12 Fabulous Vacation Rentals a Day’s Drive from Columbus
Discover these isolated escapes sure to capture your curiosity and imagination (even during a pandemic).
It’s not so much where you go anymore. It’s where you stay.
Though COVID-19 vaccines offer hope for a return to normalcy in the coming months, isolated, road-trip-friendly accommodations remain a must for travelers seeking safer respite and relief. Here are 12 fascinating, secluded and one-of-a-kind vacation rentals in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky.
Polymath Park: Spend a Night in a Frank Lloyd Wright Home
$299–$475/night, Acme, Pennsylvania, Drive from Columbus: 3.5 hours, franklloydwrightovernight.net
Fans of Frank Lloyd Wright—the famed midcentury designer who pioneered the “organic architecture” movement that emphasizes harmony between man and nature—know well that Fallingwater, one of his most acclaimed creations, is just a short, four-hour drive from Columbus. Superfans who want to experience Wright’s work in a new way, however, need only drive 20 miles north of Fallingwater to find Polymath Park. There, they can stay overnight in a home designed by Wright himself or by one of his protégés.
The property got its start in the 1960s, when two Pittsburgh families hired Wright apprentice Peter Berndtson to design summer homes. In the early 2000s, Tom and Heather Papinchak purchased the properties and the 130 acres that surround them, and Polymath Park was founded. In 2006, the couple acquired an original Wright home, which was relocated to the park from Lisle, Illinois; a second Wright home was relocated from Cloquet, Minnesota, in 2019.
Both Wright houses were moved under the guidance of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, says Heather Papinchak. “The houses are both orientated the same way they were in the original setting,” Papinchak says, adding that they planted plenty of pine trees around the newest, Mäntylä House, to honor its name, which means “of the pines.”
Tours of the homes are organized around check-in and -out times, allowing day-trippers and overnight guests alike to see all that Polymath Park has to offer. (Rentals and tours are available seasonally from March to December.) On-site walking trails and the Treetops restaurant round out the experience.
“It is a destination unto itself,” Papinchak says. “We don’t have Wi-Fi or television in any of the homes. … We want people to find that solace in their environment, to think differently about the walls that are holding you and keeping you safe.” —Emma Frankart Henterly
Half House: Architectural Whimsy on Lake Michigan
$150–$495/night, Charlevoix, Michigan, Drive from Columbus: 6.75 hours, vrbo.com/501060
The architecture has been described as “early Mother Goose” and “mushroom.” Others see it as a work of art. “You often feel like you are in a fairy tale home,” says Bill Thom, owner of Half House in Charlevoix.
It was built in 1947 by Earl Young, a local who created 26 totally original homes in the early part of the 20th century. “The houses were built like nothing else on the planet,” Thom says.
Constructed of granite boulders and topped with a cedar shake roof that curves to a peak, Half House is so striking that people come from afar just to see it. Some Earl Young houses have been remodeled, but Half House is in its near-original condition. It gets its name because it appears to have been cut in half. The cottage has modern conveniences, but those who rent it expect (and even demand) the house’s original oddities. “There are a lot of quirky hinges, and the back door is about 5 feet all,” Thom says. “I also have a bedroom upstairs in the house I refer to as the secret bedroom.”
Half House, which has two bedrooms and sleeps four, is directly across the street from Lake Michigan and a walkable distance from downtown Charlevoix, one of Michigan’s most beautiful summer towns. There, visitors can shop, take a boat ride, dine or buy some local cherry pie. Other vacation rental owners may describe their properties as Earl Young-inspired, but this is the real deal.
“I really don’t feel like the owner,” Thom says. “I feel like I’m tending it.” —Ellen Creager
The Canopy Crew: Sleep in a Cutting-Edge Treehouse
$250/night on average (though varies), in and around Stanton, Kentucky, Drive from Columbus: 3.5 hours, thecanopycrew.com
Rock climbers from around the world have long flocked to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge for its spectacular sandstone formations. But there are other ways to get into the treetops—no fancy equipment or climbing experience necessary—thanks to The Canopy Crew. The Cincinnati-based company has eight treehouses in the gorge, with more (including a handicap-accessible one) in the works.
Owner Django Kroner was inspired to start building the lofty lodging when he was 19, living in the gorge as a full-time rock climber and part-time cabin builder. His first unit, the Sylvan Float, was built in 2016 and features a lofted bedroom, composting toilet, wraparound deck and gas stove. The newest, the multilevel Cliff Dweller, includes a small kitchen, full bathroom and lofted bed. A spiral staircase on the porch leads to the main bedroom, which is fully suspended from the cliff above.
