Ohio: 10 Hidden travel gems

Reader's Digest Editors

The Buckeye State of Ohio has much to offer the traveller, from delights on Lake Erie’s shores to the county with the world’s largest Amish population.

1. Kelleys Island

kelley's island river view

It is not known how long Kelleys Island was inhabited by people of the Erie or Cat nation before they were destroyed by the Iroquois in the late 1600s. But these first settlers are credited with leaving an enigmatic memorial: Inscription Rock (below), a large flat-topped slab of limestone covered with Native American pictographs of humanlike creatures, birds and animals, and smoking pipes that have never been deciphered.

Inscription rock ohio

The inscriptions, which have now been nearly obliterated by the elements, were copied by US Army captain Seth Eastman in 1850; a reproduction of his work is placed at the site.

Kelleys Island was resettled in the early 1800s. By 1910 it had a population of more than 1,000 and a thriving economy based on limestone quarrying, agriculture, winemaking, and fishing. Today only about 375 people inhabit the island year-round.

Ecotourism is the major industry, and fishing, boating, swimming, and dining facilities are plentiful. Visitors can ferry their cars over from Marblehead but may prefer to rent bicycles or golf carts on the island to get about.

About a 10-minute bike ride from town is Glacial Grooves. The limestone scored to a depth of several inches by the tremendous force of a moving glacier, gives the appearance of smoothly rounded grey waves. Best times to visit are in spring through late fall.

 

2. Seneca Caverns

Seneca Caverns ohio

In 1872 two boys were out hunting when their dog chased a rabbit into a brush-filled pit. When the dog did not return, the boys began searching through the brush. Toward the bottom of the pit, they discovered a small hole with cool air streaming through it, and they could hear their dog barking below.

As they dug to widen the opening, the limestone supporting them collapsed, and they tumbled some 10 or 12 feet down to the opening of a cave. The three companions climbed back out, and the caverns became a public phenomenon.

Unlike most caves, the Seneca Caverns were not formed by the dissolution of the bedrock, but by the collapse of the limestone into a subsurface void. Its physical aspect differs accordingly from the norm: Here one sees the bones of the Earth—the tumbled strata of Columbus limestone—in their raw condition, not smoothed by the flow of water or the action of ancient seas.

Signpost for Seneca Caverns

The path through the cave is a vigorous walk but not overly difficult. The largest chamber is some 250 feet long and 10 or 12 feet high. At one end is Pie Rock, so-called because it resembles a huge wedge of pie.

Beyond it, one descends to Ole Mistry River, whose waters are so clear that they seem to be a light mist at the bottom of the cavern. The river’s water level (which depends upon rainwater seeping down) determines how far one can descend. Twelve cave levels have been explored.

The one-hour guided tour through seven rooms, or levels, ends on the seventh level 110 feet below the surface. On the return route, one squeezes through the Needle’s Eye and passes the Lock Stone, which is said to hold the jumbled and fractured strata in place; it’s 150 feet long, 45 feet deep, and 60 feet wide and is estimated to weigh several hundred tons.

 

3. Armstrong Air & Space Museum

Armstrong Air & Space Museum

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” claimed the first man to set foot on the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong’s own first steps were taken in Wa Wapakoneta, his childhood home, where this museum was established in his honour. The museum building is a domed structure, half-buried in a grassy mound, with two wings for galleries.

The upper floor contains the Infinity Room, an 18ft cube, where one walks between ingeniously positioned rows of mirrors that reflect each other, oneself, and moving lights in numerous planes.

Armstrong Air & Space Museum

In the Astro Theater, pinpoints of revolving lights are thrown against the roof and walls. Both rooms seek to create a sense of being in infinite space. Also of note are the two landing simulators designed to test your skills and see if you have what it takes for space travel.

One of the most fascinating items found here is a genuine Gemini VIII spacecraft, with an open doorway that reveals the interior: This was the world’s first docking satellite, flown by Armstrong and Maj. David Scott in March 1966.

Another display includes the many honours bestowed upon the astronauts, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On display outside the museum is an F5D Skylancer, an aeroplane that Neil Armstrong flew as a test pilot.

 

4. Holmes County Amish Country

Ohio is Amish country

Gentle rolling hills and spectacular sunsets are the backdrops of this area that is home to the world’s largest Amish population.

Although there are several groups of Amish, Holmes County is primarily made up of the Old Order Amish. This group maintains some of the most interesting and traditional customs; they do not use electricity or modern-day transportation, and they dress in traditional clothing.

The Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin (below) has been called the Sistine Chapel of the Amish and Mennonites due to its 10- by 265 ft cyclorama painting. The work of painter Heinz Gaugel, it traces the group’s history from Zurich, Switzerland, from 1525 to the present day.

mural on the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center

Since 1935 family-owned Heini’s Cheese Chalet in Millersburg has produced all-natural cheeses from Amish Farm Milk. At the Chalet, visitors can watch the cheese-making process through a 100 ft viewing corridor, stop at the Fudge Factory, or shop at the Lace Boutique for handmade Amish Heritage Lace.

The 100,000-square-ft Amish Flea Market features Ohio-made crafts, antiques, primitive folk art, furniture, quilts, meats, cheeses, and much more

 

5. Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve

Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve river

About 10,000 years ago the runoff of melting glaciers carved a gorge here in the sandstone bedrock known as Blackhand conglomerate.

The preserve follows the course of the Licking River through this gorge, and a number of trails and a paved bicycle path invite exploration of the terrain. The bike path passes a buttonbush swamp and enters a woodland of sycamore, maple, sumac, and yellow poplar before opening up to dramatic views of cliffs towering above the woods, ferns, tree trunks, and roots delineating the weathered strata and fault lines.

