CYNITHIANA, Ohio - Fort Hill State Memorial is a place with interesting options.
It is home to some of the best hiking in the state, interesting geology and rare plants in a surprisingly wild corner of southwest Ohio. It is also home to ancient and little-known Indian earthworks, which are the biggest attraction.
That's a lot of options at the 1,300-acre site that is owned by the Ohio Historical Society and managed by the Arc of Appalachia Preserve, a grass-roots group.
One trail every visitor should hike is the 2.2-mile Fort Trail, which will take you to the plateau-top earthworks in southeastern Highland County.
Fort Hill is home to one of the best-preserved Indian hilltop enclosures in North America, a structure built at least 1,500 years ago. The earthworks were built on the flat-topped ridge by the Hopewell Indians between 300 B.C. and A.D. 500.
They stretch 1.5 miles and the 34 sections encompass 35 acres atop the hill, which is isolated with steep slopes. In places, the wall sections are 15 to 20 feet high and are irregularly spaced, with 33 gateways.
The Hopewell culture is known for its immense geometric earthworks built in Ohio floodplains in the shape of precise circles, squares and octagons. Often these enclosures encircled burial and ceremonial grounds. Thousands were built in southern Ohio, although most have been wiped out.
What you see now at Fort Hill are earthen banks from 6 to 15 feet high and three shallow pits where the dirt came from. Not all are easy to spot amid the trees and vegetation. Many visitors on the main trail walk right through a gateway without realizing it.
The best time to visit is late fall through early spring, when the leaves are off the trees and the view from the top is the least obstructed.
The Fort Hill earthworks were initially thought to be a fortress because they were atop high ground. But that is now seen as unlikely because the trenches are inside the earthworks, not outside, and because of the size of the enclosure, experts say.
That makes it more likely that it was used for religious, ceremonial or social purposes, they say. But no one knows for sure. No artifacts have been found inside the enclosure.
It is one of perhaps a half dozen similar hilltop earthworks built by Hopewell Indians in southern Ohio. They include Fort Ancient in Warren County, Fort Miami in Hamilton County and Spruce Hill in Ross County.
It appears that the Hopewells built circular earthworks not far from Fort Hill in the Brush Creek Valley to the south. It is accessible to Fort Hill visitors off the Buckeye Trail at the southern end of the park.
The red-blazed Fort Trail is a loop that follows the earthworks atop the hill and then drops down off the plateau before returning to the parking lot. It gives you a chance to see the earthworks up close.
The site, acquired by the state in 1932, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Natural Landmark.
From 1952 to 1954, Raymond Baby of the Ohio Historical Society directed excavations near the base of the hill. There were two circular earthworks there and many artifacts were found in surrounding fields, leading archaeologists to believe a village was there.
A well-preserved earthwork forms a circular walled enclosure with a diameter of 170 feet and a height of 2.5 to 3 feet.
Because a Hopewell bladelet was found in the mound, it is believed that the mound is about 2,000 years old.
Archaeologists have discovered two concentric circles of postholes directly beneath the circular earthworks, but there are no supporting posts in the middle of the enclosure. The original structure may have looked more like a fenced wall or an arbor than a roofed building.
Archaeologists also found evidence of a second structure. The rectangular building measured 180 feet by 60 feet and included central support posts. It may have been an artisan workshop or short-term habitation for visitors to Fort Hill ceremonies, according to some.
Baby found two small fire pits and artifacts, including Hopewell pottery, flint tools and mica fragments. Many of the flakes of flint came from Harrison County, Ind.
There was also a knife or spear point of obsidian, a shiny black volcanic rock. It was later determined that the rock came from Obsidian Cliff at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and the artifact was made about 300 A.D.
In 1964, Olaf Prufer of Kent State University excavated a trench through the Fort Hill embankment. He also dug several pits within the enclosure to search for evidence of what the Hopewells might have been doing at Fort Hill, but he found no artifacts.
Prufer discovered the Hopewells built Fort Hill in two stages. They first built a wall of earth and stone, then covered the inner part with large, flat sandstone slabs.
Much later, the Hopewells built an inner wall of stones piled closely together. They added more earth and stone until the inner and outer walls combined into one wall. Finally, they placed a layer of sandstone slabs over the entire wall.
Fort Hill has 11 miles of rugged trails, including the 4.1-mile Gorge Trail, the two-mile Canby's Mountain Lover Trail and the 1.2-mile Deer Trail. The trails, in some cases, feature steep climbs and stream crossings.
The Gorge Trail - rocky and rooted and often slippery - includes three natural stone bridges or arches of dolomite over Baker Fork, as well as a stop at the hilltop earthworks, cliffs and outcroppings.
The Buckeye Trail, the North Country National Trail and the American Discovery Trail all wind through the preserve. The trails are rugged, so hikers should be in moderate to good condition.
Hiking trails may be closed in late fall during deer gun season; check ahead.
Fort Hill is one of the oldest and largest examples of native forest in southern Ohio. It lies at the western edge of the Appalachian Plateau and marks the border in Ohio between areas once covered by glaciers and those that escaped the giant ice sheets.
The soil on the hillsides is acidic; that along the streams is alkaline. The result is an ecologically diverse region that is home to seven major plant communities, rare and endangered plants and animals.
In 2009, the Bainbridge-based Arc of Appalachia Preserve took over management of Fort Hill and the nearby Serpent Mound State Memorial from the money-strapped Ohio Historical Society. It offers programs and hikes at Fort Hill throughout the year.
The small museum at Fort Hill State Memorial is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends from May to October. Admission is free. Hours are dawn to dusk daily.
To get to the memorial, take U.S. 50 west from Chillicothe or east from Hillsboro. Go south seven miles on state Route 753. At state Route 41, turn right and go south a half-mile to the entrance to the memorial in Brush Creek Township. The site is five miles north of Sinking Springs and three miles south of Cynithiana, about 3 hours from Akron.
For information, go to http://www.arcofappalachia.org or call 937-588-3221 or 800-282-8905.
You could combine a visit to Fort Hill with the Serpent Mound State Memorial. The site with a quarter-mile-long snake effigy is 20 minutes away off state Route 73 in northern Adams County, four hours from Akron. The mound appears to represent a giant snake uncoiling in seven deep curves.
Admission is free but there is a $7 parking fee. There is a small museum, and an observation tower offers an up-high look at the earthworks.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends in April and May, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily June through October, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends November through Dec. 18. It is also open for the winter solstice.
For information, call 937-587-2796 or 800-752-2757 or check out http://www.ohiohistory.org/places/serpent, or http://www.arcofappalachia.org or http://www.serpentmound.org.
Bob Downing: firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun