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 are several small waterfalls, 3 to 4 feet tall. You aren't walking in the stream all the time; you cut from bank to bank. Our guides pointed out fossils of giant ferns and squid-like creatures captured in the rocky layers.

About eight hikers took spills, because walking on wet rocks covered with green algae was a lot like ice skating. The water at its deepest was about knee high in some pools. But the stream can rise 4 to 5 feet in minutes after heavy rains, capable of washing house-size boulders downstream.

The guides helped everyone up what was called the Big Falls, a 20-foot climb. With nearby cliffs, it was one of the most impressive spots along the hike.

Above the falls, the canyon narrows. There is a flat streambed and vertical walls. There is also a climb up a steep, wet rocky slope to the exit trail.

Stebbins Run has, in places, cut beneath the groundwater table so that water trickles from cliffs and seeps into the stream.

Footwear was strange. Many in our party wore tennis shoes. I opted for hiking boots for traction and was willing to let them get wet. So did others.

Some of the Stebbins Gulch veterans opted for knee-high rubber boots. That may be the best footwear on winter hikes, but they really weren't necessary on our late-spring hike with low water levels.

The only other thing you need is a sturdy stick or a hiking staff.

It was my second hike in the Stebbins Gulch. I had done a winter hike in 2000. In the cold, Stebbins Gulch becomes a winter wonderland decorated with giant icicles hanging from cliffs and snow clinging to the hemlocks.

The sandstone lets the water flow through the rock. Springs in the cliffs add to the ice formations and the flow of the stream. Walking in the stream on a frosty hike surely doesn't appeal to everyone.

The gorge has frequent slumps, landslides and large rockfalls. It also has distinct flora and fauna, due to its unique geology. There are some old-growth trees because the gorge was not logged or grazed because of its rugged topography.

The south side of the ravine includes a beech-maple forest owned by Holden Arboretum.

Admission on a Stebbins Gulch hike is $5 for members and $10 for others. Advance reservations are required. Children under 12 are not permitted. It is a rigorous hike and participants are expected to be able to handle it.

The area around Stebbins Gulch was first settled in 1813. Hosea Stebbins farmed the land and raised a family of nine children.

The arboretum acquired Stebbins Gulch in 1957 when S. Livingston Mather donated 300 acres to Holden. Another 125 acres was later acquired.

Stebbins Gulch is one of Holden's two National Natural Landmarks. The other is Bole Woods, a 70-acre tract of big trees.

One of its most popular natural areas is Little Mountain, a one-time fashionable vacation spot with hotels in the 19th and 20th centuries. The L-shaped hill with three knobs, the highest at 1,266 feet, sits on the border between Lake and Geauga counties and includes cliffs and crevasses of Sharon conglomerate.

A new attraction at Holden Arboretum this year is Buckeye Bud's Adventure Woods for youngsters.

The playground is geared for youngsters 3 to 10 years old. There is a mini-zipline, a woodland obstacle course, an oversized loom, bird-feeding stations, an outdoor theater, a log cabin and an observation tower for nature watching. It will be open through mid-October.

The arboretum covers more than 3,600 acres and has more than 120,000 plants. It was established in 1931 with 100 acres. Today the arboretum with 20 miles of trails and walkways gets about 85,000 visitors a year. It is known for its collections of woody and herbaceous plants.

It is hosting an outdoor traveling exhibit through Oct. 28, "Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat."

Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children 6 through 15.

Holden Arboretum is east of Cleveland off Interstate 90. Exit at state Route 306 (Mentor-Kirtland exit). Head south on state Route 306 to the bottom of the hill and Kirtland-Chardon Road. Turn left and head south for 3.6 miles to Sperry Road. Turn left and go 1.4 miles to the visitor center.

For Holden Arboretum information, call 440-946-4400 or see www.holdenarb.org.