Outdoor Ohio: State Nature Preserves

John Ross, Columbus Alive

In Ohio, state parks get all the love. They have the long trails, the campsites, the amenities loved by weekend warriors.

On the other hand, the state's natural areas and preserves often lie silently in the background. You've probably been in a few and not even known it.

These areas protect significant ecological and geological features and encourage low-impact activities like birding, hiking and photography. They're rarely crowded, kept mostly unimproved and always beautiful.

Here are five about an hour's drive from Columbus.

Blackhand Gorge

Location: Heath

Distance from Columbus: 52 miles

Size: 956 acres

Recommended for: Recreational bikers

Stark cliffs of Blackhand sandstone loom above this stretch of greenery alongside the Licking River. This family-friendly enclave is the only nature preserve in the Buckeye system with a bike trail, and the Rails-to-Trails organization put in a paved four-mile path several years ago. Its location next to Dillon State Park means swimming, mountain biking and more rugged hikes right next door.

Cedar Bog

Location: Urbana

Distance from Columbus: 60 miles

Size: 427 acres

Recommended for: Flower fans

This preserve is much more than a bog and includes marshland, swamp forests, creek beds and prairie that are absolutely stunning. Along a secluded mile-long boardwalk live some of Ohio's rarest flora and fauna - for example, poison sumac, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes and showy lady's slippers, a gorgeous native orchid. Interactive displays and a new visitor's center make it a crown jewel of the state's preserve system.

Clifton Gorge

Location: Yellow Springs

Distance from Columbus: 55 miles

Size: 268 acres

Recommended for: Nature photographers

Adjacent to John Bryan State Park, this preserve surrounds imposing rock formations carved by the Little Miami River, a State and National Scenic River. Trails ride the gorge rim, giving prime views of the rushing water, sheer cliffs and verdant pools below. Along the way, you'll see some of the most amazing plant life in Ohio and, up north, the old Clifton Mill. It's one of the prettiest places in the state.

Davey Woods

Location: Millerstown

Distance from Columbus: 74 miles

Size: 103 acres

Recommended for: Tree huggers, appreciators

Though its infamous spring wildflowers have bloomed and disappeared, the remaining vegetation at Davey Woods is reason to make the trip. This gift from the Davey Tree Expert Company is one of the best woodlots in the state and features giant hardwood trees that tower in a way you never thought possible in Ohio. Two short, easy looped trails run through the acreage.


Location: Lancaster

Distance from Columbus: 30 miles

Size: 88 acres

Recommended for: A quiet date

Almost everyone has a favorite spot in the Hocking Hills, so this tiny hamlet often gets overlooked. There's nothing fancy about it: parking lot, bulletin board, a few short trails. But within you'll find a secluded patch of beautiful scenery with heavily wooded trails and many hills with exposed boulders. Overlooks on Allen and Ruble knobs will be perfect during fall color.

Trail Tip

Ohio's natural areas and preserves don't offer the same amenities of state parks. Before you head out, go to the bathroom and print out directions. Always bring drinking water, a few snacks and a map.

Division of Natural Areas and Preserves