Metroparks Trail Challenge: Ending on a high note at the Rocky River Reservation

Erin O’Brien has accepted the Cleveland Metroparks 2022 Trail Challenge. She has been chronicling her adventures on the trails throughout the year and just completed her 10th challenge—earning her a 2022 Trail Challenge sticker.

For my 10th and final installment of the Metroparks 2022 Trail Challenge Presented by Cigna, my husband and I headed to the Rocky River Reservation to tackle the Fort Hill trail loop and scout around some of the other trails.

Exploring HIdeAway Hollow inside the Rocky River Nature CenterWe got there a little after 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 10. The place was teeming with kids, both inside and outside of the Nature Center. They were climbing in and out of "HideAway Hollow," a make-believe oak tree. They were skipping along the more than five miles of trails surrounding the center. They were conversing with a model of the giant Dunkleosteus—a ferocious fish that lived in the area 360 million years ago. And they were laughing—boy, were they laughing.

Given a scene such as this, a person could almost forget our troubled times.

Unlike our previous treks, the Fort Hill walk is relatively short (about a mile), but it features a giant staircase—155 steps—that leads to a spectacular overlook where visitors can take in breathtaking views of Rocky River. As for those steps, I was sure glad to see a lookout balcony about half way up; I huffed and puffed while using the sweeping vista as a convenient excuse to take five.

"Would you just … just … look … at …  this … view!"

As gorgeous as that interim view is, the payoff at the top is certainly worth all those steps. Once there, take all the time you like viewing the river, the sheer shale cliffs, and resident wildlife. You might even spy a bald eagle.

This trail is home to prehistoric earthworks, remnants of a structure built atop the hill some 2000 years ago. Unlike the fascinating stone carvings on Henry Church Rock and Worden's Ledges, I failed to locate these features (although to be honest, I could have tried a little harder).

Later, however, one of the Metroparks' naturalists assured me I was not alone. She said the three mounds, which were once six feet tall walls, are now very subtle rises—about two feet—and are covered with vegetation. For those who want to make sure they see them, I recommend chatting with a Metroparks' staff member prior to scaling the hill so you know exactly what to look for.

The Fort Hill staircase.As for the staircase, it was rebuilt in 2016 and elevates hikers to 90 feet above the Rocky River. It's one of those centerpiece features that transform a terrific hike into a cool adventure with a destination, not unlike Squire's Castle in North Chagrin or Mill Creek Falls in Garfield. You can surely take this grand staircase back down the hill, or you can opt to forge onward and follow the trail loop around to the north, where you'll descend some considerably older and more rustic stairs.

We chose the rustic route, and while the prehistoric earthworks may have been hard to find, there was plenty else to enjoy. We descended the old steps and ambled around the peaceful West Channel Pond, which recalled the calm and inviting Hinckley Lake. Then we veered off to follow the 1.5-mile Mount Pleasant Loop trail, which took us across Shepard Lane and up another significant incline with more spectacular views.

Similar to the early spring treks we took around Deer Lick Cave Loop in Brecksville and our hike through West Creek Reservation, the sights along the forest walks were unencumbered by leaves. Hence whenever the trail edged close to the ravine walls, there was no underestimating how steep they really are.

"YIKES," I bellowed. "Don't get too close to the edge!"

For those looking for shorter classic hikes, this is an ideal spot. Unlike the long walk along Edgewater Lakefront Reservation, which is a grand open-air corridor that includes a number of authentic industrial features, these paths unfurl amid dense and beautiful natural settings.

The network of trails surrounding the Rocky River Nature Center stay pretty close to the building with lengths ranging from a quarter mile to one-and-a-half miles. All of the trails we explored were natural surface and navigating them required some attention—as tree roots easily turn into tripping hazards when covered with leaves.

Those seeking a longer walk, run, or ride can hop on the paved all-purpose trail, which extends more than 13 miles through the north and south portions of Rocky River Reservation. Likewise, the bridle trail extends for more than 14 miles through the park.

By the time we wrapped up for the day, we'd logged about four miles. It was early afternoon when we stepped into the Nature Center to retrieve my sticker, which felt wholly earned considering I'd logged more than 47 miles along the Emerald Necklace since starting the Challenge back in March at the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation. I was grinning from ear-to-ear as I stepped up to the information desk.

The author finally earned her 2022 Trail Challenge sticker."I completed the 2022 Trail Challenge," I smugly announced.

The assertion was met with no small amount of doubt since I did not have a copy of my official trail list. After some cajoling and fervent insisting that not only did I complete 10 trails, but I also wrote a host of published stories about them, I finally got my sticker.

Since this essay is already chock full of links, I'll forgo my usual "tidbit" roundup and end it with a note of deep gratitude for the Emerald Necklace and the team of people who make sure it's clean, green, and open to all. This quiet amenity has always been part of my life, stretching back to the early 1980s when I was one of those bouncy teens tossing a Frisbee in the fields next to Tyler Barn.

Since then, I've spent countless hours in the park system. Nonetheless, many of the wandering paths and thoughtful features were new to me as I stepped through the 2022 challenge. They delighted and surprised me at every turn. As for the old favorites, they offered subtle comfort in a time when we need all the comfort we can get, particularly when it blends nature, history, and the invigorating simplicity of a good long walk.

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.