You always hear about the beautiful trails in the West and South; seldom do you hear of the awesome riding you can do in Ohio. Most of Ohio is flat and uneventful, but if you look to the state's southern portion, you'll find some of the most beautiful riding you'll ever see.
We're mule riders. We have five that we love to ride and challenge. We have two 4-year-olds - one is a dark bay, and the other is beautiful buckskin. We also have a 7-year-old sorrel and a 7-year-old spotted mule out of a Pony of the Americas. And then, of course, there's Ringo, the 35-year-old babysitter who now "belongs" to our granddaughter.
We started to ride in Zaleski State Forest about seven years ago. We loved it so much, we've bought some land next to the trails. So, every other week or at least once a month, we load up the mules and leave the flat lands of Northwest Ohio to make the five-hour trip to the foothills of the Appalachians.
There are 15 free campsites in the somewhat primitive campground. Zaleski State Forest doesn't take reservations; everything is first come, first serve. The weekends get a little crowded, but during the week it isn't uncommon to have the campground and trails to yourself. There are a few people who do some regular day riding, but we usually only see their rigs.
The camp has picnic tables, fire rings, and nice tie stands for your trail mounts. It also has a day-riding area with enough room for about 15 more rigs. There's also a group campground for clubs.
Into the Woods
Zaleski offers close to 50 miles of moderate trails, where you'll ride through a 100-year-old hardwood forest. You'll also ride through a beautiful pine forest that was planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Take a deep breath, because your nose will be in for a great treat.
It's rare that you won't see some deer and/or turkeys. Most of the trails cross several streams. They are all rock-bottomed, so mud isn't an issue. However, you will run into mud along the trails. This is primarily because people break the rules-they veer off of the trails, creating mud spots. But the trails are passable.
Elevation ranges from 700 to 1,000 feet. Most of the steeper climbs are switchbacks. Riding along the rims of the hills, you'll be able to look into box canyons. The shortest trail, Yellow, is 3.2 miles; the longest trail, Dark Blue, is 16.4 miles.
The Dark Blue trail rides through a majority of the state forest. This trail - along with the Black, Orange, and Light Blue trails - takes you along Raccoon Creek. The Raccoon is the longest creek in the country, one foot short of a river.
As you ride along the Raccoon, keep your eyes open and maybe you'll see a beaver, or at least a beaver dam. We've never seen a beaver, as they're nocturnal, but we sure do watch for them. It's amazing the size of trees they'll chew down, and the number of different communities you'll see along the way.
There's presently a movement to start a rails-to-trails project that will follow the old B&O line. That line was used to haul timber to iron furnaces, then iron out of the furnaces. If this trail is completed, it'll run through Moonville, the "haunted" area around Zaleski. It'll also go through the Moonville Tunnel, a 100-foot-long train tunnel built in the 1800s. If you stand at one end of the tunnel and whisper, you'll be heard all the way at the other end.
If these trails aren't challenging enough for you, trailer over to Hocking or Tar Hollow, about 20 miles away. These trails are rated "difficult" by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Wayne National Forest also offers three different riding areas close by. We plan on riding in these areas soon. One trail -which is about 40 miles long and goes along the Ohio River - offers overnight camping you can pack into.
This area has some of the most beautiful rock formations, box canyons, and forest that God has created. The people are laid back, and there are many attractions to see when you're ready to take a break from riding.
Fit for a Mule
In closing, I'd like to add a hint for mule riders who have trouble fitting their mule with a saddle. We started using mule pads from 5 Star Equine Products (870/389-6328; www.5starequineproducts.com) at the suggestion of Doug Waugh from Locust Creek Mules (www.locustcreekmules.com) and have had great success. We're not sure if they work well for horses - we ride only mules, because we love their ears.
For more information on Zaleski State Forest and all of Ohio's public trails, call (740) 596-5781, or visit www.dnr.state.oh.us/forestry/forests/stateforests/zaleski.htm. For more on the Moonville rails-to-trails project, visit www.moonvillerailtrail.org. For more on Wayne National Forest, call (740) 753-0101, or visit www.fs.fed.us/r9/wayne.