Southeast Ohio: An Unlikely Trail-Running Destination

At the intersection of the Midwest and Appalachia, Ohio has a reputation for being flat. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the southeast, where the terrain is rugged, the trails are incredible. From single track to steep and continuous hills, Southeast Ohio is a trail-running destination to put on your map.

Racing through miles of quiet trails, you will discover waterfalls and wildflowers. It is not uncommon to stumble upon a patch of pawpaw trees, a native plant that bears a delicious and prized fruit. After you snack on some pawpaw, you can run to serene lakes and jump across streams. Maybe you will even stumble upon a pond, alive with the sound of croaking toads.

The biodiversity in the forests of Southeast Ohio, from trees to fungi, means that there is always something new to discover on long runs. The change of the seasons also breathes new life into the woods. In the autumn, the yellow, orange, and red leaves create a stunning scene. When winter comes, the foliage is transformed by snow. Spring is the first time wildflowers make their appearance and by summer everything is green again.

Although Southeast Ohio might lack consistent vertical gain, the hills are still extremely technical and challenging. Instead of long-sustained climbs, you will continuously ascend and descend hills and ridges, often culminating in more elevation gain than, say, several mile-long mountain ascents. You can even argue that this type of terrain is more challenging because the ridges, and constant elevation change, require more stamina.

Sells Park.

The best entry point to the trails is via Athens, Ohio. The tiny town doubles in size during the school year when roughly 20,000 students descend on Ohio University. Situated in the heart of the town is the community-focused Ohio Valley Running Company (OVRC). The presence of the store, and manager Michael Owen, has developed the local running community.

Owen is a competitive ultra-runner and race director. He has devoted his life to creating the trail-running community in Southeast Ohio, including founding the community-based non-profit Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners (SEOTR) in 2014.

SEOTR Race Director Michael Owen congratulates a finisher at the 2017 Thunderbunny 50k.

Owen, who is from nearby Pomeroy, Ohio, noticed the lack of a running community in his home region and decided he could change that. “At that time I had a few years of ultra-running under my belt, including a 100 miler, and I remember when I first moved to Athens there was just one other person that I knew who had run a 100-mile race,” Owen said. 

Now, six years later, over a dozen Southeast Ohio runners have completed a 100-mile race, and even more have run ultra-marathons (races longer than 26-miles).

“I’ve always wanted to live in an area that was known as a ‘trail running- Mecca’ and I hope my impact is helping to give Athens and Southeast Ohio that title,” Owen said.

A trail-running Mecca it might become. Participation in Southeast Ohio trail-running has exploded in recent years. Southeast Ohio runners are friendly and eager to share their trails with visitors to prove they are both beautiful and technical. 

Top Trails:

Strouds Run State Park

Head to Strouds Run State Park, a 10-minute drive outside Athens, for 40 miles of smooth single track and fields of bluebells during the spring.

One of the most popular loops, and namesake of the Thunderbunny 50k, is the Thunderbunny Trail. This 2.7 mile point-to-point trail consists of rolling single track and a stream crossing. It is a great starting point to anyone visiting the park for the first time. If you are looking to go more than a few miles, Thunderbunny connects to Hollow Point (3 miles) and then Sundown Trail (6.1 miles).

Sundown Trail is another popular starting point. The trail is accessible from the Strouds Run Beach parking lot and begins a loop around Dow Lake, which is finished on Hickory Trail. The loop is about 9 miles, with Sundown Trail being six of those miles.

Hocking Hills State Park 

About a 45 minute drive from Athens is Hocking Hills. The park is a popular destination for Ohioans, especially during the summer. Most tourists head to Old Man’s Cave, and for good reason. There is a large parking lot at the Old Man’s Cave Visitors Center, which is a great starting point for a network of trails that extend for miles around the area. Grandma Gatewood Memorial (5.6 miles) and Gorge Overlook (3 miles) trailheads begin steps away from the parking lot. Both trails are point-to-point but connect to other trails along the way, if you want to increase the mileage. They also offer stunning views of Old Man’s Cave. Since Grandma Gatewood Memorial Trail is more technical, it is less popular and may be a better choice during the busy summer months. 

Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She writes about the environment and culture in Appalachia and abroad.

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