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My trip last weekend to Zaleski State Forest was long overdue. It's likely the most popular -- and one of the easiest -- backpack trails in the state. For those who want to try out the joys and pains of sleeping self-efficiently in the woods, this is a great place to start.

[Forest homepage] [Backpack map]

First, some basics: The entire trail system is 23.5 miles, but you can hike a day loop as short as 10 miles. There are several opportunities for day hikes, overnight excursions and two-night trips like I took. Except during winter months, Division of Forestry workers truck in fresh water to three spigots near three campsites, which are spaced well along the main trail.

Zaleski is often confused with the backpack trail at nearby Shawnee State Forest, but that one is far more grueling, one way people train for the mountainous Appalachian Trail. The terrain at Zaleski involves some steep climbs, creek crossings and a lot of ridge-running with small elevation changes. You're never more than a few miles from a road, but this well-marked, well-worn path feels like a good wilderness experience.

As far as itinerary goes, here are suggestions starting from the trailhead on state route 278...

If you have one day: Take the south loop, about 10 miles total. It has some steep climbs, but most is only moderately difficult. Taking this section will give you access to two water spigots, keeping your day pack light. Loop: ABCDEFA.

If you have two days: Take the short side trail to the main trail and head to the northernmost campsite. Once you're there, more advanced hikers can set up camp, then walk an upper loop during the afternoon. On the second day, you'll be taking the easy way out on the western side. Main loop: AFGLHLGMNOPQA (10.2 miles). Optional day loop: HJKH (5.5 miles).

If you have three days: Your first day will be most of the south loop, camping at point D. You'll continue north on your second day, camping at point H. You can also do the optional 5.5-mile day trip. Your third day is the easier western loop. Main loop: ABCDEFGLHLGMNOPQA (17.9 miles). Optional day loop: HJKH (5.5 miles).

After the jump, you'll a complete field guide to the three-day trip with tons of pictures.

View larger image

My trip last weekend to Zaleski State Forest was long overdue. It's likely the most popular -- and one of the easiest -- backpack trails in the state. For those who want to try out the joys and pains of sleeping self-efficiently in the woods, this is a great place to start.

[Forest homepage] [Backpack map]

First, some basics: The entire trail system is 23.5 miles, but you can hike a day loop as short as 10 miles. There are several opportunities for day hikes, overnight excursions and two-night trips like I took. Except during winter months, Division of Forestry workers truck in fresh water to three spigots near three campsites, which are spaced well along the main trail.

Zaleski is often confused with the backpack trail at nearby Shawnee State Forest, but that one is far more grueling, one way people train for the mountainous Appalachian Trail. The terrain at Zaleski involves some steep climbs, creek crossings and a lot of ridge-running with small elevation changes. You're never more than a few miles from a road, but this well-marked, well-worn path feels like a good wilderness experience.

As far as itinerary goes, here are suggestions starting from the trailhead on state route 278...

If you have one day: Take the south loop, about 10 miles total. It has some steep climbs, but most is only moderately difficult. Taking this section will give you access to two water spigots, keeping your day pack light. Loop: ABCDEFA.

If you have two days: Take the short side trail to the main trail and head to the northernmost campsite. Once you're there, more advanced hikers can set up camp, then walk an upper loop during the afternoon. On the second day, you'll be taking the easy way out on the western side. Main loop: AFGLHLGMNOPQA (10.2 miles). Optional day loop: HJKH (5.5 miles).

If you have three days: Your first day will be most of the south loop, camping at point D. You'll continue north on your second day, camping at point H. You can also do the optional 5.5-mile day trip. Your third day is the easier western loop. Main loop: ABCDEFGLHLGMNOPQA (17.9 miles). Optional day loop: HJKH (5.5 miles).

After the jump, you'll a complete field guide to the three-day trip with tons of pictures.

View larger image The trip starts out at the trailhead along state route 278, just east of Lake Hope. Park in the lot, grab a trail map from the bulletin board and be sure to register. It's important to let rangers know how many you're hiking with and when you plan to return.

View larger image Here you'll see a representation of how much of the trails looks. It's mostly smooth and reasonably wide. You'll only encounter a handful of hills that are really tough.

View larger image Here's one of the water spigots you'll find. Just pull down the lever to operate. Especially in hotter months, it's important to use water conservatively. Fill up your bottles; don't shower.

View larger image Pit toilets can be found at each of the three campsites. It's a nice alternative to bringing a shovel and a steady pair of legs. However, don't forget toilet paper. It's not supplied.

View larger image As of April 26, many fallen trees had yet to be cleared. I'll guess things will be cleaned up before Memorial Day. Nothing is too technical, and you'll rarely need to doff your pack to get through.

View larger image In the Hocking Hills, you're never too far from gorgeous rock formations. Between points E and F are some nice low-lying areas with exposed bedrock and sandstone.

View larger image Water seeping between rock formations is the cleanest water you'll find outside a filter. Take a second to splash some on your face to cool off.

View larger image Almost nothing had greened up, but the lush canopy and undergrowth will sprout by May. The forest is home to numerous native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and other flora.

View larger image Speaking of wildflowers, trillium was prevalent. I also spotted spring beauty and jack-in-the-pulpit. A small, white-lavender flower was growing abundantly along the trail, coloring the somewhat drab leafy floor.

View larger image This large crag is located along the western side, between points O and P. It's a nice respite from the sun.

View larger image Between points O and P, you'll also follow a small, babbling stream. Look closely for minnows, crawfish and toads, which find shelter there before it gets too hot.