Crown jewel in Ohio

Visit Stebbins Gulch near Kirtland for dramatic cliffs and waterfalls

By Bob Downing

Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)

Published: Friday, Aug. 17 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

There is no trail along Stebbins Run, a cold-water creek that tumbles into the East Branch of the Chagrin River, so hikers must often walk in the water in Stebbins Gulch near Kirtland, Ohio.

Bob Downing, Mct

KIRTLAND, Ohio — My winter hike into Stebbins Gulch never took place.

Big January blizzard. No way to get to the Holden Arboretum east of Cleveland in Lake County.

The hike was pushed back to May. It became a spring hike.

Stebbins Gulch sounds like a place you'd find in the slickrock country of southern Utah or perhaps in West Texas. It is actually a picturesque and rugged ravine that houses Stebbins Run, a cold-water creek that tumbles into the East Branch of the Chagrin River. It lies east of the arboretum in northwest Geauga County, Ohio.

It features rocky outcroppings and waterfalls. Stebbins Run is a noisy little stream that gurgles and splashes with clear water. It is lined by trees and, in some places, cliffs.

Stebbins Gulch is the crown jewel of the Holden Arboretum's natural areas and one of the most unspoiled in Northeast Ohio. It is also one of the best day hikes in Ohio, with a remoteness that is surprising.

The gorge is up to 200 feet deep and up to 500 feet wide. It has six waterfalls, two of which are about 20 feet tall. The stream drops 100 feet in the Holden-owned section that covers 825 acres on both sides of the ravine.

The gorge features five geological layers, mostly shales and sandstones. The rocks vary in color from tans and buffs to dark grays and blacks with bits of crystalline and white quartz pebbles.

The bedrock ravine system traps cool air in the summer and keeps out colder air in the winter. It has its own unique microclimate that is more like Ontario than Northeast Ohio, rarely climbing above 75 degrees.

Once you are in the gorge, there is no trail. You are hiking in and along the rocky stream.

The fern-lined canyon narrows and the walls rise as you hike up the rock-filled streambed. The features you find depend on the rock type involved.

The cliffs, up to 75 feet high, are most dramatic where the harder sandstone overhangs the gorge. The softer shale below has been washed away by Stebbins Run.

It was designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1968.

The only way to see Stebbins Gulch is to sign up in advance for guided monthly 2.5-mile hikes that are offered by the arboretum.

I was among the 30 people who met on a Saturday afternoon at the arboretum's main building off Sperry Road. We met our guides, Tony and Fred, got a brief introduction to what was in store and then we carpooled to an unmarked grassy parking area about two miles away off Mitchell Mills Road.

We set off into the woods and slowly made our way into Stebbins Gulch. We stopped along an exposed bank to learn about the shale and sandstone.

The rocks in the gulch are up to 370 million years old and are the remnants of an ancient mountain range that predated the Appalachians. The deposits were at the bottom of ancient oceans.

The harder Berea sandstone that forms the waterfalls and most striking cliffs are similar to the rock found in Bedford, Chagrin Falls, Berea and North Olmsted.

Around the corner, we walked in the stream to the edge of a waterfall that dropped about 18 feet. The water seemed to slip-slide over the gray shales at what's called Winter Wren Falls, unofficially nicknamed for the rare wrens that nest in the nearby hemlocks.

We then backtracked and headed upstream. Walking wasn't always easy. We slogged slowly, climbing waterfalls, scrambling over logjams, fallen boulders and landslides, carefully stepping from rock to rock in midstream and bushwhacking 1.5 miles upstream without a trail.

We were advised by the guides to seek out the lowest spot possible to place our feet.