Highlands Nature Sanctuary
The Incomparable Rocky Fork Gorge. The Highlands Nature Sanctuary is the Arc of Appalachia’s oldest and largest preserve. The heart of the 3100-acre preserve is the breathtakingly beautiful Rocky Fork Gorge, a 100-foot high steep-walled dolomite canyon renowned for its stunning rock formations, ancient white cedars, grottoes, springs, and stone arches. The Highlands Nature Sanctuary is known for not only its geological beauty but its wealth of botanical diversity and its spectacular spring wildflower displays – some of the best in all of Eastern United States.
The Appalachian Forest Museum The Appalachian Forest Museum features large artistic murals depicting the world significance and forty million year history of Great Hardwood Forest that covers the Eastern third of the United States. The Museum serves as an entry point and orientation to two short but spectacular hiking trails that lead visitors into the sublime landscape of the Rocky Fork Gorge above which the Museum is perched. Entrance is free to the public.
Trails. The Sanctuary offers a total of sixteen miles of hiking trails boasting outstanding natural scenery, many of them leading visitors deep into the Rocky Fork Gorge. Most are loop trails, ranging from .5 miles to 3.5 miles. Click here for details. Sorry, Dogs are not permitted on most of the Sanctuary trails in order to protect the dense wildflowers that grow right along the edges of the trails and are sensitive to compaction. Leashed dogs are permitted on the Crow Point and Ridgeview Farm Trails. For other dog friendly trails click here.
Sanctuary’s Overnight Lodges. Visitors to the Sanctuary may enjoy staying in a number of historic cabins and older homes that have been fully renovated into modern nature retreats, ranging from secluded 2-person suites perched on the bluff of the gorge that offer dizzying views, to five-bedroom historic lodges that handsomely accommodate small groups and educational gatherings. Book a lodge and more information
And Birds Too! The Sanctuary is a superb birding destination, harboring high numbers of Henslow’s sparrows, several species of woodland warblers including Cerulean warblers, and four species of swallows. Throughout the summer the sunset is dependably accompanied to the flute music of the wood thrush. For an immersive experience, we recommend you rent a Sanctuary lodge and stay for two or more nights.
When to Visit. The Sanctuary is beautiful all year round. Spring flowers usually begin blooming in late March, beginning with snow trilliums. The first week of April brings a startling density of hepatica, which cover the steep hillsides with their bouquets. The peak display of wildflowers usually falls somewhere between April 10 and April 18 with the dazzling emergence of drifts of Large-flowered trillium – a spectacle not to be missed if you can help it. Although flowers are always blooming somewhere in the Sanctuary during the growing season, the last of spring’s major display ebbs after the third week in April when the columbine and shooting star burst into bloom in the Rocky Fork Gorge. A very popular Sanctuary event is the annual Wildflower Pilgrimage, a weekend of field trips leading to the region’s most splendid and memorable wildflower destinations, accompanied by evening programs and delicious meals. The best time to bird at the Sanctuary is late April through the second week of June. In late spring the dawn breeding bird chorus is rich and memorable. Fall color is hard to predict but usually peaks in the second or third week of October.
Once 7 Caves. Sixty acres of the 3100 acre Highlands Nature Sanctuary was once home to the 20th century nature and children’s theme park known as 7 Caves. Opening in 1930, 7 Caves was a beloved family destination for generations, reaching the peak of its popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the era that popularized family camping vacations. After the 70’s, attendance began a steep decline alongside children’s theme parks across America, reflecting a shift in our culture’s vacation preferences. The Arc of Appalachia purchased 47 of the 60-acre park known as 7 Caves in 1995 to help protect the land and to keep the Rocky Fork Gorge open to the public. In 2005 7 Caves officially closed and sold the remaining 13 acres of land and buildings to the Arc of Appalachia, becoming part of the Highlands Nature Sanctuary. Some of 7 Cave’s historic trails, with their beautiful rock work and stunning geologic vistas, still serve visitors today at the Sanctuary. The old 7 Caves gift shop has been transformed into what is known today as the Appalachian Forest Museum.
Restored cave habitat for rare bats. Five of the original seven caves are now restored – providing critical hibernation sites for Ohio’s cave bats. Several years ago cave bats across Eastern United States were hit with a deadly disease called White-nose syndrome that destroyed millions of bats in the middle of winter when they awoke to find themselves ill and starving. In Ohio, bats that wintered over in caves were nearly extirpated, other than big brown bats whose numbers plummeted but not quite as badly as its smaller kin . Thanks to the bat conservation work that had been earlier performed at the Sanctuary, the caves today are still sheltering big brown bats in safe numbers as well as a vulnerable number of Tri-colored bats. Cave bats perform valuable and possibly necessary ecological services – keeping in check our night sky insect populations.
Caves open for viewing. One of the original seven caves, known as Marble Cave, can still be viewed on the Valley of the Ancients Trail which begins at the Appalachian Forest Museum, and a trail to McKimmie’s Cave is currently being constructed and will be open to the public sometime in 2021.