NEGLEY, Ohio — Sheepskin Hollow is not for everyone.
It is one of the wildest spots I have visited in roaming Ohio for nearly 11 years.
Sheepskin Hollow is the 453-acre state nature preserve in Columbiana County that is tucked along the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek between Negley and Fredricktown on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
There are virtually no amenities at Sheepskin Hollow.
Parking lot? No.
Rest rooms? No.
Established trail? No.
Preserve brochure? No.
Signs to point you in the right direction? No.
A sign to confirm that you have found Sheepskin Hollow? Yes. There is an unofficial sign nailed to a tree, if you can find it. It is, in the state's view, an unimproved preserve. But it is open to the public and you can explore it if you are up for the challenge. The state will offer a public hike on part of the preserve this month. To get to Sheepskin Hollow, you simply park by a railroad overpass off Pancake-Clarkson Road and head south on foot along the old elevated rail bed for a half mile in Middleton Township.
You will come to one state sign along the rail bed that marks the beginning of the preserve. Then you suddenly come to an opening on the left that drops off into a pretty rock-walled gorge lined with hemlocks. No sign. Just go for it.
Welcome to Sheepskin Hollow. I suspected I had stumbled into it, but I wasn't sure until I later found a small green-and-white sign nailed to tree, compliments of a hunter named Steve in 1998.
A small but pretty unnamed stream flows through the heart of Sheepskin Hollow with its sandstone-and-shale cliffs and rock outcroppings and old-growth trees.
There are large maples, beeches and oaks on the ridge tops and hemlocks, a touch of Canada, in the narrow shaded ravine.
There is no trail, but lots of fallen logs, blanketed in heavy moss. It is always dark and shady.
The stream bed provides the easiest way to get around because the slopes are steep and slippery. The stream flows through a large culvert under the rail bed into the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek.
I poked around a bit, saw one of two waterfalls in the three-quarter-mile-long hollow and was impressed by the wild ferns and eye-popping spring wildflowers.
The first falls is about 20 feet high. It is about 1,500 feet into the gorge. The second falls — about 15 feet in height — is farther into the hollow.
It is a special place, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Natural Areas and Preserves wants to keep it that way.
"It is a beautiful, beautiful place and is one of the most unique state nature preserves in Ohio," said manager Charlotte McCurdy. "It's so pristine, so natural, so wonderful. ... It's God's country and what Mother Nature intended. It's as natural as you can get in Ohio."
Added Jackman Vodrey, whose family sold the land to the state: "It's just gorgeous. It's a gem."
McCurdy said, "Visiting is not easy. It's a difficult experience."
The hollow will remain as it is. Trees that fall stay where they are and serve as a nursery for other plants. The state, she said, has no plans to improve Sheepskin Hollow.
The state purchased the preserve in 1986 from the William H. Vodrey Jr. Trust. It had been acquired starting in the 1920s by Vodrey, who died in 1954.
It was originally named Little Beaver Creek State Nature Preserve. The name was changed to Sheepskin Hollow in May 1998.
According to Jackman Vodrey, Sheepskin Hollow got its name from an old sheep farm that once operated at the head of the stream that runs through the preserve.
The area was logged in the early 1900s and the tract next to Sheepskin Hollow was mined for coal.
The Vodreys battled with the Akron-based Ohio Edison Co. over routing power lines through Sheepskin Hollow in the early 1970s. The Vodreys won and the power lines skirted the heart of the hollow, Jackman Vodrey said.
There are actually two hollows, McCurdy said. Big Sheepskin Hollow is the larger gorge that you can access off the rail bed. But just to the north is a smaller gorge, Little Sheepskin Hollow. It runs to the east like Big Sheepskin Hollow but it goes onto private property, she said.
There are lots of wild turkey, white-tailed deer and even bobcat. McCurdy said state officials once came across evidence of wild boar but black bears have not been found in Sheepskin Hollow, to date.
Unusual plants include speckled wood-lily, pipsissewa, Bicknell's panicgrass, pink lady's slipper orchid and Canada fly-honeysuckle.
Little Beaver Creek has been named an Important Bird Area by Audubon Ohio.
The old rail bed is part of Beaver Creek State Forest (330-339-2205). It was started in 1998 and covers 1,152 acres. Also off the rail bed is private property owned by the Vodrey family as BeaverKettle Farms LLC.
The preserve actually includes two tracts: the 319-acre area that I visited on the east side of Little Beaver Creek's North Fork, and a 134-acre tract on the west side of the stream.
The federal North Country Trail that stretches more than 4,200 miles from New York through Ohio to North Dakota runs through that 134-acre tract. For information, contact the National Park Service at 700 Rayovac Dr., Suite 100, Madison, WI 53711, 608-441-5610, http://www.nps.gov/noco, or North Country Trail Association, 229 E. Main St., Lowell, MI 49331, 866-445-3628, http://northcountrytrail.org. To get to the preserve, take state Route 170 south from Negley for three miles. Turn east (left) and proceed 1.5 miles. You will cross the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek. Stop at the railroad overpass. Head south (to the right) along the old rail bed.
For information on Sheepskin Hollow, contact the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, 2045 Morse Road, Building F-1, Columbus 43225, 614-265-6453, http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/dnap. Little Beaver Creek is a federal and state wild-scenic river. The federal honor came in 1975 for 33 miles of the stream.
It is one of three Ohio streams in the prestigious federal system and was the first in the Ohio wild-scenic system in 1974 with 36 miles designated.
Beaver Creek State Park is another Columbiana County site where you can explore Little Beaver Creek with its 180-foot-deep canyon. Some consider it among the prettiest state parks in Ohio.
The 2,722-acre park features seven canal locks from the old Sandy & Beaver Canal. Lock 36 or Gaston's Lock sits near the park headquarters.
The park off state Route 7 north of East Liverpool features 9.5 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails and 23 miles of bridle trails along four miles of the Little Beaver Creek with its easy whitewater rapids.
The park, in cooperation with the Columbiana County Forests and Parks Council, operates the Gaston Mill that dates to 1830 and the surrounding Pioneer Village with its log structures.
There's a cabin, schoolhouse, chapel, blacksmith shop, trading post and
covered bridge in the heart of the state park. They are open from 1 to 5 p.m. weekends from May through October. The park has 50 campsites plus two rent-a-tepee sites, and a Wildlife Education Center.
For park information, contact Beaver Creek State Park, 12021 Echo Dell Road, East Liverpool, OH 43920, 330-385-3091, http://www.ohiodnr.com.