Athens County is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts

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cherry trees
The cherry trees are the unofficial mascot of spring in Athens. (Julie Geiss photo)

Snow was still falling, adding to the inches already accumulated on the ground, when my daughter and I started on our road trip. 

It was a first for us, just the two of us heading out on a small trip a few hours southwest. Little did we realize we were about to have an early spring experience. 

After driving two hours, we noticed the snow was gone and instead green grass was growing in the median and along the side of the highway. 

When we had to make a quick stop in Marietta we were surprised to see flowering trees in bloom. We transitioned from a barren winter landscape with slick roads to sunshine and springtime. 

Gifted blossoms

Even though the temperature remained chilly, we decided to explore parts of Athens County and check out the first spring blossoms. The Hockhocking Adena Bikeway is 22 miles of paved trails through the foothills of Appalachia. 

We walked the section near Peden Stadium on the campus of Ohio University. The cherry trees are the unofficial mascot of spring in Athens. Their blooms are a more reliable sign of the onset of spring than a date on the calendar. 

The trees symbolically represent spring, but also are a reminder of the friendship with Chubu University in Kasugai, Japan. The cherry trees were a gift from Chubu University for Ohio University’s 175th anniversary. 

Each year the trees begin to bloom in late March or early April, and a global partnership continues between the two universities over 6700 miles apart. 

Even though it was too cold for bike riding, we did enjoy our short walk along the trail. Several of the cherry trees had their earliest soft pink blossoms. I wanted to somehow shelter the delicate buds from the impending below-freezing temperatures. 

Strouds Run

Later in the day, our exploration took us away from the city of Athens and farther into the woods. We drove to Strouds Run State Park, located just outside the city. 

The park is named after early settlers to the area. Purchased by the state between 1948 and 1953, the land was set aside for forest conservation. Over 2600 acres of hardwood forest stretch out over hills and valleys creating the perfect terrain for outdoor enthusiasts. 

There are hiking and mountain biking trails along with water activities in season. A dam was built in 1960 creating Dow Lake. 

While we visited in late March, the lake was still at its lower levels for winter. Many state-owned reservoirs with dams are drained in October to accommodate repairs and maintenance during the winter months. 

During the summer season, the 161-acre lake is the perfect location for fishing and boating activities under a 10-hp limit. 

While I stood looking at the drained lake, I could envision many hours of kayaking and paddleboarding in warmth and sunshine. Largemouth bass and crappie are frequently caught along the shore and on the water. 

Instead of basking in the warm summer rays of my imagination, we bundled up for a hike in the finicky springtime weather. We chose to take Trace Trail before joining the Finger Rock Trail. We hiked just over half a mile, mostly uphill, to reach a large outcropping of sandstone rocks. 

The area is part of the unglaciated Appalachian plateau. Glacial meltwaters eroded the valleys forming the now-familiar topographical features of southeastern Ohio. After reaching the large boulders, we climbed to the top while avoiding slick moss and the new growth of ferns. Without leaves on the trees, we had an obstructed view of Dow Lake. 

The trip back on the trail was more leisurely than the uphill struggle. We admired the tall trees, mainly oak, beech, maple, hickory and tulip trees. At the ends of branches, small buds formed, waiting for warmth and sunshine before erupting into leaves. The forest floor did provide some early wildflowers, stragglers before the masses expected in April. 

Once we reached our car, we traded our hiking boots for sneakers once again and headed for a local coffee shop. The warmth from the coffee and a few minutes indoors helped to bring our extremities back to acceptable temperatures. 

Our mother-daughter trip was nearing an end. With brilliant sunshine on our way home, we could pretend it was balmy outside our car instead of the true 35 degrees. 

Athens County is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The blossoming cherry trees mark the beginning of the prime time for hiking, biking, and boating. Warmer months are on the horizon and we wait in joyful expectation with maps in hand.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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