The weather outside might be "frightful," but snow and frigid cold didn't stop hikers during the first trek of the 45th annual Metro Parks Winter Hike Series.

Metro Parks officials said 724 people hit the trails for 2- or 4-mile hikes at Blacklick Woods Metro Park, 6975 E. Livingston Ave. in Reynoldsburg, at 10 a.m. Jan. 6.

Other hikes in the series will be held Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons at 12 other central Ohio Metro Parks through Feb. 24.

"Attendance ranges from around 500 to over 1,000, depending on the weather," said Anne Pillion, park ranger at Blacklick Woods. "Even the cold doesn't keep people away. Last year, the high in Reynoldsburg was 16 degrees and we still had over 900 hikers."

She said each park destination has a "warm-up" plan for visitors after the hikes.

At Blacklick, hikers were served hot chocolate, coffee and minestrone soup with crackers at the Beech Maple Lodge near the entrance of the park.

"Our nature center, near the other end of the park, is also a great place to stop and warm up, sit down and watch the birds at our feeders," Pillion said.

Tim Moloney, executive director of Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks, said the winter hikes step off at Blacklick each year because it is the oldest Metro Park, opened in 1948.

"Since Blacklick was the first Metro Park we opened -- 70 years ago this year -- we think it is very fitting to kick off the winter hikes at this location," he said.

New this year is the "13 Hikes of Giving" project, for which hikers are asked to bring food donations.

"We will be gathering food donations at all of our hikes in support of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank," Moloney said. "For every donation (of four or more items), we will be issuing a limited-edition coffee mug."

He said winter is a special time in the parks.

"Nothing compares to the winter," he said. "There is a stillness and sense of quietness that overcomes you once you get into the woods."

Moloney said he not only plans to participate in each hike, but will bring neighbors.

"There is usually a line of kids waiting to jump into my car every Saturday or Sunday," he said. "Sometimes there is an armada of vehicles leaving, as well.

"The winter-hike series is a staple of the system and continues to be one of the most popular activities we have. While I'm sure there will come a day where our numbers level off, I don't think that will be any time soon."

He said the Friends of Metro Parks group will give away hiking sticks and annual medallions to people who complete all the hikes.

Meanwhile, Pillion said, new things still are being discovered even in established parks like Blacklick Woods.

"Local archaeologists recently discovered an ancient earthwork," she said. "The site is still being surveyed, but it's exciting to have such a tangible piece of history in our park."

She said the earthwork is off the multiuse trail.

"Our nature center is also open year-round and attracts birds and often deer right up to viewing windows," she said. "Winter can be one of the best times to see wildlife because there are less people around and no leaves on the trees.

"The barred owls that sit at the very tops of beech trees at Blacklick are much easier to spot when there are no leaves to block the view," she said.

Moloney said the foremost goal of the winter-hike series is "to get people up, outside and active."

"Secondly, there is no better way to get families and friends reconnected than having a great bowl of soup and cup of hot chocolate at your favorite Metro Park," he said.

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