14 Unique Adventures for All Types at Ohio's State Parks and Nature Preserves

Find new ways to connect with nature, from hunting for Bigfoot to spotting a piping plover.

Columbus Monthly
Two kayakers paddle near South Bass Island State Park

1. Kayak Around an Island

Landlubbers who visit Put-in-Bay and South Bass Island might envy the boating lifestyle so prominently on display in the harbor and around the island. But one of the best ways to venture onto Lake Erie doesn’t involve motors or sails. Kayaking the waters around South Bass is relatively simple and inexpensive. Plus, it offers a quiet, up-close experience of the island’s shoreline and its wildlife that is usually missed by the power-boaters and Jet Skiers.

Some experienced kayakers paddle the 3 miles of open water from the mainland to the island. But an easier way to float South Bass is to bring your craft atop your car aboard the Miller Ferry. An even easier option is to rent a kayak at Put-in-Bay Watercraft Rentals at the public beach in South Bass Island State Park, or at Kayak the Bay on the edge of the harbor at Put-In-Bay.

A paddle between the state park and Put-in-Bay takes kayakers along the island’s rocky western shore, past rugged limestone cliffs, waterfront homes both humble and grand, and to isolated rocky beaches hidden by limestone outcroppings above and accessible only by water.

At the western edge of the Put-in-Bay harbor, kayakers will encounter pretty little Gibraltar Island, home to an Ohio State University research lab. A shallow reef between South Bass and Gibraltar keeps larger boats away but makes the area perfect for kayaking. And on the far side of Gibraltar is a series of lovely limestone formations including the Needle, a tiny natural arch that’s just wide enough for a kayak to navigate. ­— Steve Stephens

Guide to Ohio State Parks:Discover Ohio's Vast and Diverse State Parks and Nature Preserves

A person fishing at Alum Creek State Park

2. Catch a Muskie

Ohio’s most exciting native game fish routinely reaches 3 feet long, has hundreds of sharp teeth in its gaping mouth and is known for stalking a lure until the end of the retrieve, then pouncing in an explosion of water next to the angler’s boat.

This is the muskellunge, or muskie, and targeting this apex predator is growing in popularity among anglers in Ohio’s state parks. A torpedo-shaped fish with a large, duck-billed mouth, the muskellunge is native to Ohio, but as the state’s rivers were dammed and polluted, the populations plunged, and now there is little natural reproduction.

Seven state park lakes are stocked with muskies, with Alum Creek State Park the closest to Columbus. If you’re going to fish for them, you’re going to need a bigger net. And a heavy-duty rod, braided fishing line and a steel leader to prevent the razor-sharp teeth from severing your line.

Muskies can reach up to 50 inches and weigh as much as 40 pounds. Their aggressive behavior and toothy mouths lead to many “fish stories” about wanton attacks on swimmers and anglers. Intentional bites are extraordinarily rare, but an accidental brush with those teeth can do some damage. To avoid a bloody end to your fishing trip, experts recommend “fish grippers” and pliers to keep hands away from teeth while removing the hook.­ ­— Randy Edwards

3. Visit an Appalachian Gem

For years, fans have called Lake Katharine State Nature Preserve “like the Hocking Hills, without the crowds.” Visitation picked up during the pandemic, but this 2,000-acre preserve remains the quieter cousin to Ohio’s most popular state park, perhaps in part because it’s not a park.

Lake Katharine is one of Ohio’s 140 state nature preserves, which are set aside expressly to protect rare and endangered species and awe-inspiring geologic features. Nature preserves are open to the public, but recreation is not the primary goal. For example, the hemlock-ringed lake features majestic sandstone bluffs and abundant panfish, but you’ll need a (free) permit to put your boat in the water, and only five boats per day are permitted. No motors of any kind are allowed, so you’ll need muscle power, which will also come in handy for carrying your boat down a long set of stairs to the dock.

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The scenery is worth the extra effort, whether by boat or on foot along one of the preserve’s six trails. Three deep ravines cut through a mature forest featuring birch, beech and Ohio’s largest population of bigleaf and umbrella magnolia trees­—rare in Ohio, with summer blossoms as big as saucers.

