Crown jewel in Ohio
Visit Stebbins Gulch near Kirtland for dramatic cliffs and waterfalls
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.
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.