Ohio's Blackhand Gorge brims with natural beauty

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TOBOSO, Ohio -- There is a little bit of everything at Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve.

You'll find nature, water, history and trails in a picturesque gorge with cliffs and rock outcroppings carved by the Licking River.

But the Licking County preserve's most imposing feature is known as the Deep Cut.

In the winter of 1851, the Central Ohio Railroad used 1,200 kegs of black powder to blast the 700-foot-long cut in the Blackhand sandstone. It is 65 feet high and 30 feet wide. It looks and feels like a railroad tunnel -- without the top. It is an impressive feature, and the park's main trail-bikeway runs through it.

The Central Ohio Railroad became part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1865.

A short side trail from the Deep Cut takes you to the river and the Blackhand Rock, where a dark hand-shaped Indian petroglyph engraved into a rock was once found.

Some say the hand marked the way to nearby flint deposits at Flint Ridge in Licking and Muskingum counties, which Ohio Indians relied on for tools and weapons. Or the petroglyph might have at least signaled that land near the flint was neutral and they should not fight one another. No one knows.

PG map: Blackhand Gorge Nature Preserve
(Click image for larger version)

Early white settlers who saw the petroglyph said it was twice the size of a human hand and very distinctive. It was destroyed in 1828 when builders of the Ohio & Erie Canal used dynamite to blast away the sandstone cliffs on the north bank of the river when the canal was being built. Other petroglyphs survived to about 1890.

Blackhand Gorge is not your typical state nature preserve. There are canal locks from the Ohio & Erie Canal, plus remnants of the steam-powered Central Ohio Railroad and electric-powered interurban trolley cars.

You can pedal the 4-mile-long Blackhand Trail or paddle a canoe through what was once called the Licking Narrows. Volunteers are refurbishing a small log cabin at the preserve's eastern entrance to become a new visitor center.

Blackhand Gorge, located eight miles east of Newark, is a one-of-a-kind place that features all modes of transportation, says manager Jody Holland of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The gorge's rugged topography is laced with hiking trails, plus the paved bike-and-hike trail. The steep-walled preserve features dramatic cliffs and rocky outcroppings.

If you go
Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve

2200 Gratiot Road SE, Newark, Ohio 43056. Hours are dawn to dusk daily. For information: 1-614-265-6561 or www.ohiodnr.gov. The park is accessible to people with disabilities.


It's a striking place. The gorge has the look and feel of Hocking Hills State Park. In fact, Blackhand Gorge feels more like a park than a nature preserve, with its cultural and historical attractions.

The Blackhand Trail runs 4.2 miles east to west along the south bank where the Licking River has carved a gorge through the Blackhand sandstone.

The preserve is the only one in Ohio that features a bikeway-wheelchair trail that follows an old railroad bed. The trail was built in 1980 and repaved last year by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Recent trail improvements were paid for by Enterprise Product Partners, the company behind the ATEX Pipeline that has been built to carry ethane from Ohio's Utica shale south to the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline crosses the 957-acre preserve in Hanover Township.

The agreement was negotiated by ODNR and the Friends of Blackhand Gorge, a grass-roots friends-of-the-park group.

You can access the bikeway's eastern terminus at the preserve's main entrance off County Road 273 at Toboso. That is accessible off state Route 146 in eastern Licking County.

The western terminus of the trail with a small parking lot is off County Road 668, accessible off state Route 16.

The preserve has six other trails ranging from a half-mile to 21/2 miles. The trails are well marked and easy to follow, stretching a total of 10 miles.

The Quarry Rim Trail runs 1¼ miles, overlooking old quarries where sandstone conglomerate was mined. It was shipped to nearby Newark to produce beer bottles for Edward H. Everett, the Bottle King of Central Ohio. Prohibition in 1920 put a hurt on Everett's financial empire.

The Owl Hollow and Chestnut trails climb railed steps to a small stream that descends into the gorge. Owl Hollow loops 1 mile through a hemlock forest, while 21/2-mile Chestnut Ridge climbs to higher woodlands before rejoining the bikeway. You can access the Marie Hickey Trail, a 2-mile loop, from the park's north parking lot off Rockhaven Road.

It's a short walk from the eastern end of the preserve to a surviving canal lock on the north side of the Licking River. The Canal Lock Trail runs three-fourths of a mile and includes Lock No. 16. The canal is dry today. The old sandstone lock stands in the woods not far from the north side of the river.

A dam was built on the Licking River to provide a pool in the gorge. An inlet-outlet lock near the dam allowed the canal boats to move between the canal and the river. Canal use peaked in the 1850s and the Great Flood of 1913 badly damaged the surviving canal infrastructure.

Electric trolleys ran from Newark to Granville, starting in 1890. The line to Zanesville opened in 1903, after a route was carved through the gorge on the north side of the Licking River.

The old interurban line, which ran until 1929, largely followed the canal towpath. That route included a 337-foot-long trolley tunnel on the north bank of the Licking River. The tunnel, generally 17 to 18 feet wide and high, is in pretty good shape, Ms. Holland said.

Blackhand Gorge is known for its colorful spring wildflowers. The preserve's dry hilltops are dominated by oaks, hickories, Virginia pine and mountain laurel. Mixed hardwoods and lush spring flora abound in the wooded slopes and ravines, especially in the spring. The flood plain is predominantly sycamores, cottonwoods, willows and box elders.


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