Words by Matthew Merchant

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Nelson-Kennedy Ledges State Park

Nelson Township, Portage County

For the adventurous, rock climbers and nature lovers

In brief: This is the park for adventurers, rock climbing gurus, adrenaline junkies and hikers. The stunning ledges and sandstone bluffs, with trees clinging to every crevice and mossy ferns covering every surface, provide an afternoon adventure you will never forget.


This is probably the most dangerous park I will profile on this blog. There is real danger when visiting this park … if you don’t stay on the trails.

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Nelson-Kennedy Ledges State Park holds a special place in my heart. This is the park that made me appreciate nature for its subtle yet obvious beauty and where I learned to respect the environment for the dangerous, captivating mystery that it is.

Created in 1949, Nelson-Kennedy Ledges is 167 acres of jagged rock formations, stunning waterfalls and a whole range of biological diversity. The park features four main trails, each color coded to the difficulty of the terrain: white being easiest, yellow and blue being moderately difficult and red being the most difficult. Each pathway has destinations with unique names that will easily catch your attention.

When you leave the parking lot, head directly across the road to the park entrance sign. Always check for a park map if you are unfamiliar with the area, and look for postings left by park rangers about closures and hazards. From the main trailhead, you can either head left, right or straight ahead into the section called the Narrows. Each way will lead to a different adventure.

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The Narrows is formed of collapsed rocks that have fallen from the ledges around it, creating a gully of boulders strewn about in a haphazard way. From the Narrows, take a right onto the Yellow Trail. This portion of the park is characterized by the large bluffs, huge sections of rock looming overhead that seem to be in a constant state of toppling over. Don’t worry, though. These cliffs are very stable and haven’t moved in quite a while.

I would recommend taking the higher section of this loop trail first, ending with the trail closest to the road. This way will take you over the cliffs, winding down through a narrow opening known as the Dwarf’s Pass. This rock formation was created from massive section of rock that is leaning against another, forming a small opening to walk through at the bottom. Following the wooden decking through a small cave will lead you into the Old Maid’s Kitchen, a natural, cellar-like space.

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Emerging into the light again, you can continue on toward Cascade Falls and Gold Hunter’s Cave. This section of the park is very interesting. Moss covers almost every exposed surface and a fine mist can usually be found hanging in the air. Wooden platforms lead to Cascade Falls, a 50-foot tall waterfall flowing from a crystal-clear stream. Watch your step here; the decking can be slippery. The cavern, located below Cascade Falls, was formed from the pooling water is known as Gold Hunter’s Cave, so named for the fool’s gold mineral found in plenty here.
Follow the Yellow Trail back toward the main entrance, keeping to the cliff walls as they undulate through the landscape. I recommend taking the Red Trail from here. Now, this trail is rated difficult, which means some physical climbing over and through the rock formations is required. If you’re not up for the challenge, take the Blue Trail, which follows the cliff side along the road.

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The Red Trail ultimately leads to the Devil’s Icebox, but to get there you have to traverse through Fat Man’s Peril and Indian Pass. Compared with the Yellow Trail section of the park, this section is characterized by the smaller, more hidden ledges and cliffs. Whereas the bluffs near Cascade Falls are massive in scale, many of the dangers here are hidden. Watch your step: the ground can open up into a hole, disappearing into a black abyss.

Fat Man’s Peril is a narrow canyon that slices through the ground, the mossy walls enveloping you as you go. You will have to turn sideways to get through, but it isn’t anything too scary. Keep an eye out for the small cavern hidden in the shadows!

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The next obstacle is the Indian Pass. Nelson Ledges was once home to several Native American tribes, including the Shawnee, Miami, Seneca and Mohawk. Early visitors to the area found hundreds of artifacts scattered throughout this section, which was once a place of trade in the area.

Keep walking and you will notice metal guardrails protruding from the ground. These are for your safety. You’ve reached the Devil’s Icebox.

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The icebox is the most well-known feature at the park. On hot summer days, this is the place to take a refreshing break. Because the cavern is so deep within the earth, it’s practically ice cold inside, hence the name. To get to the bottom and enter the cave, follow the Red Trail down the steep incline. When you reach the stream that seems to be flowing from the cliff sides, follow it to the entrance. I would recommend exploring a bit on your own, but be extremely cautious.

The stream that flows through the icebox is the same that creates Minnehaha Falls just a few hundred yards upstream. You can get to the small waterfall by skirting the ledges until you find a place to climb up, then follow the crack in the ground to the source. It is quite peaceful and a unique feature compared with the more fanciful Cascade Falls.

Recommended Equipment:

  • Tennis shoes (hiking boots after a rainy day)
  • Water
  • Picnic lunch

Directions from Kent:

    Take Route 59 East into Ravenna.
    Take a left on North Chestnut Street and continue on to Route 44 North.
    Follow Route 44. Turn right on Route 82 East.
    Pass Hiram College then Route 82 East will become Route 305.
    Turn left onto Nelson Ledges Road.
    Parking is on the right past the Quarry Park (on the left).

Kent to Nelson Kennedy Ledges Park = 45-50 minutes