“It’s definitely one-of-a-kind,” Kroner says. “It has one of the biggest suspended staircases in the world. … It’s pretty cutting-edge.” He plans to have two more cliff houses ready for rental this fall.
Also of note are the Observatory, which towers above much of the canopy and allows for excellent stargazing; the three geodesic dome units that make up Dome Town; and the family-friendly Tradewinds, which features a slide to ground level and even a hot tub. Some of the units have heating, air conditioning, kitchens and pet-friendly policies.
Other than rock climbing, area activities include “endless hiking,” as Kroner puts it; he also recommends zip lining and underground kayaking in a flooded limestone mine via The Gorge Underground, which also offers small-group boat tours for those who don’t want to paddle. —Emma Frankart Henterly
Big Charity Island: A Beachfront Escape (and Your Own Lighthouse)
Starting at $229/night (plus $395 for group round-trip on the ferry), Big Charity Island, Michigan, Drive from Columbus: 5.3 hours (plus a 1.25 hour ferry ride), charityisland.net
It’s a long way there, but for the tired soul, a trip to Big Charity Island may bring back a little faith and hope.
“It is for the person or couple looking to get away. This isn’t the place for you if you want to play golf or be on the mainland,” says owner Robert Wiltse. “There are three miles of sandy beach, excellent fishing, and you are right next to a lighthouse built in 1857.”
Big Charity Island is 10 miles south of Au Gres, in the middle of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. There, you’ll find a modern house, available to rent May through October, powered by solar panels and a wind turbine. The luxurious red and white home, built in 2003, has five bedrooms and sleeps eight adults. From its front porch, you may spot eagles, white pelicans and fiery sunsets. Next door is an unrestored lighthouse that visitors can climb to get a bird’s-eye view.
The island has no permanent residents, and 90 percent of it is a federal wildlife sanctuary, also home to endangered wildflowers. Visitors arrive via private boat or by a ferry operated by the Wiltse family. (A few times a month, they also run lunch cruises to the island.)
It is not for those seeking big city lights, but if you want to really fall off the map, Big Charity Island awaits. —Ellen Creager
Nomad Ridge: Rhinos, Giraffes and an Animal Lover’s Dream Come True
$292.50–$425/night, Cumberland, Ohio, Drive from Columbus: 1.5 hours, thewilds.columbuszoo.org
If the idea of waking up to the distant chirps of an African painted dog or the cheerful nickering of a zebra sounds like a fantasy, we have good news for you: The Wilds, in Cumberland, Ohio, can make that dream come true. The sister property to Powell’s Columbus Zoo and Aquarium shares its dual mission of conservation and education, albeit with a very different presentation. Rather than viewing animals in enclosures or through plexiglass, visitors to The Wilds can see a plethora of creatures from the Asian and African continents via open-air safaris.
The fun doesn’t have to stop when the sun gets low in the sky, however. Adults over age 21 can spend the night at Nomad Ridge, The Wilds’ outpost facility. There you’ll find a number of yurts—circular, wood-framed, easily packable structures that date back to nomadic Mongolian tribes circa 1000 B.C.
Accommodations at The Wilds are far more luxe than the carpet-covered dirt floors of ancient Central Asia, however. At Nomad Ridge, guests can expect twin-, queen- or king-size beds, as well as climate control options, screened windows, private bathrooms and even complimentary Wi-Fi. Each reservation also includes an open-air safari tour, plus dinner and breakfast for two and a 24-hour staff concierge. The structures also feature a lush sitting area, minifridge, coffee station and more, and Columbus Zoo members receive discounts. (Rentals are available seasonally May through October.)
The 12 yurts are nestled among trees next to the animal pastures; views from each yurt’s private deck range from fully wooded to fully open to the pastures. Nomad Ridge guests can opt to add one or more special experiences, such as horseback safaris, zip line tours, sunset tours, fishing excursions and more for $20 to $100 per person. —Emma Frankart Henterly
Hocking Hills Geodomes: an Igloo-Style Cabin in Ohio’s Most Popular State Park
Starting at $349/night, Logan, Ohio, Drive from Columbus: 1 hour, innatcedarfalls.com
Ohio’s first geodesic accommodations were announced at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls this January. Guests now have the opportunity to stay in glass, igloo-style cabins, perfect for observing the southeastern Ohio scenery. Constructed to withstand all weather conditions, the domes are the intersection of tent camping and luxury cottage living, offering an immersive nature experience with the comfort and privacy of a traditional cabin.
