Camping Guide: Top Parks in Ohio

Bob Downing

It’s no secret that Ohioans love to camp: More than 2 million visitors spent a night in state park campgrounds in 2018. The number of nights that campsites were used was 638,801. In other words, that’s a lot of s’mores around campfires.

Camping options are plentiful in Ohio. You can pitch a tent on federal land in Southeast Ohio’s rugged, 241,000-acre Wayne National Forest or the more accessible Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron (though the state’s only national park offers just five primitive campsites, which can be reserved at Other Ohio camping spots include the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District at lakes in eastern Ohio and a handful of local park districts and private campgrounds.

But Ohio camping is dominated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The state agency features 9,700 campsites at 59 parks, with the most popular campgrounds at Hocking Hills, Indian Lake, Mohican, East Harbor and Lake Hope, all within easy driving of Columbus. Overnight camping fees range from $17 to $39 per site.

Ohio’s 252,000-acre park system offers a broad range of experiences, amenities and accommodations. There are even special equestrian, boat and group camping options, as well as nine resort lodges and 515 state-operated cabins with bathrooms, TVs and fully equipped kitchens. Ohio has 66 state parks that offer boating or paddling on lakes and local streams. Paddling is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in Ohio, and many park visitors are combining camping and paddling, says ODNR spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans.

Indeed, Ohio’s state parks cater to all types, from backcountry pros to camping neophytes, with standout locations found all over the state. Here are a few of the best. (For more information on Ohio state parks, go to

The Super Seven

A grove of large oak trees on South Bass Island State Park marks what may be the best campground in Ohio. The campsites sit atop a 40-foot-high bluff overlooking Lake Erie. You can see boats on the lake, watch the sun set across the water and fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing onshore. It can be breezy because you are on the island’s windward side. But the Lake Erie views from the campground are breathtaking.

There are 135 state-owned campsites for tents and recreation vehicles at the southwest corner of the island, which is dominated by the party scene in downtown Put-in-Bay about a mile away. Campers at the state park are on the quiet side of the island.

There is a swimming beach, a fishing pier and a boat launch at the campground, which was once the site of the Victory Hotel that burned in 1919. You can get to the island via ferries from Catawba or Port Clinton. It’s just over three hours from Columbus.

Every Ohioan should visit Hocking Hills State Park—the most scenic of Ohio’s 75 state parks, with an abundance of natural wonders making it unlike anything else in the state. There are cliffs, caves, waterfalls, gorges and big trees in the 2,348-acre park in southeastern Hocking County, about 45 minutes from Columbus.

The park, surrounded by nearly 10,000 acres of Hocking State Forest, is actually made up of five separate spots: Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Cedar Falls, Rock House and Cantwell Cliffs. Two stunning state nature preserves are also part of the mix: Conkle’s Hollow, with its sandstone gorge, and Rockbridge, with its natural arch.

Old Man’s Cave is the park’s most-visited site. It’s 200 feet long, 50 feet high and the overhang is 50 feet deep. Sitting in a half-mile-long gorge with three waterfalls and pretty pools, it looks like a rocky amphitheater.

Since last year, the park also has been home to a new sky-watching center. The John Glenn Astronomy Park was established by the Friends of the Hocking Hills State Park, a nonprofit group, to take advantage of the dark skies with little light pollution in Southeast Ohio. It hosts public astronomy programs at 9 p.m. Fridays and 5 p.m. Saturdays when the skies are clear from March 1 through Nov. 9.

The nonprofit raised $1.1 million to build and develop the park on 4 acres off State Route 664. It features a small observatory with a retractable roof and 12 telescopes.

The astronomy park is open 24 hours a day. Admission is free, but parking is limited and advance reservations for programs are a must. For more information, go to

The Hocking Hills get a lot of visitors: more than 3 million a year. It offers 172 campsites and 40 cabins, but hundreds of private overnight rental cabins—from small, simple and inexpensive to large, elaborate and pricey—also surround the park.

Nearby Lake Hope State Park is the fat tire capital of Ohio. That’s because the state park in Vinton County features 28 miles of mountain bike trails, more than any other state park.

Most of the trails are designated for beginner and intermediate cyclists. The trails interconnect and create a network of single-track paths through the woods and up and down the ridges. They are rolling with switchbacks to climb or descend.