Hiking is allowed any day, from sunrise to sunset. There are no public restrooms and no pets allowed. For lake use permits, call the preserve office (740-286-2487) on the last Friday of each month between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. — Randy Edwards

Rock climbing at John Bryan State Park

4. Scale a Cliff

Rock climbing in Ohio? It’s not as strange as you’d think. John Bryan State Park near Yellow Springs features a rappelling site and six top-rope sites with nearly two dozen routes, ranging from beginner-friendly climbs to more technical ones to challenge experienced climbers. Each route is topped by two painted eyebolts a meter or two from the cliff edge, but equipment is not provided. Climbers will need to bring their own gear: a static line or webbing and locking carabiners to create anchors from the eyebolts, plus a rope, harnesses for each climber and a belay device. Climbing shoes are recommended, and safe climbing practices are a must. Top roping is your only option here; trad climbing, sport climbing and bouldering are all prohibited.

Routes on the limestone cliffs range from 30 to 60 feet high and are all southern facing, meaning they get great sun in the winter; foliage provides good shade on most routes the rest of the year. The cliffs are a short hike from one of three parking lots; the lot near the Wingo Picnic area provides the best access to all of the climbs, which overlook the North Rim Trail. There isn’t a guidebook for the area, but the climbs can be found on the Mountain Project app. — Emma Frankart Henterly

5. Rent a Pontoon Boat

You don’t need to be a boat owner to enjoy life on the water at Alum Creek State Park; plenty of watercraft—both motorized and human-powered—are available for rent. And this summer is a great time to do it, thanks to the park’s new, $4.6 million marina, set to debut May 20. Head north to this Delaware park for “Creekend” to see the marina’s ribbon cutting on June 11 and enjoy festivities all weekend long.

The marina will feature dining and retail spots where you can grab a quick bite, pick up forgotten items like sunscreen, or rent watercraft to enjoy all that Alum Creek Reservoir has to offer. There’s paddling craft—canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards—as well as motorized craft like Jet Skis, fishing boats and even pontoons ranging from 14 to 30 feet long, suitable for up to 14 passengers. No boating license? No problem. A short safety course will get you wave-ready in no time. Make your way out to the designated swimming coves to cool off along the park’s 3,000 feet of beachfront—the state’s largest inland beach, according to park manager Jason Meyers—or reserve a spot at one of the park’s boat campsites for an overnight adventure. — Emma Frankart Henterly

Bigfoot sculpture at Mr. G's Center Market near Salt Fork State Park

6. Hunt for Bigfoot

In the forests of Ohio’s largest state park, concealed in the most rugged ravines and darkest hollers of the Appalachian foothills, lurks a rangy, hairy, hominidlike creature that many have seen but none has captured.

Or maybe not.

Regardless of your personal position on cryptozoology, there’s no disputing that Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County is the heart of Ohio’s Bigfoot country, and John Hickenbottom, the park’s naturalist, is a once-reluctant bard of Salt Fork Bigfoot lore.

“I catch flak from the other naturalists about being ‘the Bigfoot guy,’ but I tell them I can get 300 people to a Bigfoot hike, and that doesn’t happen with wildflowers.”

The Ohio Bigfoot Organization holds an annual conference at Salt Fork that draws hundreds of enthusiasts to meet famous cryptozoologists like Matt Moneymaker of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. Year-round, the park draws the credulous and the curious, many of whom report having encountered a mysterious beast in the forest. The park not only indulges this fascination but works it into seasonal programming, hosting Bigfoot hikes at least once a month, May to September. Check the park’s Facebook page for specific dates.

Hickenbottom admits he wanted nothing to do with the Bigfoot obsession at first, but he has come to embrace it. We all have a need for mystery, he says. And besides, like all good hunters, devoted Bigfoot trackers want to learn everything they can about their quarry and its habitat. “They go out in nature and learn everything they can, [and therefore] learn about coyotes and bobcats and owls and trees and plants.”

What more could a naturalist hope for? — Randy Edwards

Trilobite fossil

7. Find a Fossil

Around 445 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period of the early Paleozoic Era, Ohio was entirely underwater, covered by a shallow inland sea. The environment was “similar to what you would have surrounding the Bahama Islands today,” says Mark Peter, a paleontologist with ODNR. “It probably would have been a nice place to be, except for the lack of land.”

That shallow sea—just tens to hundreds of feet deep, Peter says—was a perfect place for algae, corals and other marine invertebrates like bivalves and gastropods to thrive. Today, all that remains of that watery environment are the fossils its inhabitants left behind. Typically, visitors aren’t allowed to remove any natural objects from Ohio state parks, but three allow for private, noncommercial fossil collecting: Hueston Woods State Park along Ohio’s western border, Caesar Creek State Park near Dayton and East Fork State Park near Cincinnati.