Each geodome includes a retro-style microwave, minifridge, coffee maker, king-size bed, couch and custom glass shower, as well as complimentary breakfast. Located at State Route 374 and surrounded by the uber-popular Hocking Hills State Park, the private domes are in the epicenter of one of Ohio’s most beautiful natural areas, featuring caves, natural rock bridges, waterfalls, lakes and miles of gorgeous hiking trails. Nearby Lake Logan State Park is popular for fishing and boating, and includes a swimming beach for lounging or picnicking. The John Glenn Astronomy Park takes advantage of the lack of light pollution in Hocking Hills, providing a place to admire the stars beneath the clear night sky just 5 minutes from lodging. For more adventurous spirits, Hocking Hills also offers the R Adventure Park for ATV rentals and a ropes course, and the Hocking Hills Canopy Tours zip line attraction. —Marlie Griffith
Candlewood Cabins: A Dream House Made of Glass
Starting at $135/night, Richland Center, Wisconsin, Drive from Columbus: 8.5 hours, candlewoodcabins.com
People who sleep in glass houses are, well, lucky. In fact, the glass house at Candlewood Cabins is so popular it’s booked two years in advance.
“The cabins are all unique. Log cabins are a dime a dozen. Our look is a bit different, with lots of glass,” says owner Norbert Calnin. “You can surf the internet, seeing cabin after cabin, and then suddenly, ‘Hey, what’s this? Honey, we have to go here.’ We get 1,000 hits every day.”
Candlewood Cabins is in southwest Wisconsin. The Glass House is only one of seven rentals on the 80-acre property, which once was a working farm. (“I don’t think the property has seen a cow in 50 years,” Calnin laughs.) The lodgings range from simple—a true log cabin and a cabin called Little House Next Door—to the dramatic, prairie-style Meadow House and soaring Woodland House. Recently, the property’s barn was converted into a spacious lodging that can sleep 12. It has four bathrooms, four bedrooms and 3,000 square feet of space. The location is only 30 minutes from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, and it also is near wineries, a fine trout stream, hiking and kayaking in scenic Richland County.
Although the rentals are sophisticated, the owners are still hands-on. “Maybe we are old-fashioned, but we will greet you and point you to your cabin,” Calnin says. —Ellen Creager
Thorny Mountain Fire Tower: A Room with an Unparalleled View
$80–$100/night, Dunmore, West Virginia, Drive from Columbus: 6 hours, wvstateparks.com/places-to-stay/unique-stay
Located in the heart of Seneca State Forest, the Thorny Mountain Fire Tower is one of West Virginia State Parks’ most iconic attractions. With enough space to accommodate four guests, the 65-foot restored fire observation post provides sweeping panoramas of the lush forestland, mountain vistas and night sky.
The fire tower is available for overnight stays between May and October. At the base of the tower is a picnic table pad, complete with a small shelter and a fire ring for campfires or cooking. Firewood is provided, but guests do need to bring their own water. Reservations should be made months in advance, as this spot books up fast. However, cheaper accommodations are available at the tent campground and cabins in Seneca State Forest.
“Because it is in the middle of a cellphone- and radio-free zone, the tower is a beautiful place for people to come and disconnect from everything,” says Jeff Layfield, superintendent at Seneca State Forest.
Travelers will find no shortage of activities to fill the time in this section of West Virginia. Nearby attractions include more than 30 miles of scenic hiking trails, a lake stocked with trout and bass for fishing, the Greensboro River and Trail, the Greenbank Observatory and various other natural attractions within the Monongahela National Forest, which surrounds the park. —Dana Randall
Highlands Nature Sanctuary: Stay on a Bluff Overlooking an Appalachian Gem
$95–$250/night, Bainbridge, Ohio, Drive from Columbus: 1.3 hours, arcofappalachia.org/highlands-nature-sanctuary
Halfway between Chillicothe and Hillsboro, near the place where the flat, fertile land left by the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier begins to rumple into the Allegheny Plateau, a 10-mile-long, 100-foot-deep gorge threads through lush hardwood forests.
A half-century ago, tourists visited to see the seven caves nestled in the gorge’s limestone walls, complete with push-button lights and plenty of hype. Today, the caves have been re-wilded, and you can visit in a quieter, more environmentally sensitive fashion while enjoying gorgeous views of water, rock arches and ancient cedars from 16 miles of hiking trails or from the deck of a comfortable cabin or apartment.
