Metroparks Trail Challenge: exploring the rock ledges—or rock legends—of Hinckley and South Chagrin

Erin O’Brien has accepted the Cleveland Metroparks 2022 Trail Challenge. She will be chronicling her adventures on the trails throughout the year.

For my fourth and fifth installments of the Metroparks 2022 Trail Challenge Presented by Cigna, I trekked two trails featuring curious stone carvings that were engraved on nature's majestic walls nearly 100 years apart and have been delighting anyone who's come upon them ever since.

Exploring the Sphinx of Hinckley on Worden's Ledges Loop trail. I tackled Worden's Trailhead in Hinkley on April 24 with my husband and friends Rex and Carrie Cassidy, and the Henry Church Rock trail in Bentleyville, just outside of Chagrin Falls, with buddy Kim Chapman on May 13.

The trail list designates Worden's Ledges loop to be a scant 0.7 miles and the Henry Church Loop to cover 0.6 miles, but oh, what a load of fun and fascinating adventure is packed into those short routes.

Both hikes are fairly easy, although the Henry Rock Church loop includes an elaborate array of steps—some of which might be a bit slippery in wet conditions—and many do not have railings.

Part of Hinckley Reservation, the history of Worden's Ledges goes back to the mid-1800s. Hiram Worden built a homestead on Ledge Road in 1862 to accommodate wife Melissa and their four children. His daughter Nettie inherited the property, and her third husband Noble Stuart took ownership when she died in 1945.

From about 1944 through 1948, Stuart created a host of sandstone carvings on and around the property. Some are easy to find (you cannot miss Jesus) and others take a bit more work (yes, there are pyramids in Hinckley). Searching for Stuarts' strange stone carvings feels like a would-be Easter egg hunt. You'll leave wondering if you missed any of his efforts—and looking forward to a return trip to find them.

Henry Church RockSome 20 miles to the northeast (as the crow flies), all of the carvings associated with Henry Church Rock in the South Chagrin Reservation are right there on an enormous boulder adjacent to the Chagrin River. Originally titled “The Rape of the Indian Tribes by the White Man,” and signed by Church in 1885, the carvings include the figure of a woman (although she might be confused with a mermaid), a swaddled infant, a human skeleton, a quiver of arrows, a hatchet, a serpent, and other things. Additionally, an intricate depiction of the United States Capitol Building is carved into the side of the rock facing the river, apart from the rest of the images.

As for the artist, Henry Church is billed as one of the "great self-taught artists of 19th Century America." He opened Church's Art Museum in 1888 in Geauga Lake, which was the area's first commercial art gallery. It featured work created solely by Church, who died in 1908.

My fellow hikers and I ventured beyond the Worden and Church routes during the respective treks, racking up five miles in South Chagrin and four miles in Hinckley—and we could have kept going and going and going. Both of these large reservations have an extensive network of trails and features to tickle your adventurous fancy.

The 90-acre Hinckley Lake includes free swimming at Spillway Beach, and accommodations for standup paddle boarding and kayaking. In the Chagrin Reservation, kids and teens alike love to splash along Chagrin River, while the Miles Road and Coasting Hill sledding areas serve up endless fun in the snowy months.

Sharing the trail in Hinckley ReservationFor those with four-footed friends, more than 15 miles of bridle trails in South Chagrin extend all the way to the Polo Fields in Moreland Hills. Hinckley boasts nearly nine miles of equestrian trails.

As for the short loop hikes featured today, they're less about logging miles and more about discovery. Because while thousands of visitors have brushed their fingers along these stone carvings over the years, coming upon Stuart's primitive rendering of Ty Cobb in the middle of a hilly Northeast Ohio forest will have you feeling like a 21st Century version of Lewis and Clark, as will your first sight of Church's elaborate relief work.

The thrill of discovery is quickly followed by a burst of curiosity. How long did these carvings take? Was Henry Church perched on a precarious ladder while he chiseled away at the stone? Did Noble Stuart anticipate a cool glass of lemonade as he worked? Were there blisters on their hands? Heaviness in their hearts?

As you stand in front of these carvings blinking in wonder, it's easy to let the gentle breeze whisk away those questions and imagine the wind is really the spirit of Church and Stuart sighing next to you.   

Some takeaways:

• After all that hiking, cool off at Ledge Pool in Hinckley. This crowd-pleasing amenity opens Saturday, June 4 with affordable passes for the day or the season.

• If Hinckley Reservation rings a bell you can't quite put your finger on, the park is home to the Buzzard Roost, where the notorious birds are welcomed every March to much fanfare.

• Built in 1938, Look About Lodge in South Chagrin Reservation is the launchpad for an array of lively programming such as Hike-a-Baby and Woodland Explorers sessions.

• Lastly, Henry Church used early phonograph technology to record remarks to be played at his 1908 funeral that concluded with the venerable artist saying, "Goodbye at present."

The main entrance to Hinckley Reservation is at 1 Metropolitan Park West (near State Road intersection), and that for South Chagrin Reservation is at SOM Center Road and Hawthorn Parkway.
 

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.