With the heat of summer a thing of the past and the cool fall coming into play, this time of year is perhaps the perfect time to get out and explore the nature of the Buckeye State. While mostly comprised of rural farm country and small midwestern towns, Ohio also offers a diverse terrain with different personalities for the contrasting regions. From the beaches of Lake Erie in the north to the shores of the Ohio River in the south and all of the lakes, caverns, and wilderness in between, there is no shortage of outdoor options for campers to explore. This guide to camping at Ohio State Parks will highlight some of the best areas, most exciting trails, essential items to pack, and helpful tips to ensure you have the best time exploring the great outdoors of this Midwestern state.
Most of the Ohio state parks and campgrounds are open year-round, creating an abundance of activities for visitors of all ages and backgrounds. From hiking through forests to spelunking in caverns and caves, depending upon the season, you’ll be able to enjoy fishing, hiking, hunting, kayaking, biking, bird watching, and more. Ohio is best broken down into five basic regions, offering unique opportunities for campers and the perfect guide to follow when it comes to camping in Ohio.
Marblehead Lighthouse State Park
Home to one of Lake Erie’s best known and most photographed landmarks, Marblehead Lighthouse State Park, with its lighthouse, islands and quaint cottages, boasts New England style flair to the max. The lighthouse which rests on a rocky Columbus limestone peninsula has been in constant operation since it opened in 1822. Step inside to check out the museum and lifesaving station to get a better idea of what the area is all about. The surrounding area offers great picnicking, fishing, and walking trails with views of Lake Erie, Sandusky Bay, Kelleys Island. and South Bass Island.
Maumee Bay State Park
This state park lies along the shores of Lake Erie and is one of the most naturally diverse areas in all of Ohio, with meadows, marshes, and wetlands. This state park is 1,336 acres of unique natural environment created by the convergence of the land and Lake Erie. Recreational activities are abundant here with options like boating, fishing, swimming, and paddle boarding on the water. Land options include an abundance of bike and horseback trails as well as several trails specific to backpacking, mountain biking, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and snowmobiles. A golf course is also on the grounds and available for a quick game on the green. Bird watching enthusiasts flock to Maumee Bay for the 300+ species of birds that have been identified in the area. In fact, the biggest week in American birding occurs here every spring where thousands come to witness the warbler migration.
Other noteworthy state parks: Kelleys Island State Park
Best hiking trails: Lake Erie Birding Trail, Fallen Timbers Northwest Territory Trail (Maumee Bay)
John Bryan State Park
The Little Miami River has carved a limestone gorge with several lookout points through this scenic state park. You can indulge yourself in a game of disc golf, or you can check out one (or more!) of its nine hiking trails to explore natures finest. John Bryan is one of the best parks in the state for winter hiking because of its frozen waterfalls.
Shawnee State Park
A 1,100-acre park situated on the banks of the Ohio River in the Appalachian foothills of the Shawnee State Forest, the Shawnee State Park is home to an abundance of wildlife. It features 72 boat slips, an 18-hole championship golf course, adjacent to the marina, a 50-room lodge, campground and rental cabins.
Other noteworthy state parks: Caesar Creek, Hueston Woods
Best hiking trails: Scioto Trail State Forest Loop (Scioto Trail State Forest), Clifton Gorge Trail (John Bryan State Park)
Geneva State Park
Geneva State Park is likely the most convenient in terms of tourist attractions nearby and how many recreational activities that can be done in one location. It hosts fishing charters for walleye and perch, as well as options for paddle board and jet ski rentals at the marina. A strategically routed, six-mile multi-use trail leads all areas of the park to the beach. Adding to the convenience factor, Geneva on the Lake is a small throwback resort town just down the road that has a mile-long strip filled with arcades, shops, and dining options.
Best hiking trails: Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail, Cascade Falls Trail (Nelson Kennedy Ledges State Park), The Ledges Trail (Cuyahoga Valley National Park), Brandywine Falls and Stanford Trail (Cuyahoga Valley National Park)
Salt Fork State Park
Ohio’s largest state park, with over 17,000 acres of recreation and a 3,000-acre lake with two marinas, features one of the largest inland beaches in Ohio. Visitors come to Salt Fork State Park for horseback riding, fishing, hiking, camping, and boating. Salt Fork has 14 hiking trails ranging in difficulty that are converted to snowmobile trails in the winter. Perhaps its most unique feature is the 10-station archery trail at the entrance of the park.
Deer Creek State Park
The main draw to this top state park in Ohio is its diverse landscape and wildlife. With seven hiking-only trails, it should come as no surprise that hiking is the most popular activity at this 2,300-acre park, comprised of woodlands, meadows, and wildflowers. The park also has a 17-mile horseback trail, a public golf course, and a nine-hole disc golf course. Deer Creek reservoir attracts a crowd, but because of its large beach, you wouldn’t know. The reservoir is a great spot for water activities.
Best hiking trails: Charleston Falls Preserve Trails (Tipp City), Stone House Loop Trail (Salt Fork State Park), Scioto Trail State Forest Loop (Scioto Trail State Forest)
Hocking Hills State Park
Named the number one campground in the U.S. by Trailblazer.com, Hocking Hills State Park features magnificent sandstone cliffs, 330 million-year-old caves, deep gorges and lush waterfalls. Hocking Hills is comprised of five sections: Old Man’s Cave, Cedar Falls, Ash Cave, Cantwell Cliffs and Rock House. The newest edition, Whispering Caves, is located on the Hemlock Bridge Trail. With over 10,000 acres and 200 campsites, millions of visitors travel to Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy its adventurous activities including year-round rock climbing, rappelling, horseback riding, and hiking.
Other noteworthy state parks: Malabar Farm State Park, Tar Hollow State Park
Best hiking trails: Ash Cave (Hocking Hills), Logan Backpacking Trail (Tar Hollow), Old Man’s Cave Loop (Hocking Hills), Rockbridge State Nature Preserve Loop (Rockbridge), Conkle’s Hollow Rim Trail (Hocking Hills State Park)
Now that you know where to camp, here’s a list of what you’ll want to pack before you set out on your next expedition.
- Tent. Do your research on the necessary features: built-in pockets and hooks (for lanterns and sleep equipment), enough height to stand, and quick setup for one person.
- Headlamps, lanterns, and flashlights.
- Sleeping bag. Sleeping bags come in different lengths (choose one 5-6 inches more than your height), different weights (Are you carrying your sleeping bag for a long distance?), and handle different temperatures.
- Sleeping pad.
- Grill. Most campgrounds should have one, but do your research. If they don’t, be sure to pack a portable one.
- First aid kit. Know how to use everything in your first aid kit and be sure to restock when needed.
- Pocketknife. Folding knives that can cut through anything consistently prove to come in handy on camping trips.
- Fire starter. Unless you’re a wilderness expert, you’ll likely need one of these to get the campfire started.
- Water filtration systems and/or treatment tablets.
- Paper maps. They will come in handy when you can no longer rely on your GPS.
Whether you’re going for a short weekend getaway or planning a longer state park stay, map out the area where you’ll be staying, pack the necessary supplies, and enjoy some of the best Mother Nature has to offer at this time of the year.