Caesar Creek is an especially bountiful site, though it requires obtaining a free permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Visitor Center before beginning, as does East Fork. The most common types of fossils found at Caesar Creek are trilobites—look for small, rolled-up specimens around the size of a pea, Peter says. Displays at the visitor center can help you train your eye to know what to look for.

Each park has strict guidelines on where and how you can collect fossils, as well as size limitations, so be sure to check with the park office before starting your adventure. — Emma Frankart Henterly

8. Spot a Warbler or (Maybe) a Piping Plover

By the time you read this, you’ll have missed The Biggest Week in American Birding, organized each May by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and hosted by Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio. Birders jet in from around the world to experience the giant avian traffic jam at the edge of Lake Erie as warblers and other migrants fuel up and prepare themselves at locations throughout the area for the journey across the water. Warblers are the big draw—especially in Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, a wetland with a boardwalk that makes it easier to view the colorful songbirds, but visitors can also see vireos, orioles, flycatchers, thrushes and other birds, including shorebirds. Make your plan now for 2023.

Speaking of shorebirds, there’s still a chance this summer to catch the hoped-for return of the piping plovers, a pair of which nested at Maumee last summer for the first time in 83 years. The duo of endangered birds, named Nellie and Nish, successfully hatched four adorable balls of fluff. One, as happens in nature, fell prey to a predator and another, named Erie, sustained an injury. Erie was captured and returned to health by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is now a permanent resident of the Detroit Zoo. Will the rest of the plover family return and multiply? Follow @NellieandNish on Facebook for updates. — Suzanne Goldsmith

9. Climb Jacob’s Ladder

It may not get you to the pearly gates a la the biblical tale found in Genesis, but the Jacob’s Ladder Overlook at Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve in Lancaster does offer heavenly views. The Black Hand Sandstone formation known as Jacob’s Ladder rises about 100 feet in the air, a sheer cliff face full of cracks and weathering that evokes the image of a ladder.

Hikers will get their first glimpse of Jacob’s Ladder about a mile from the parking lot along the Orange Loop Trail; from there, the trail follows along the valley floor before conjoining with the Blue Loop Trail. Stay on the Orange Loop for a strenuous but rewarding climb to Jacob’s Ladder Overlook, with views of the Arney Run valley and the nature preserve. The Orange Loop hike alone is about 2.7 miles; the Blue Loop adds approximately 1.6 miles more.

The Christmas Rocks preserve is home to a number of rare species of plants, including the endangered Bradley’s spleenwort. And of course, more common flora—including old-growth forest and a dazzling array of spring wildflowers—are found throughout the preserve, too. But be warned: This is a delicate, protected ecosystem, so pets aren’t allowed and removing anything, from a common daisy to a rare orchid, is strictly prohibited. Be sure to always stay on the marked trails and follow the golden rule of the outdoors: Take only photos, leave only footprints. — Emma Frankart Henterly

10. See the Great Seal

The climb to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is steep, straight, heavily forested and carpeted with wildflowers in spring. From the top, if you’re there before the trees fully leaf out, you can see for miles. Looking west, toward Chillicothe and across the broad Scioto River Valley, you’re looking toward Adena, the historical estate of Thomas Worthington, the “Father of Ohio Statehood.”

Wave to Worthington’s ghost, for atop Sugarloaf, you’re standing in the midst of the range of hills that inspired Worthington and his political cronies to sketch out the first official “Great Seal” for the 17th state. Great Seal State Park encompasses the seven hills depicted in the seal, protecting the scene for future generations. The park remains relatively undeveloped, with a minimalist campground and picnic shelters. It has some excellent hiking on 25 miles of multipurpose trails (most shared with horses and mountain bikers). “It is advised that horses and hikers be well conditioned for these trails,” the park brochure notes.

Not well conditioned? The park now features a fitness trail with 10 exercise stations. Tech tip: Your device’s mapping software may take you to obscure corners of the park if you search for the park’s name. Plug in the street address for better navigation: 4908 Marietta Road, Chillicothe. — Randy Edwards

Two backpackers are kitted up for a hike in a state park

11. Try Backpacking

Experienced backpackers know the Ten Essentials: boots, compass, knife, first-aid kit, rain gear, headlamp, sunscreen, shelter, food and water. The last—hydration—can be challenging for beginners because water is heavy, and few newbie backpackers have purification devices stowed in their (probably) borrowed backpacks.