Lake Hope covers 3,100 acres of land within Zaleski State Forest. The state park has a campground with 192 sites, along with 66 cabins and a group lodge. The park is also next to the 29-mile Zaleski State Forest Backpack Trail, one of Ohio’s most popular backcountry treks. It features several campsites with drinking water, an unusual amenity for a backpacking trail.

Every summer, paddlers flock to Mohican State Park, where outfitters offer paddle trips on the picturesque Mohican River. Surrounded by 4,525-acre Mohican Memorial State Forest, the park has 5 miles of stream in the 300-foot-deep Clear Fork Gorge with its distinctive covered bridge over the Clear Fork of the Mohican River.

There are three campground areas with 189 sites at the 1,110-acre park. The most popular is the campground along the river used by RVs. It also includes 10 sites for tents. Further into the park is the primitve Hemlock Grove Campground. On a ridge, there are 10 park-and-hike sites.

Camping also is strong at Kelleys Island State Park with 129 campsites and a 100-foot-long Lake Erie beach. Nearby is the Glacial Grooves State Memorial, owned by the Ohio Historical Connection and managed by ODNR. The grooves are 400 feet long, up to 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep. They are one of the most impressive natural sights in Ohio.

In southern Ohio, the 1,163-acre Shawnee State Park near Portsmouth offers 108 campsites. It is surrounded by the 63,000-acre Shawnee State Forest. The state park also includes a lodge, a golf course, a nature center, two lakes, a swimming beach and an Ohio River marina.

The area has been dubbed Ohio’s Little Smokies for its forested ridges and blue haze from the heavy vegetation. It features some of the best wilderness in Ohio. (See Page 43 to read more about Shawnee.)

John Bryan State Park near Yellow Springs in Southwest Ohio was developed around the Little Miami River. The river has carved a spectacular gorge up to 80 feet deep that runs 4 miles through the 752-acre state park and surrounding natural areas. The gorge is filled with waterfalls, springs and giant boulders of dolomite that have tumbled from the cliffs. It is widely hailed as one of the prettiest spots in Southwest Ohio.

The state park with 60 campsites offers rock climbing, paddling, a day lodge, picnicking, winter sports and 10 miles of trails. Plus, it’s close to the charming village of Yellow Springs and the delicious ice cream at Young’s Jersey Dairy. It’s also one of the nicest camping spots within an hour’s drive of Columbus, allowing for a quick-and-easy outdoor getaway.

An Appalachian Gem

Highlands Nature Sanctuary is my favorite outdoor spot in Ohio. The 2,600-acre preserve in Highland County west of Chillicothe is part of the Arc of Appalachia, a nonprofit conservation group. The preserve features steep-walled dolomite cliffs along Rocky Fork Creek, one of the cleanest streams in Ohio. The 100-foot-deep gorge, about 50 miles from Columbus, is filled with fern-filled grottoes, springs, caves, small waterfalls and old-growth forests. Noted for its colorful spring wildflowers, the preserve offers 16 short trails within the sanctuary, including Barrett’s Rim, a 2-mile gem that runs along the stream and next to the gray-colored cliffs.

The sanctuary was largely developed by Larry Henry and his former wife Nancy Stranahan, starting in 1995. The pair, both former staffers of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, used the proceeds from their Columbus bakery near North Market to get matching grants to make early land purchases on the western edge of Appalachia. Even though this natural treasure doesn’t offer camping, there are campsites at nearby Paint Creek and Rock Fork State parks.


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More Ohio camping standouts, paired with ideal visitors

For Backpackers: Burr Oak

Glouster, Southeast

Includes an 18-mile trail with views of a lake, mature woods, rock features and a Native American signal tree.

For Kids: Malabar Farm

Lucas, Central

Hiking, caves and farm animals at the onetime home of author/conservationist Louis Bromfield. Also the site of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s wedding.

For Rock Formations: Salt Fork

Lore City, East

Hosak’s Cave is 40 feet high and 300 feet wide. There may be a small waterfall, if conditions are right.

For Swimming: East Harbor

Marblehead, Northwest

The park features a 1,500-foot-long beach of white sand on Lake Erie and offers the largest campground in Ohio. Close to Cedar Point.

For Fossil Hunting: Caesar Creek

Waynesville, Southwest

Get a free permit and map at the park and find fist-sized brachiopods from 450 million years ago in rocks near the dam’s spillway.

Perfect Matches