Across the gorge stands Blackhand Rock, a concave rock face above a bend and a wide pool in the river. The route is especially beautiful in July when it is awash with phlox flowers and bergamot. The bike path follows an old railroad bed that was originally used to carry sand from an adjacent quarry to the glassworks of Newark, the near est sizable town.

One footpath traverses the rim of the old quarry; a second footpath ascends to higher woodlands looping through ferny hemlock woods and then returning to the bicycle path.

 

6. The Wilds

The Wilds Ohio

A pastoral sight unfolds at twilight across the panorama of the wide-open range. The Southern white rhino grazes peacefully on the veldt. A sable antelope bounds across the savanna. Bactrian camel lope by, and a small herd of North American bison munches on prairie grasses. The animals are actually sharing almost 10,000 acres of land at a conservation centre in Ohio.

Endangered and threatened species from Asia, Africa, and North America have been brought together to live and prosper on this soil that has been reclaimed from strip mining. Since the early 1970s, the strip mining industry has replaced topsoil and replenished grasslands where the mining for coal took place. It is a “human-induced prairie” that affords these species a place to roam in their natural habitat. Wetlands are also being brought back to health so that the balance of interlocking ecological systems is restored.

At the Wilds, visitors can savour the natural world via guided safaris. Conservation research and educational programs are key elements here, and work is ongoing in areas such as reproductive biology and animal husbandry

 

7. Lake Vesuvius Recreation Area

lake vesuvius in Ohio

Set among the rolling hills and scenic woodlands of the Wayne National Forest, this is a place of tranquil beauty. The recreation area takes its name from the Vesuvius Furnace, located in one of the picnic spots.

This truncated giant, built in 1833, was one of the first iron-blast furnaces in the region, and it was one of the last to close, holding out against the prevailing economic winds until 1906. The structure has been partially restored by the US Corps of Engineers.

Though it lacks some of the ancillary buildings faithfully re-created at Buckeye Furnace, Vesuvius has the poignancy of a fallen hero. Several loop trails, ranging from a half-mile walk to a 16-mile path for backpackers, skirt Lake Vesuvius and cross a varied terrain. The facility also offers a 31-mile horse trail, campsites, picnic grounds, a boat dock, and rental boats and canoes.

Lake Vesuvius is ideal for canoeing and boating, and the sandy beach at Big Bend is inviting for swimmers.

 

8. Rankin House & Parker House

John Rankin house in Ohio

A candle in the window of a house on a hill once signalled the all-clear to more than 2,000 runaway slaves looking for help from the Underground Railroad.

The last leg on this part of the route to freedom was an arduous climb up 100 steps of an outside staircase that took people from the Ohio River to the home of Presbyterian minister John Rankin and his wife, Jean (above). As many as 12 people at one time could be hidden on this property in southern Ohio.

Fugitive slaves were delivered to conductors like Rankin, who would help them get to the next depot in the network of stops. His home, with a commanding view of the river and a reconstructed staircase, contains memorabilia of his activities as an abolitionist.

John P Parker, born into slavery in 1827, was able to buy his freedom at the age of 18 and went on to prosper in the iron-moulding foundry business. He was among a small number of African Americans who became patent holders in the 19th century. Parker returned to slave territory, risking his life to lead people to shelter in Ripley, often to the Rankin home.

The Parker House, on Front Street, is where many escapes from the borderlands of Kentucky were planned. Both houses are National Historic Landmarks.

 

9. Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

The bountiful river valleys of south-central Ohio were home to a flourishing centre of the Hopewell culture about 2,000 years ago. Known for their large geometric earthworks and elaborate artefacts crafted from exotic materials, the Hopewellian people prospered from 200 B.C. to A.D. 500. Their mound construction was particularly extensive in the Scioto River-Paint Creek area. Five of the archaeological sites in this area are currently being preserved by the National Park Service.

Overlooking the banks of the Scioto River is Mound City, one of the most important sites of the Hopewell culture. The people built structures here that housed their political, economic, and social activities, including burial ceremonies. After a period of time, they razed each structure and constructed a mound over the location.

Today the park’s visitors centre, located at the site, establishes what is known of the Hopewell lifestyle and displays some of the artefacts found in excavations of these mounds. In some cases, the quantity and types of objects, in particular, the burial mounds, indicate the status and possibly the occupation of the deceased. Artefacts include shell beads, bear and shark teeth, pottery, ear spools of copper and silver, and a series of effigy pipes bearing the likenesses of animals and birds.

Beyond these parklike grounds is the Scioto River, which flows smooth, brown, and rapid. An interesting one-mile trail follows its banks, passing yet another earthwork. Along the way, plaques identify plants and shrubs once important to the Hopewell and other Native American populations.

 

10. Holden Arboretum

walkway at the holden arboretum ohio

This beautiful arboretum, established in 1931, is one of the largest in the country with 3,600 acres of land. Most of the land is designated as natural areas, with gardens occupying much of the remaining acreage.

Thousands of plants thrive at Holden, including native wildflowers, gardens designed to attract butterflies, and a 20-acre rhododendron garden. Guided tours are offered, or visitors can embark on a self-guided tour of the natural areas and gardens, which are crisscrossed with over 20 miles of trails and walking paths.

A lake and multiple small ponds attract waterfowl, and an observation blind attracts bird-watchers. For children and teenagers, hands-on programs delve into environmental and science-related topics. On Friday mornings in the garden, presentations and walking tours with the experts are offered.

 

Read more: Hidden gems of California

Read more: How to age well

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

Related Content