Occasional information plaques guide the way from U.S. Rte. 33 to Wildcat Hollow, then you're on your own. The trailhead doesn't even have an address, just a set of geographic coordinates leading down a dusty road to a small wooden sign.

Occasional information plaques guide the way from U.S. Rte. 33 to Wildcat Hollow, then you're on your own. The trailhead doesn't even have an address, just a set of geographic coordinates leading down a dusty road to a small wooden sign.

From your first steps onto the Wildcat backpacking trail, you are - more so than almost anywhere else in the state - out there.

In this lonely section of Wayne National Forest, far from the hum of interstates and urban sprawl, southeastern Ohio unfolds unfettered. Rich mineral deposits, rustic seclusion and rugged Appalachian ethos collide in a land of abandoned oil derricks, forgotten access roads and dense, mature hardwood growth extending over roughly 72,000 acres.

"With how we're managing it, it's like a future old forest," Athens District Ranger DeVela Clark said. "We're taking a hands-off approach. We're letting nature take its course in this area."

Except for regular trail clearing, nature writhes beautifully along Wildcat's 14.7-mile hiking-only loop.

Birders come to enjoy migrating warblers drawn to dense woods along their intercontinental journeys. Naturalists lead wildflower walks in April and May. Others come to spot scattered populations of the elusive bobcat that gives the area its name.

Most importantly, Wildcat is one of the state's only true tests of backpacking mettle: no treatable water, no pit toilets, nothing but white metal blazes to guide your way. Even overnighters who have conquered other Ohio loops will find the terrain of the state's only national forest to be wild and truly unique.

The main path lacks the grueling elevation change of Shawnee State Forest or the training-wheel amenities of Zaleski State Forest. It's a smooth, meandering adventure that's perfect for daydreaming and good pace. It gives you the sense of being in a world you've never experienced before in the Buckeye State.

Along smooth but skinny goings, you'll find towering oaks and hickories, extended pine forests, crumbling oil-worker camps and bottomland meadows spilling over the banks of numerous tiny creek beds.

Every so often, a campsite pops into view. They're primitive but usually nice, broad spaces equipped with fire rings and relatively soft bedding. A cut-off trail near the southern section creates a 4.9-mile day-hike option.

"This is a beautiful forest," said Clark, who has worked in woods across the country. "I love the rolling hills and the hardwood forests up here. For tree species, this is one of the most diverse I've been on."

For an interactive guide to the Wildcat Hollow Trail, click to the Ohio Adventure Map at columbusalive.com/venture.