LOGAN, Ohio -- Just the right weather conditions -- cold enough to keep the beautiful ice formations intact, warm enough to make the 6-mile trek bearable -- brought out a record number of people yesterday for the Hocking Hills State Park's annual winter hike.
Park officials counted 5,417 people, and one "sasquatch," who hiked the trail from Old Man's Cave to Ash Cave. There was a midway stop at Cedar Falls for bean soup, cornbread and hot chocolate.
The old record was 5,200 in 1998. This year's was the park's 45th annual winter hike.
Surprised to see a hairy Bigfoot-like creature with a walking stick, park naturalist Pat Quackenbush called out, "First time we've had sasquatch on the hike."
The sasquatch -- aka Arron Waugh, 49, of Wellston -- replied, "I've been on it 10 years. You just didn't see me."
With the temperature lingering just below 40 degrees, enthusiastic hikers quickly filled the parking lots near Old Man's Cave. They began lining up well before the scheduled 9 a.m. start time, but park rangers let them start 15 minutes early.
The long line of hikers continued unbroken for more than two hours, constantly replenished by passengers on Logan-Hocking school district buses. People were ferried to and from outlying parking lots.
The hikers were male and female, young and old, singles, couples, families and scout troops. Some wore fancy hiking boots and carried ski poles; others had tennis shoes and used tree branches turned into walking sticks.
Most were dressed for the winter chill, but two people were spotted in shorts and one woman wore a sleeveless vest.
Nearly everyone brought along a camera or a dog. Big dogs pulled at leashes, while little ones peeked out from parka pockets.
Randy Hall, 61, of Pataskala, said he started participating in the winter hike decades ago. He took his four sons when they were small enough that they had to be carried.
"It's a family tradition," he said. "I'm going to keep going as long as I can, until they have to push me around."
Harold Johnson, 77, of Logan, calculated that yesterday was his 42nd winter hike. He said park workers have done many things to make the outing safer since the early years, when the trails were treacherous.
Kenneth Bell, 71, Johnson's hunting buddy, was on his first hike.
"I've always said I was going to go, so I decided to do it this year," Bell said.
Yesterday's hikers became part of mankind's history in Hocking Hills, which stretches back to the end of the ice age when Paleo-Indians roamed the area.
Natives from the Woodland culture followed and, much later, Shawnee traveled the trails going to and from Chillicothe, their major settlement.
White settlers didn't arrive in significant numbers until the 1790s.
What makes Hocking Hills special is its geologic scenery, which is unmatched in the state. More than 300 million years ago, the area was covered by a shallow sea.
Streams flowing into the sea deposited pebbles and sand into deltas, eventually forming the Black Hand Sandstone characteristic of the park.
During the ice age a mere 2 million years ago, runoff from the nearby ice sheet created torrents of running water that carved caves, gorges and scenic features out of the porous sandstone.
Quackenbush said some plant and other species in the park appear nowhere else in the state, including the Eastern hemlock and yellow and black birch trees. A species of moth native to Canada is found nowhere in Ohio except in Ash Cave.
The area's natural attractions, plus a tight economy that has forced many people to vacation closer to home, resulted in a 4 percent growth in tourism last year compared with 2008, said Karen Raymore, executive director of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association.
Last year, the state park had more than 2.9 million visitors -- nearly 100,000 more than 2008.
"We're thrilled, but not completely surprised," Raymore said. "Mother Nature decided a long time ago that this was going to be a tourist destination."
"It's a family tradition. I'm going to keep going as long as I can, until they have to push me around."
veteran winter hiker