Key At-A-Glance Information
Length: 3.9 miles
Scenery: Native American earthworks, mounds, serpent mounds (only one is visible from the hike), woods, and the Little Miami River.
Exposure: Shade and full sun
Trail Surface: Soil, wooden stairs, asphalt, and mowed meadow
Hiking Time: 2.5-3 hours
Driving Distance: 1 hour north of Cincinnati
Access: April-October: Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Maps: USGS Oregonia
Wheelchair Accessible: No, but there is a 1-mile paved trail at Fort Ancient
Facilities: Restrooms and water at visitor center and museum
For More Information: (513) 932-4431 or (800) 283-8904
Special Comments: A stone serpent? Yes, that's right. You'll find that and more at this National Historic Landmark.
After entering the grounds, park in the lot near the visitor center and museum. Inside you’ll find information on Fort Ancient’s current events as well as a detailed series of displays about its history. Hands-on interactive learning displays in the children’s room keep young and old intrigued. Outside the center is a prehistoric garden that is created each year by Fort Ancient staff and volunteers.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Hopewell Native Americans built the earthworks and mounds at Fort Ancient as well as throughout the Ohio River Valley. Evidence also shows that the Hopewell relied on hunting and gathering for their food supplies, but they were also part of a trade network encompassing parts of North America. In fact, copper from the upper peninsula of Michigan, alligator teeth from Louisiana, and mica from the southern Appalachian Mountains have been discovered on this site.
The museum’s 9,000 square feet of interpretive displays and exhibits show visitors the history of Native Americans in Ohio. Many artifacts found at the site are exhibited, including everyday tools such as the ones the Hopewell used to create the earthworks.
Earthmoving tools were made from available resources. To create a shovel, the Hopewell bound the shoulder-blade bones of large mammals, such as deer or elk, to a long piece of wood. They split elk antlers to create rakes, and to create hoes they used sinew and rope to fasten clamshells and stones to polesized saplings or branches.
After digging, they collected soil into baskets and transferred it to the earthworks site. Archeologists estimate the soil-laden baskets weighed 35 to 45 pounds. Radiocarbon dating shows that it took the Hopewell nearly 200 years to create the elaborate earthworks and mounds.
The height of the walls varies from 4 to 23 feet. They enclose 100 acres and stretch an astonishing 3.5 miles. In several places, the walls form regular geometric patterns. The non-continuous walls are marked by 70 openings. Archeologists theorize that the alignment of the mound and the walls’ openings served as a type of calendar for the tribe to be able to plan. They could use the sun to track annual events and the moon to track events a decade apart.
To begin the hike, return to your vehicle after exploring the visitor center and drive to the shelter houses and picnic area near the South Fort.
Park your vehicle in the large parking lot to the south of the main road. A small sign points the way to the South Overlook and Earthworks trails. Cross the mowed grass to the South Overlook trailhead. Interpretive maps are inside the mailbox near the trailhead.
The earthworks enclosure was built in three main parts: the North, Middle, and South forts. Interpretive signs throughout the hike explain the history of the earthworks. At the trail split at 0.2 miles, stay to the left. The trail is a narrow path through the woods dominated by sugar maple trees.
At the bench at 0.26 miles, follow the trail to the right, passing in front of a large wooden sign. You’ll see multiple spur trails in this area and it’s easy to take one by accident. The approved trails do not impact the earthworks and are relatively flat. If you find yourself hiking up a small hill, backtrack until you are in the flat area again and look for the approved trail.
The hills in front of you are the earthworks. Continue following this trail as it leads you back near the trail split. Turn left and continue on the trail among the hickory and tulip poplar trees.
The Hopewell constructed and used the earthworks between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300. The Hopewell culture was made up of several Native American tribes and encompassed a wide range of economic, political, and spiritual beliefs and practices. The common thread was the construction of earthen walls built in geometric patterns and mounds. The Hopewell were also known for their diverse network of contacts extending from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. This vast trading network brought mica, shark’s teeth, obsidian, copper, and seashells to Ohio.
Before the Hopewell culture, the Adena lived in this area from 700 B.C. to 0. Long after the Hopewell culture at this site ended, the Fort Ancient culture, believed to be descendants of the Hopewell, lived and farmed here from A.D. 890 until 1650.
Walk to the benches under the large hickory and oak trees. Follow the boardwalk to the South Overlook of the little Miami River Gorge, which is some 270 feet deep. This gorge was created during the Wisconsin Ice Age 18,000 years ago. Glacial meltwaters created new watercourses throughout this region.
Return to the trail along the edge of the woods and grassy area. Pass the kiosk, and at 0.44 miles follow the trail to the left and into the woods. The path leads downhill, with a fair amount of poison ivy on both sides of the trail. The forest is composed of sugar maples, oaks, and basswoods. Cross the bridge at 0.49 miles. This area is full of periwinkle, which was planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps in an effort to stabilize the easily eroded hillsides. Cross two more bridges over the next 200 feet.
Here you’ll find plenty of redbuds and dogwoods, which in spring burst with lavender redbud blooms and pinkish-white dogwood blooms. Cross several more footbridges over the next 0.2 miles as the trail winds along a hillside through a forest of hickory, boxelder, spicebush, sugar maple, and sassafras trees.
At 1 mile you’ll reach a junction with a connector trail to the Little Miami River, which you will take. Follow the switchback and descend the staircase. When this trail connects with a bike path, turn right and follow the asphalt path 0.4 miles to the canoe livery. Turn left onto State Route 350. Carefully cross the bridge on the left side of the road.
Turn left 250 feet after the bridge and into an open field. Walk toward the Little Miami River and follow the treeline for 760 feet until you reach the opening marked with a white blaze. Follow the mowed path to the stone serpent, Kern Effigy 2. (Kern Effigy 1 is farther to the east and not included in this hike.)
Kern Effigy 2 is a prehistoric stone serpent that was created with carefully positioned slabs of limestone. It was discovered in 1983 and fully uncovered by team effort in 1985. The stone serpent’s sinuous body stretches nearly 154 feet and is more than 4.5 feet wide. Carbon dating places the construction of the effigy during the time period of the Hopewell culture.
By standing outside at 8:40 a.m., in the middle of winter, scientists proved their hypothesis. The stone serpent was used as an astronomical marker to pinpoint the winter solstice. The Kern effigies are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Return to OH 350, turn left and walk uphill, through the grassy opening, and to the stone house that was the Crossed Keys Tavern, which operated from 1809 to 1820. This building is on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural and engineering significance.
Retrace your steps along OH 350, turn right on the bike path, follow it to the Fort Ancient Trail entrance, and retrace your steps to your vehicle.
GPS Trailhead Coordinates
Caesar Creek State Park and Caesar Creek Gorge State Nature Preserve are just minutes away to the north and offer additional hiking trails. Waynesville is known for its antiques shops as well as down-home cooking restaurants.
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