Ohio version of the Appalachian Trail
Story by Jane Beathard
Photos courtesy of Andy Niekamp
It circles the state like a necklace, winding through quaint towns and picturesque woodlands, down quiet country roads and along historic canals.
Ohio’s Buckeye Trail offers users 1,444 miles of discovery and a glimpse into the people and places that make the state unique.
Conceived in 1959, the trail was the brainstorm of a handful of hiking and outdoor enthusiasts who sought to create an Ohio version of the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine and is hiked by hundreds of people annually.
The Buckeye Trail founders wanted to boost tourism and lead non-Ohioans to the state’s less-discovered towns and villages.
Originally, they conceived of a footpath from Cincinnati to Lake Erie. But the trail idea quickly grew to something more — a circular pathway that took users through Ohio’s five eco-regions and led to greater discovery of the state’s present and past.
According to the Buckeye Trail Association’s website, the first 20-mile section was dedicated in September 1959 in Hocking County. The last section was dedicated 21 years later at Deer Lick Cave in what is now Cuyahoga National Park.
Over the years, the trail has been modified and improved. Loops through far northeast Lake, Geauga and Portage counties and southeast Noble, Monroe and Washington counties expose users to the beauty and history these areas offer.
Just last year, the trail was modified to include a new 16-mile portion between Shawnee State Forest and the Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County. Part of that coincides with the North Country Scenic Trail that runs from New York to North Dakota.
The Buckeye Trail is currently divided into 26 sections — each about 50 miles long. Each section has its own map and guides. Association volunteers maintain the trail.
Far from a traditional wooded pathway, 50 percent of the Buckeye Trail follows paved roads. In some places, hikers share their route with horses and bicycles.
Unlike the much-trod Appalachian Trail, only about 150 people have ever hiked all 1,444 miles of the Buckeye Trail. Most of those folks took it in sections.
Fewer than 10 have thru-hiked — meaning they hiked the full distance continuously for several months, according to Andy Niekamp who became the first solo thru-hiker to complete the trail in 2011.
Niekamp wrote a book, “Captain Blue On The Blue Blazes,” about his 88-day experience. The title comes from Niekamp’s trail nickname, Captain Blue, and the two-by-six-inch markers — all in Sherwin Williams’ Sweeping Blue — that guide users.
The 58-year-old retired IT professional was a veteran adventurer when he tackled the Ohio trail, having already hiked the Appalachian Trail three times.
“It was close to home and I knew it was there,” said the Kettering resident. “I decided to give it a try.”
He hiked the trail clockwise from Dayton north to Defiance, then across Ohio’s northern tier to Medina, and down the eastern edge to Stockport. From there he traversed the wooded southeast part of the state to Shawnee State Forest and on to Loveland in the Cincinnati suburbs. The final leg of his journey took him north through Caesar Creek State Park and home to Dayton.
He posted daily in a blog that was followed by hundreds of fellow backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts.
“It was a very rewarding experience,” Niekamp said.
Although he has hiked many other trails in other states, the Buckeye Trail remains Niekamp’s favorite “hands down.”
That’s because of the “four Ps” — the people, places, present and past that Niekamp encountered on his journey.
He discovered the genuine warmth and friendliness of Ohioans and learned to appreciate the state’s varied natural landscape. He also learned a little history and savored some less-traveled places that are unique to the state.
It wasn’t a walk in the park, Niekamp admits.
The spring of 2011 was one of the wettest on record. Campsites were few and far between. But friendly folks, “trail angels” he calls them, often took him in or provided life’s necessities.
His favorite part of the trail ran through eastern Ohio’s Muskingum Watershed District with its picturesque lakes and well-kept campgrounds. His least favorite were units of Wayne National Forest and Pike State Forest in the south where he found the trail poorly marked and maintained.
The journey inspired Niekamp to start his own company — Outdoor Adventure Connection. He now teaches backpacking and the skills necessary to hike long distances in the wilderness.
Niekamp offers these tips to anyone planning to hike the Buckeye Trail:
• Join the Buckeye Trail Association and follow the group’s Facebook page.
• Download the trail’s “Guthook” app to your cell phone. It will steer you and provide important tips.
• A tent, sleeping pad, rain gear and a pot for cooking are necessities.
• Good, well-padded footwear is a must since half of the trail follows paved roads.
• It is not necessary to carry a lot of food since stores and restaurants are available nearly everywhere along the route.
• A water purification system is also unnecessary. Potable water is readily available in most places.
• Be prepared to pitch a tent in non-traditional places like city parks since formal campsites are not plentiful on the trail.
• Be prepared to meet people as an ambassador of goodwill.