Ohio's State Parks

Melissa Kossler Dutton
The beach at Salt Fork State Park Lodge

When choosing a hotel for a family vacation, parents often want to know about the interior spaces of the accommodations.

Families planning a stay at one of Ohio's nine state park lodges or 518 cabins have some different considerations. They need to think outside the room.

The overnight facilities located in state parks provide access to a variety of outdoor activities, said Eric Heis, public information officer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. During a park stay, families can easily incorporate a nature hike, boating activity or a visit to a playground. "They make a great alternative to a hotel," he said. "There are great places to visit all over Ohio."

State parks are prime family destinations because they are affordable, offer many entertainment options and, in many cases, are close to other interesting attractions, he added. With parks along Lake Erie and in the rolling hills of southern Ohio, families can have their choice of setting and outdoor adventures, Heis said. "All different flavors of the state are available at a state park," he said.

ODNR is in the midst of upgrading many of its lodging facilities, which makes them even more exciting, added public information officer Brooke Betit. "In 2014, Ohio State Parks received an unprecedented $88.5 million for improvements to strengthen the infrastructure and modernize facilities," she said. "These updates offer families a more modern way to enjoy the outdoors in Ohio."

There are several discounts designed to woo families throughout the summer and fall, Betit said. Kids stay and eat for free at park lodges through Labor Day. In autumn-when parks have their fall colors on display-discounts are based on the length of a guest's stay, she said. "The longer you stay, the more you save."

Families will find plenty to keep them entertained and active, Betit said. While many of the parks host special events or festivals during the year, they also offer regular programming-most of it free-designed to engage children and families. Activities include naturalist talks and walks, visits with wildlife, campfires, boat rides and other kid-friendly explorations.

Many lodging options offer a pool, beach or splash pad so kids have a place to cool off, Betit said. Some have fishing ponds, disc golf courses and gaga ball pits (fenced-in dodge ball courts).

State parks also can serve as a home base for families who want to explore, Heis said. Each park's website lists nearby attractions to help guests plan their vacations. For example, Salt Fork State Park is less than 40 miles from the Wilds, the safari park and conservation area maintained by the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium. Hueston Woods State Park is less than 40 miles from King's Island. Punderson State Park is less than 45 miles from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

"With dozens of state parks, there's always one close by ready to welcome families," Heis said.

Having spent many happy summer hours as a kid visiting one of Ohio's many inland lakes, I was sure my boys would enjoy a getaway to Salt Fork State Park Lodge.

The lodge, located in Guernsey County about 95 miles east of Columbus, sits inside the state's largest park. I loved the idea that the venue has both an outdoor pool and a lake with a beach for swimming and playing in the sand. (Although rain kept us from visiting the beach, the boys had a good time splashing around in the lodge's roomy pool.)

During clear skies, we tagged along with a park employee for a narrated boat ride on which we checked out some local wildlife and learned a bit about the area. The boat ride was a big hit with the kids, who enjoyed skimming across the water while taking in the sights. If we would have wanted more time on the water, we could have rented a boat in the park.

The lodge offered plenty to keep the kids busy. There was an activity room with a couple of critters that the boys enjoyed visiting. Staff members lead hikes, fishing trips, campfires and other organized activities for children to participate in-some with parents and some on their own.

The organized activities, while not on the level of drop-off day camps offered by cruise ships and high-end resorts, really set the state parks apart from traditional hotels. As the one who usually plays "cruise director" in our family, I enjoyed having a list of things to do that somebody else had planned.

The boys especially enjoyed our room, which included a set of bunk beds. They hate it when they're forced to share a bed while staying in a hotel.

I appreciated the roominess of the lodge itself. There were plenty of sitting areas and alcoves where the kids could hang out with a book or a deck of cards and enjoy themselves without disturbing other guests or being forced to stay in the room.

The on-site Timber's Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Wildlife Lounge also offers a limited carryout menu, including pizza. All lodge rooms include a small refrigerator; some also have a microwave. Cabins have full kitchens.

With prices ranging from $89 to $300 for lodges and $65 to $200 for cabins, state park lodging is a sound alternative to a hotel.

- Melissa Kossler Dutton