitude of lodging options, including traditional hotels, cabin rentals, state parks, camping, glamping, and more.
If you haven’t made your way to Ohio’s Hocking Hills, I cordially invite you to visit our Appalachian foothills! Does your heart swoon at the thought of hiking through forests, exploring caves, and rolling hills? Then this destination is just the place for you.
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.