Metro Parks series kicks off 45th year

In Columbus, it can be difficult to go walking in a winter wonderland, but Metro Parks does its best to make that happen.

For 45 years, the park system has sponsored a free Winter Hikes series designed to help Central Ohioans enjoy the parks in the off-season. This year's series kicks off Jan. 6 at Blacklick Woods Metro Park and travels to 12 other sites.

The hikes provide an opportunity for families to explore new parks, sample the culinary skills of various staff members and volunteers, and beat the winter blahs, said Metro Parks spokeswoman Peg Hanley. “We've never canceled a hike,” she said. “There was a blizzard that shut down the city in the '70s, but the hike went on.”

Visitors who participate in seven of the 13 hikes will earn a commemorative patch. The patch provides a nice incentive for folks to visit a new place, said Kim Strosnider, a naturalist at Sharon Woods Metro Park. “It's really rewarding to gear up and go for a hike and check out a park that you've never been to before,” she said. “It's a way to enjoy fresh air and nature during a time when we tend to gravitate to the couch and the fireplace.”

While there are no guarantees, hikers often see wildlife as they trek through the woods, Strosnider said. “It depends on how many people show up,” she said. “When you're hiking with 1,000 of your closest friends and family, you may not see too much. We usually see birds and squirrels. You might get lucky and see some deer. You never know.”

At the end of every hike, staff members and volunteers serve hot soup or chili and cocoa. Every park offers its own dish, and some carefully guard their recipes, Hanley said. Most of the events also have a campfire, and guests are invited to toast marshmallows. It's common for participants—usually a mix of families, senior citizens and couples—to sit around the fire and talk about their favorite hikes while showing off patches from previous years, she said. “It's a mix of everybody,” she said. “And we love to see people who are new to the community.”

The outings also help stave off the winter blues, Hanley added. “It's a way to see smiling faces,” she said. “You see a lot of happy people at the hikes.”