Never fear. Potable water on demand is one of the many amenities of the backpack trail at Zaleski State Forest in Vinton County, next to Lake Hope State Park. Cisterns strategically placed along the trail are routinely refilled, so thirsty hikers can refresh their supplies.

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Other advantages that make this trail popular with backpackers of all levels: designated camping areas with vault toilets, a well-marked and well-maintained trail system that provides trip options ranging from 9 to 30 miles, mature forest punctuated by artifacts from the ancient indigenous past and 19th century iron making.

The trails are challenging. For instance, during a 2020 hike there, storm-downed trees blocked a portion of the trail and required extensive exploration to pick up the trail blazes on the other side. And while the trail generally provides abundant solitude, campsites can be crowded in peak seasons of spring and fall. Come during the week if possible or arrive the night before and camp at Lake Hope to get an early start. — Randy Edwards

Punderson Manor in Geauga County

12. See a Ghost

Unique among Ohio’s state park lodges, Punderson Manor in Geauga County was built to be a private home. Also unique: Punderson is reputedly haunted.

Construction on the English Tudor-style manor was started in 1929. But the owner went bankrupt in the Great Depression and the project wasn’t finished until the state took over and completed it as a lodge in 1956. Today it features 31 comfortable guest rooms and a fine restaurant.

Other features, reported by staff and guests alike, include odd visions, strange noises and phenomena like room lights, bathroom faucets and televisions turning themselves on and off. Some have alleged even more disturbing sightings, including a spectral man—perhaps the bankrupt owner?—hanging by his neck from the lounge ceiling. Other possible ghostly guests: Lemuel Punderson, a pre-statehood settler of the region for whom Punderson Lake and Punderson Manor are named and who may or may not (you know how these things go) have died suddenly, and a group of children alleged to have perished in a fire in a hotel once located on Punderson Lake opposite the manor.

Guests who’d like to know more can always avail themselves of the Ouija board located on the game shelf in the lounge.

Sweet dreams. — Steve Stephens

Find an Ohio State Park Lodge:Stay Comfortable at One of Nine Park Lodges

Morel mushroom

13. Forage for Mushrooms

Like productive fishing holes and free parking near Ohio Stadium, the location of a primo wild mushroom spot is a closely held secret among those who are most in the know. But our secret sources suggest that Tar Hollow State Park and the surrounding state forest are among the best spots in Ohio to find the ephemeral morel.

Morels are not the only edible wild mushroom in Ohio, but they are the most valued—some say for their meaty flavor; others suggest the limited supply increases the demand. One very sound reason, though, is that the morel’s distinctive, sponge-on-a-stick look makes it easier to properly identify. Eating the wrong fungi can make a person sick, or worse.

Morels emerge in late March and disappear around Mother’s Day. Old timers, trusting nature’s calendar more, say morels are best when the redbuds are in bloom, or when oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear (you figure that out). The mushrooms are most likely found in wooded areas on warm days after a rain. Focus on eastern- and northern-facing hillsides where moisture is highest. Some suggest scouting the base of dead or dying trees.

For more tips and recipes, get your grubby fingers on a used copy of “The Morel Hunters Companion,” by Nancy Smith Weber. It’s been a trusted guide for decades for mushroom foragers in the Great Lakes states. — Randy Edwards

A butterfly sitting on a spike blazing star (Liatris spicata)

14. Admire a Blazing Star

While many wildflower-peepers take to the trails in spring, summer also has its wildflowers—you just need to know where to go. Many Ohio parks with open land boast coneflower and milkweed in abundance, but the rarer prairie remnants that dot the state offer some spectacular and harder-to-find summer blooms.

Head to Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve in August to see fields of spiked blazing star (Liatris spicata), a tall purple plant with blossoms along the stem that is a magnet for monarchs and other pollinators. It’s one of six varieties of Liatris that can be found across the state in patches of prairie land that escaped being repurposed for agriculture: railroad rights-of-way, pioneer cemeteries and areas that were lightly grazed.

Chaparral Prairie, about two hours southwest of Columbus in Adams County, is one of the most striking leftover prairies. It’s “a riot of color” in early August, says wildlife photographer Jim McCormac in his blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity. According to nonprofit preservation organization The Arc of Appalachia, which acquired and contributed 60 acres to the park in 2015 (the 130-acre site is managed by ODNR and includes 1.6 miles of trails), the first three weeks in August are ablaze with flowers such as prairie dock and the rare rattlesnake master, but the very first week of August is your best time to see the dramatic displays of blazing star. — Suzanne Goldsmith

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