LOGAN, Ohio (WCMH) — Karen Raymore, the longtime executive director of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association, glanced at a link in her email inbox on a January morning she was hasty to click into. 

About halfway down the article sent by a colleague, she read that Hocking Hills was among the ranks of the year’s best places to travel, per Forbes. By her count, the region was one of only 11 destinations in the U.S. to make the list of 50 locations around the world. Becky Pokora, a Forbes Advisor staff writer, deemed it “perhaps Ohio’s prettiest.”

“I was like, ‘Well, I really like starting the week this way. This is great,’” Raymore said. “It still is very exciting, because what an honor.”

As Columbus grows, ecotourism industry in Hocking Hills serves to benefit

The Hocking Hills region — nestled within the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and about an hour southeast of Columbus — has won its fair share of praise from outside of the state before. 

As ecotourism continues to account for a growing percentage of Hocking County’s larger economy, the region also serves to benefit from continuous population growth in Columbus, according to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC). The commission recently projected that central Ohio is tracking to hit a population of around 3.15 million by 2050. 

With U.S. 33 serving as a connector, some of it is natural. But the tourism association also advertises heavily in Columbus, Raymore said, “With the message that you don’t have to drive real far to feel like you’re a million miles away.” 

But Columbus residents are not only traveling to and from the rural county’s gorges, hiking trails, and cabins. A number are investing in projects, said Bailey Simons, the executive director of the Hocking Hills Chamber of Commerce. 

Christian Moran lives in San Diego, but the philanthropist and documentary filmmaker is from Delaware County. Moran moved west about 15 years ago, but with family still in Ohio, he said he feels like “an ambassador for Midwestern sensibilities” in California. 

Moran mentioned the Forbes article, too. “The cat is out of the bag, in that regard,” he said.

In November, Moran bought about 80 acres near Old Man’s Cave, off State Route 664, from a family who had owned the land for more than 100 years. On the property, he is working on plans in partnership with a Columbus-based developer for somewhere between 10 and 20 cabins and a central welcome center, among other features. 

Even Simons, born and raised in Hocking County, bought and renovated a loft unit to serve as a short-term rental on the second floor of a building in Logan. 

“I was living and breathing talking about downtown revitalization,” Simons said. “I was like, ‘I should get some skin in the game.’” 

“It’s not just all rosy news:” Striking a balance between flow of tourists, regional concerns

But longtime Hocking County residents — including Raymore and Simons — are frank about the downsides of a county economy more and more sustained by daytime or weekend visitors. “It’s not just all rosy news,” Raymore said. 

Workforce shortages have affected the tourism industry since the start of the pandemic, which simultaneously drove historic travel to outdoor recreational sites like Hocking Hills.

For the county’s population, regardless of where they work, rentals are making housing less affordable and harder to come by. Within Logan city limits, Simons estimated more than half of residential units were either long- or short-term rentals.

“We need housing, so badly,” she said. 

Although land in Logan is zoned, the rest of the county is not. 

Conversations among city and county government officials are in the works to consider introducing zoning ordinances outside of Logan, which Simons said would offer better safeguards for both residents of Hocking Hills and the natural land itself. 

“That it’s getting national recognition, and that we truly have a gem is both scary and exciting, because it’s a natural resource,” Simons said. “The fear is that those can be overrun.” 

Once a Girl Scout, Raymore said some of her job is to advocate for tourists to be good stewards of the natural land.