Highlands Nature Sanctuary, accessed via a dirt road near Bainbridge, operates the lodgings and maintains the network of trails traversing the 2,900-acre park, tracing both the rim and the interior of the Rocky Fork Gorge. Accommodations include two suites perched on the edge of the bluff: The Eyrie Suite (kitchenette) and the Zen River Suite (full kitchen), with great views and plenty of privacy. Families might choose to stay in a cabin, either the more traditional Leatherwood or one of two well-outfitted monolithic dome homes. Larger groups can opt for Beechcliff, an early-20th-century hunting lodge, or Ravenswood, a restored 19th-century mill house. Book early and download trail maps online.
While some of the caves are now bat sanctuaries, two will be open to visitors this summer (sans lighting; bring your phone or a flashlight); they can be accessed from trails that begin at the sanctuary’s Appalachian Forest Museum, which reopens in April following renovations. Dogs are not permitted on most trails; print the directions before you go, as cell service is spotty. —Suzanne Goldsmith
1891 Schoolhouse Inn: Study Peace and Serenity
Starting at $195/night, Morgantown, Indiana, Drive from Columbus: 3.25 hours, 1891schoolhouseinn.com
Long-ago pupils at this one-room school likely never dreamed that one day people would pay to stay in it overnight. “The Schoolhouse Inn has been beautifully restored. It is private, but just 15 minutes to the village of Nashville,” says property manager Marisa Payton, referring to the arts hub of this section of southern Indiana.
Renovated in 2016 as a chic two-bedroom lodging, the schoolhouse retains important authentic components. The original bell still hangs in the belfry. The 7-foot windows have original wavy glass. Inside, wood wainscoting and the heart of pine floors have been preserved. Beyond that, it has been given luxurious touches, a cozy fireplace, a hot tub and modern technology.
The 1-acre wooded property has a butterfly garden and deck. Located in the scenic hills of Brown County, the dog-friendly inn is a gateway to Nashville’s galleries, restaurants, antique shops and more, as well as the surrounding natural area, one of the prettiest parts of Indiana, a haven for fishing, hiking and cycling. Brown County is particularly beautiful in fall, so if peace and serenity is what you’re after, the 1891 Schoolhouse Inn can teach you a thing or two. —Ellen Creager
Lake House at North Bass Island: True Great Lakes Seclusion
$350/night, North Bass Island, Ohio, Drive from Columbus: 2.3 hours to Port Clinton (then accessible by boat or plane), ohiodnr.gov
In the middle of Lake Erie, a house sits alone on an island. “If you want to get away from people, this is the place. There’s nothing there,” says Andrea Tibbels, manager of North Bass Island State Park, the primitive, 593-acre natural area on the rarely visited outpost just south of the Canadian maritime border.
The isolated white house, available to rent Memorial Day to Labor Day, once was a retreat for the owner of Paramount Distillers. It is 3,000 square feet, has four bedrooms and can sleep 10. Two years ago, the house was modernized by state park officials, and they started renting it out. The house does have an updated kitchen and amenities like Wi-Fi and satellite TV, because “you’ve got to have something to do,” jokes Tibbels. But the island has no stores. Bring your provisions with you.
Also: There is no ferry to the island. Visitors arrive via private boat or fly into a tiny airstrip from Port Clinton. When you arrive, a golf cart is provided for transportation. So far, the rental has attracted boaters, fishermen, hunters and a few hardy souls who like the quixotic novelty. With only seven full-time residents, the island has a dock, tiny chapel, one-room school and some empty houses. But it has an amazing view of Lake Erie—blue, beckoning and just the way nature made it. —Ellen Creager
Bright Lake Cabin: a Rustic Retreat Amid an Old Growth Forest
$68/night, Grayling, Michigan, Drive from Columbus: 5.5 hours, midnrreservations.com
Bright Lake Cabin is by itself in the woods at Hartwick Pines State Park. It is a plain brown structure with three bunk beds, a fireplace, a propane heater and a table with benches. It has no electricity or indoor plumbing, but outside it has a hand pump and picnic table, grill and fire ring. Down the path is the vault toilet. Next to the secluded and quiet cabin is the cheerfully-named Bright Lake, but you can’t swim there because it has a mucky bottom.
“There’s been no major updates in the last few years, just regular maintenance stuff,” says Denise Dawson, unit supervisor. Still, “our cabin tends to book up on weekends throughout the year,” she says.
Why? The cabin is at Hartwick Pines, which has one of the last stands of old-growth pine forest in the Midwest. Some of its mighty trees are 350 years old. Walk the pathway, and the park seems silent and remote, but it’s actually just a few minutes off the I-75 freeway. It also is near the comfy northern Michigan town of Grayling, with its excellent kayaking and fishing on the famed Au Sable River.
The rustic, low-tech Bright Lake cabin may not be for everyone, but it is a secret spot beloved by those who appreciate simplicity. —Ellen Creager