FEATURES

Best Driving Vacations: Natural Wonders Along Lake Erie

Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline offers abundant beauty.

Anietra Hamper
Maumee Bay State Park

Ohio’s greatest natural resource sits at its northern border—the nearly 200-mile shoreline along the southern edge of Lake Erie. This stretch, of course, includes two of the Buckeye State’s largest cities, Toledo and Cleveland, and iconic tourist attractions, such as Cedar Point and the Put-in-Bay bar scene. But nature lovers also have much to explore, including caves, rare wildflowers, glacial grooves and migratory birds. A meandering road trip is a perfect way to see this often underappreciated natural wonderland. 

Best Driving Vacations 2022: Four Stunning Road Trips from Columbus

Stop 1: Toledo 

Travel from Columbus: 142 miles, 2 hours and 21 minutes 

Set out from Columbus on a two-hour drive to Toledo to spend the day at the Oak Openings Preserve, the largest Toledo Metropark, with more than 5,000 acres of wetlands and prairies. The Metropark is home to more than 100 species of rare plants and insects like the endangered Karner Blue butterfly. Add to the natural immersion by staying overnight at the Cannaley Treehouse Village, the only public treehouse village in the U.S. 

Stop 2: Maumee Bay 

Travel from Toledo: 11 miles, 20 minutes 

Before heading 10 miles northeast to Maumee Bay, start your morning at Schmucker’s Restaurant in Toledo, enjoying a hearty breakfast while sitting on one of the 13 chrome counter stools that date to the family-owned restaurant’s 1948 opening. After your meal, head to Maumee Bay State Park, part of the Lake Erie Birding Trail, one of the country’s best birdwatching regions. The 1,336-acre park includes observation lookouts for viewing some of the 300 species of birds that live or migrate through the area, renowned for its spring warblers. 

Nearby, you can make stops at the Mallard Club Wildlife Area, Howard Marsh Metropark, Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. These Lake Erie green spaces make up more than 12,000 acres of wildlife habitat and draw nature lovers to the area each spring for the Biggest Week in American Birding, a 10-day birding festival. 

Stop 3: Lake Erie Islands 

Travel from Maumee Bay: 31 miles, 38 minutes 

Less than an hour’s drive from Toledo is Port Clinton, where you can catch the Jet Express ferry to Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island, exploring its parks, caves, trails and nature preserves. Go below ground into Perry’s Cave and Crystal Cave, then above ground to the top of Perry’s Monument for the best bird’s-eye view of Lake Erie. 

Crystal Cave on South Bass Island

If you visit in the spring or summer, set aside some time to tour Stone Laboratory, Ohio State University’s freshwater research center on Gibraltar Island just north of Put-in-Bay, or the lab’s Aquatic Visitors Center on South Bass Island. Hike at Coopers Woods Preserve, which has 18 acres of trails, and be sure to visit the Lake Erie Islands Nature and Wildlife Center for a look through the wildlife viewing window and to admire the center’s geology and birding collections. 

Neighboring Kelleys Island is the home of the glacial grooves, a geological landmark created by the slow-moving glaciers that also birthed the Great Lakes. You can enjoy the island’s hiking trails at North Shore Alvar, North Pond Preserve, Kelleys Island State Park and East Quarry or take a guided bicycle, golf cart or kayak tour with AdvenTours. After taking the ferry back to Port Clinton, plan a lunch stop at Jolly Roger Seafood House for a memorable Lake Erie perch sandwich or a walleye and chips basket. 

Stop 4: Marblehead 

Travel from Lake Erie Islands/Port Clinton: 11 miles, 17 minutes 

Just 20 minutes from Port Clinton is the small town of Marblehead and its magnificent Marblehead Lighthouse. Make your way to the Lakeside Daisy Nature Preserve to see one of the only places where the rare and endangered lakeside daisy grows. If you visit from April to mid-May, you can see the tiny yellow flower in bloom in the quarry limestone. 

Stop 5: Cleveland/Independence 

Travel from Marblehead: 80 miles, 1 hour and 19 minutes 

Your next stop is the Cleveland region of the Lake Erie Birding Trail. (Before your visit, order a birding trail guidebook from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website to help you identify specific species.) The trail includes 84 birding spots in the area, but one of the best is the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, with its Perimeter Loop Trail that takes you past a lake overlook and many wildlife habitats. 

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Before heading back to Columbus, take a quick side trip from the coast and visit the Cleveland suburb of Independence. There, you can catch the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for a lovely ride through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The 3.5-hour round trip is a relaxing way to experience Ohio’s only national park. 

Where to Stay 

Toledo 

Cannaley Treehouse Village in Oak Openings Preserve (make reservations far in advance):  A unique experience with two- to six-person treehouses in the nation’s only treehouse village

Maumee Bay 

Maumee Bay State Park Lodge: Reserve a lodge room or private cabin on the shore of Lake Erie with access to food and on-site recreation.

Put-in-Bay 

The Freshwater Retreat: Apartment suites with views of Lake Erie are ideal for quiet getaways on the island.

Kelleys Island 

The Inn on Kelleys Island B&B: This 1800s Victorian home and retreat is close to the docks on Kelleys Island. 

Cuyahoga Valley National Park 

Stanford House: The historic farmhouse is nestled in the heart of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

Inn at Brandywine Falls: A country inn on 800 acres of land in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

This story is from the February 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.