With a northern border established by Lake Erie, a southern boundary of forests, and the Appalachian Plateau filling much of its middle, Ohio is full of natural beauty. In addition to a Great Lakes coastline, rivers, and forests, hiking trails in Ohio include cool caves, spectacular waterfalls, deeply carved gorges, and grasslands dotted with wildflowers.
Throughout Ohio, you’ll see buckeye trees. These tall, deciduous trees produce small brown nuts that resemble the eye of a deer. When they fall from Ohio buckeye trees in September and October, scoop one up -- it is said that carrying one in your pocket is good luck. But while Ohio buckeyes look like the chestnuts that are roasted over an open fire during the holidays, they are highly toxic, so don’t eat them!
Whether you're hiking along the Oho & Erie Canal that connects Lake Erie to the Ohio River or encircling the state on the Buckeye Trail, these are the most scenic hikes in Ohio.
1. Buckeye Trail
This is my pick for the best hike in Ohio. Check out TravelAwaits’ picks for the best hikes in all 50 states here. The Buckeye Trail is a 1,444-mile hiking trail that loosely outlines the border of the state. It’s broken into 26 sections, each named for a community (like Akron and Delphos) or a feature (like Caesar Creek and Old Man’s Cave). Follow the blue blazes, rectangular marks roughly 2 inches wide by 6 inches high, painted on trees and poles that mark the trail. Make note of double blue blazes as you hike: When one of the azure stripes is offset from the other, it alerts hikers of a fork in the footpath that leads to a connecting trail.
One of the most popular hikes along the Buckeye Trail, good for hikers of all skill levels, is the 2.7-mile out-and-back Queer Creek Trail along the southern edge of Hocking Hills State Park near South Bloomingville. For a longer, more challenging hike, follow the Buckeye Trail from Jaite to Boston in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, about 20 miles south of Cleveland. This 10.2-mile out-and-back trail features a nearly 1,500-foot elevation gain and crosses the river just north of West Boston Mills Road.
Pro Tip: Keep maps, mileage, and other important information about the trail at your fingertips by downloading the Buckeye Trail Guthook App.
2. Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail
New Philadelphia To Cleveland
If the Erie Canal always conjures up memories of a similarly named song from elementary school music class or scouting campfires, you’re not alone. Every time I think about the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, I hear a room full of slightly off-key third graders singing, “I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal / Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.” The song, penned by Thomas S. Allen, is a nod to the mules that pulled boats filled with passengers and wares up and down the Erie Canal, which connected New York City with Midwestern cities from its opening in 1825 until just before World War I.
Today, this 87-mile multiuse trail provides hikers, bikers, runners, horseback riders, and wildlife lovers a relatively flat path of crushed limestone to get outside and explore along the historic transportation route. Whether you’d like to explore the Cleveland Metroparks, Tuscarawas area near Bolivar, or somewhere in between, you’re sure to find the perfect hike along the towpath. The Towpath Trail is ADA accessible.
3. Brecksville Reservation
Less than 30 minutes south of downtown Cleveland, the Brecksville Reservation is the largest of the region’s metroparks. In addition to an archery target range and two golf courses, the reservation also features an extensive system of hiking trails, including a section of the Buckeye Trail.
One popular hike begins and ends at the Chippewa Creek Gorge Scenic Overlook. This 2.6-mile loop heads east from the lookout along the All Purpose Trail before returning along the Hemlock Loop Trail that parallels Chippewa Creek. For a more challenging hike, explore the 4.2-mile Deer Lick Cave Trail that loops past a rock overhang embedded with salt that attracts white-tailed deer. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a buck or doe lapping at the minerals trapped in the slabs of rock.
The Buckeye Trail loop that encircles Ohio was completed near Deer Lick Cave in 1980.
Pro Tip: To add a unique challenge to your outdoor adventure at Brecksville Reservation, try the physical fitness trail with 18 exercise stations.
4. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Between Cleveland And Akron
In Cuyahoga Valley National Park, lush forests, deep gorges, and crashing waterfalls flank the Cuyahoga River as it twists and turns its way to Lake Erie. But this river and the 33,000-acre park weren’t always the idyllic refuge for native plants and wildlife that visitors experience today. In the century leading up to the establishment of this national park, the filthy Cuyahoga River, a toxic, bubbling, polluted stew of industrial waste, caught on fire 13 times. But the final blaze in 1969 sparked an environmental revolution that fueled the restoration of the river connected to the Great Lakes, one of the world’s most important sources of fresh water.
Including sections of the Buckeye Trail and Towpath Trail, more than 125 miles of hiking paths beckon to visitors of all skill levels to explore the woodlands, wetlands, and historic structures throughout the park. At 2.2 miles long and with an elevation gain of just 80 feet, the Ledges Trail is a popular loop within Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Another popular hike is the Brandywine Gorge Trail Loop. This 1.7-mile loop is rated as moderate and includes a boardwalk to stunning views of the waterfalls.
5. John Bryan State Park
About 30 minutes east of Dayton, John Bryan State Park is a 752-acre, pet-friendly park with camping, mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing, and (of course) hiking.
For trails rated as easy hikes, follow the John L. Rich Trail and North Rim Trail Loop. These relatively flat hikes take trekkers along the Little Miami River through the Clifton Gorge. For a 4.4-mile moderately challenging experience, hike the Pittsburg-Cincinnati Stage Coach and South Gorge Loop. This path also follows the river and includes waterfalls.
6. Hocking Hills State Park
Covering 2,000 acres about an hour southeast of Columbus, Hocking Hills State Park is surrounded by the Hocking State Forest. Visitors will be smitten by its massive sandstone outcroppings, gorgeous waterfalls, and serene Rose Lake.
A cave known as Rock House is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Hocking Hills State Park. You can access this tunnel-like, 200-foot-long corridor carved out of black hand sandstone on the 0.9-mile Rock House Trail. When you enter Rock House, look for hominy holes near the back wall. Native Americans built fires in these small recesses to cook food.
Famous enough that a section of the Buckeye Trail bears its name, Old Man’s Cave is another popular spot within the park. It’s named for Richard Rowe, the hermit who lived in the cave in the late 1700s and is buried beneath the ledge of the main recess. To reach Old Man’s Cave, follow the Buckeye Trail south, beginning just west of the Devil’s Bathtub, and wind along Old Man’s Creek past the naturalist cabin.
As you explore this beautiful green space, watch for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and barred owls.
7. Ohio River Recreation Trail
Portsmouth, Ohio, To West Point, Kentucky
Until slavery was abolished in the United States, the Ohio River was an important boundary separating the slave state of Kentucky from the free state of Ohio. Years before amendments to the Constitution freed enslaved people across the country, the Buckeye State enacted a law that automatically freed any slave brought into the state. Today, the Ohio River Recreation Trail is a land and water path that jumps across the river, spreading east and west from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
When all of the sections are connected, the trail will span more than 270 miles from Portsmouth, Ohio, to West Point, Kentucky. In the meantime, many portions of the trail beg to be explored.
My favorite stretch of the Ohio River Recreation Trail is from Cincinnati’s Eden Park neighborhood to Smale Riverfront Park. Following the Ohio River, you’ll wander through the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park, a narrow green space designed to look like a woven friendship bracelet and named for the city’s first black mayor. As you continue hiking southwest along the river, you’ll snake along the Serpentine Wall before reaching the Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds. As you approach Smale Riverfront Park, try to find your way to the center of the labyrinth or rest in a porch swing and watch the boats on the river.
Add to your urban hike by walking across the Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky, via the beautiful John A. Roebling Bridge. Named for the civil engineer who designed it, the brick-and-cable suspension bridge might remind you of Roebling’s most famous work, the Brooklyn Bridge.
This article is presented by KEEN Footwear. For my hikes, I wore the KEEN SOLR Sandal in Light Gray/Ocean Wave. The acronym stands for Sea Ocean Lake River, and the SOLR was the perfect hiking shoe to splash around in when visiting waterfalls and trekking along creeks and rivers. Shop KEEN’s SOLR and other hiking shoes here.