TOBOSO, Ohio – There is a bit of everything at Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve. You’ll find nature, water, history and trails in a picturesque gorge with cliffs and rock outcroppings carved by the Licking River. But the Licking County preserve’s most imposing feature is known as the Deep Cut.
In the winter of 1851, the Central Ohio Railroad used 1,200 kegs of black powder to blast the 700-foot-long cut in the Blackhand sandstone. It is 65 feet high and 30 feet wide. It looks and feels like a railroad tunnel — without the top. It is an impressive feature, and the park’s main trail-bikeway runs through it.
The Central Ohio Railroad became part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1865.
History in stone
A short side trail from the Deep Cut takes you to the river and the Blackhand Rock, where a dark, hand-shaped Indian petroglyph engraved into a rock was once found.
Some say the hand marked the way to nearby flint deposits at Flint Ridge in Licking and Muskingum counties, which Ohio Indians relied on for tools and weapons. Or the petroglyph might have at least signaled that land near the flint was neutral and they should not fight one another. No one knows.
Early white settlers who saw the petroglyph said it was twice the size of a human hand and very distinctive. It was destroyed in 1828 when builders of the Ohio & Erie Canal used dynamite to blast away the sandstone cliffs on the north bank of the river when the canal was being built. Other petroglyphs survived to about 1890.
Blackhand Gorge is not your typical state nature preserve. There are canal locks from the Ohio & Erie Canal, plus remnants of the steam-powered Central Ohio Railroad and electric-powered interurban trolley cars.
You can pedal the 4-mile-long Blackhand Trail or paddle a canoe through what was once called the Licking Narrows. Volunteers are refurbishing a small log cabin at the preserve’s eastern entrance to become a new visitor center.
Blackhand Gorge, located eight miles east of Newark, is a one-of-a-kind place that features all modes of transportation, says manager Jody Holland of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
The gorge’s rugged topography is laced with hiking trails, plus the paved bike-and-hike trail. The steep-walled preserve features dramatic cliffs and rocky outcroppings.
Blackhand Gorge feels more like a park than a nature preserve, with its cultural and historical attractions.
The Blackhand Trail runs 4.2 miles east to west along the south bank where the Licking River has carved a gorge through the Blackhand sandstone. The trail, built in 1980, was repaved last year by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Recent trail improvements were paid for by Enterprise Product Partners, the company behind the ATEX Pipeline that has been built to carry ethane from Ohio’s Utica shale south to the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline crosses the 957-acre preserve in Hanover Township.
The agreement was negotiated by Ohio DNR and the Friends of Blackhand Gorge, a grass-roots group.
Using the trails
You can access the bikeway’s eastern terminus at the preserve’s main entrance off County Road 273 at Toboso. That is accessible off state Route 146 in eastern Licking County. The western terminus of the trail with a small parking lot is off County Road 668, accessible off state Route 16.
The preserve has six other trails ranging from a half-mile to 2½ miles. The trails are well marked and easy to follow, stretching a total of 10 miles.