|With the leaves off the trees, a visit to Blackhand Gorge will reveal scenery that is more visible or pronounced than at other times of the year. (High resolution photo)
Fascinating legends lie behind the names of many state nature preserves, and the story behind Licking Countys Blackhand Gorge
does not disappoint. It involves a mysterious cliff painting whose meaning was lost with the passage of its Native American creators.
A trip to this history-rich, 980-acre state nature preserve near Newark is a great way to fight cabin fever and see some of Ohios most spectacular scenery. At the bottom of Blackhand Gorge 320 feet at its deepest point youll find a four-mile asphalt path on the south side of the Licking River. The paths relatively flat terrain allows for some extraordinary views of the areas geology.
Now to the mystery surrounding this preserves namesake. As the story goes, a sooty black image of an oversized hand was once visible on a gorge wall high above the Licking River. The meaning of the image (or petroglyph) was never clear to early Ohioans, but popular belief claims it helped direct Native Americans to nearby flint quarries. The flint was fashioned into arrowheads, axe heads, jewelry and other tools. Many of the artifacts produced from this area now known as Flint Ridge have been excavated from locations as far east as the Atlantic coast, as far west as Kansas City, and as far south as Louisiana.
Right now, with the leaves off the trees, a visit to the preserve will reveal scenery that is more visible or pronounced than at other times of the year. Uneven weathering on rock formations present some interesting honeycombed effects byproducts of thousands of years of wind and water erosion. Elsewhere in the preserve, tree roots have wrapped around rocky outcrops like long, bony fingers, as if to keep the steep gorge walls from tumbling down. And freezing temperatures have created ice formations that grow like chin whiskers across the face of aging sandstone cliffs.
Sadly, one thing your visit to Blackhand Gorge will not reveal is the prehistoric petroglyph, which disappeared in the early 1800s. As the Ohio-Erie Canal made its way across eastern Ohio, it followed the Licking River into Blackhand Gorge. To widen a narrow gap, the petroglyphs wall was blasted, destroying the image and initiating a new chapter in the gorges history. Then, at the turn of the century, progress left yet another mark on the gorge. Railway workers tunneled through solid rock, creating a link between the cities of Newark and Columbus.
Today, you can still see evidence of these bygone eras within the preserve, such as canal wall sections, imbedded along the riverbank. Or you can follow the asphalt trail through the Deep Cut a vestige of railway construction and view steep, towering walls that line both sides of the path.
Geologically speaking, Blackhand Gorges history began long before the arrival of the rail line or mysterious petroglyph. Millions of years ago, Ice Age glaciers dammed a westward flowing river whose waters eventually cut through layers of ancient sandstone, leaving behind a deep ravine of jutting cliffs, caves and natural rock bridges. Today, the Licking River flows beneath rugged rock ledges and past tall stands of willow, sycamore, cottonwood and boxelder trees.
The ancient cliff painting lent its name to more than the preserve. Black Hand is also the description given to the layer of rock upon which the famous image was etched. From Newark to the Hocking Hills, Black Hand sandstone is found in the ridges and hills that form some of the Ohios most dramatic scenery.
Hikers with a spirit of adventure should explore paths on the north side of the river. Many of these challenging trails lead up out of the gorge and reveal some breathtaking views of the ravine and river valley below.
You can reach Blackhand Gorge by driving eight miles east of Newark on S.R. 16, then turn southeast on S.R. 146 for a quarter mile; continue south on C.R. 273 for 1.5 miles to the preserves entrance.
Remember, wintertime is no excuse to stay inside. Blackhand Gorge is just one of the many preserves and parks in Ohio that offer us an opportunity to learn about our states history while helping us avoid becoming cold-weather couch potatoes!