Most people head to Ohio and head for its blockbuster cities Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. But those in the know hotfoot here for the promise of off-the-grid outdoors adventures. The state is home to three national wildlife refuges, two National Historic Parks and 83 state parks. From pristine lakes to the forested foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Ohio’s parklands offer staggering variety too. We’ve cherry-picked seven of our favourite national parks in Ohio to get you started.
Best national parks in Ohio
When it comes to the great outdoors, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is most people’s first port of call. A short and easy drive from Cleveland, the park encompasses 51 sq. miles (82 km) of rolling floodplains, ravines, waterfalls and lush forests. It’s brimming with bird-watching opportunities too, home to bald eagles, blue herons and peregrine falcons. The 20-metre cascading Brandywine Falls is the star attraction here and is best enjoyed via the scenic 1.5-mile loop hike. For some more serious mileage, try the 20-mile (32 km) Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail that runs straight through the park.
As well as hiking, biking and birding, the park houses fascinating historical sights too. Visitors can take a tour of the 1830s Boston Store, which was once a warehouse and boarding house, the 150-year-old Canal Exploration Center (formerly a tavern and blacksmith shop), and the Wilson Freed Mill that started as a grist mill in 1855. There’s also a tiny town, Peninsula, located inside the national park. Camping is prohibited but if you’re looking to spend more time here, try the atmospheric 1843 Stanford House or 1848 Inn at Brandywine Falls.
Set on the shores of Lake Erie, Maumee State Park offers up acres of marshes, wetlands and meadows. It’s particularly popular with bird-watchers, who flock here for the chance to spot more than 300 species of birds, including bald eagles. It’s also home to ‘The Biggest Week in American Birding’, a ten-day festival to celebrate the warbler migration which takes place inside the park. Unsurprisingly, given its stellar location, there are plenty of water activities to enjoy too, such as boating, fishing, swimming, and paddleboarding. Hikers can hop off on one of the many designated trails or if you’re feeling lazy you can explore the park on an ATV or snowmobile. There’s also a golf course on the grounds. Accommodation options include cottages, lodges and camping grounds.
Ohio’s largest state park encompasses 17,000 acres of hiking trails, lakes and forested fields. It’s ideal for those looking for a little activity-based adventure, with opportunities for horseback riding, waterskiing and boating. There’s even a ten station archery trail, close to the entrance of the park. The Salt Fork Reservoir itself is the star attraction here though; a 3,000-acre lake with two marinas and one of the largest inland beaches in Ohio. Ramblers can choose from 14 hiking trails that transform into snowmobile trails in the winter. There’s a wide range of accommodation available too, including a 212-pitch campsite, 37 two-bedroom cottages and a 148-room guest lodge.
One of Ohio’s most popular state parks, Hocking Hills is a haven for hikers. There are seven different hiking zones, each offering trails to accommodate all skill levels. Less confident ramblers tend to start with Old Man’s Cave, a 1.5 mile hike that winds around Upper Falls. Other popular trails include Rockhouse, Cedar Falls and Conkle’s Hollow. The park offers a dizzying array of recreational activities too, including horseback riding, rock climbing, canoeing and ziplining. The John Glenn Astronomy Park is the latest addition to the park, a dedicated space for stargazing, with public events running on Friday and Saturday nights. The park pays homage to the Ohio-born astronaut John Glenn.
Malabar State Farm Park is a little different to your average green space. Dreamed up by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, the park comprises a sprawling 32-room farmhouse with a handful of outbuildings. Incidentally, it’s also where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall married in 1945. There’s a roster of events in every season but the grounds are open to visitors throughout the year. You can also book yourself onto a tour in advance. The 900-acre farm is still working and little ones can even enjoy meeting some of the barn animals at the petting zoo. The best time to visit is during the autumn (for maximum leaf-peeping opportunities) or during the maple syrup festival in Spring.
This 956-acre park became a nature preserve in 1975. Combining gently sloping trails and striking scenery, it’s one of the best places to go for a breath of fresh air that doesn’t require too much puff. It’s best known for the east-west gorge that cuts through the black hand sandstone formation by the Licking River. Authorities blasted the corridor to create the B&O Railroad in the 1800s. There are over 10 miles of hiking trails winding through Virginia pine-forested hilltops, wooded slopes and ravines. The 4.3 mile Blackhand Trail, which crisscrosses across sandstone cliffs, hickory and oak trees and eastern hemlocks, is one of the most popular trails. Parts of the Licking River permit fishing too. There’s no accommodation within 20 miles of the park but there are dozens of lodging options in the surrounding towns.
You’ll need to hop on a ferry to reach Kelleys Island but it’s worth the extra effort. Floating four miles north of Marblehead in the heart of Lake Erie, the park offers four miles of multi-use hiking and biking trails, a 100-ft beach and playgrounds and volleyball courts. Come winter, there’s ice fishing, ice skating and cross-country skiing too. It’s also home to a rare alvar habitat, located on the northern shore of the island. The best way to get up close to it is by embarking on the one-mile North Shore Loop Trail along the sandy State Park Beach, woodlands and quarrying ruins.
There are excellent camping facilities here too, with sites offering both electric and non-electric pitches.