Ohio is known for its 75 beautifully diverse state parks located throughout its stunning landscapes. From the shores of Lake Erie to the southern rolling Appalachian hills, you will find you can hike, explore, and relax in some of Ohio’s premier outdoor destinations. I have enjoyed these state parks since I was a young girl and now as a grandma, and I continue to go back time and time again to enjoy the beauty with grandkids or for personal times of solitude. That is the thing about Ohio: Her treasures are vast, and it takes a lifetime of exploration to find and curate them all! Along the way, there are ones that have come to the top of the list that call me back.
1. Maumee Bay State Park
Located in the northwest corner of Ohio by Toledo and situated right on the shores of Lake Erie, Maumee Bay State Park offers you all the amenities that you could want in a lakeshore destination. Maumee Bay has one of the Great Ohio Lodges, where you can find stunning views from the lakeside rooms and fantastic dining on the lake. Just outside the Lodge doors, you will find a two-mile boardwalk hiking trail that is wheelchair accessible out to the shores and around the marsh areas, where there are plenty of excellent birdwatching opportunities. Year-round you can find screech owls, cardinals, and blue jays. We saw deer crashing on our most recent hike and active muskrats swimming beside us. When you are at Maumee Bay, you are surrounded by plentiful opportunities to kayak small inland lakes, enjoy an adventurous experience out on Lake Erie, golf on the acclaimed golf course, rent a bicycle, or fish in the walleye capital of the world on your boat or hired charter.
Pro Tip: Spring birding is at its finest in mid-May, when you can see migrating warblers and shorebirds as they make their flight north. You will want to plan because the campground and Lodge fill up fast due to all the bird enthusiasts.
2. Geneva State Park
While this park is small, coming in at only 698 acres, it truly reflects the character and charisma of Lake Erie and hosts the beautiful Geneva on the Lake Lodge. It is there you will find yourself surrounded by the serene skyline of Lake Erie, which will have you romantically inspired and sitting with a glass of wine waiting on one of the stunning sunsets that this area is known for. I enjoy walking the paved walkways along the shores from the Lodge, where I can traverse to the lake and look for sea glass (glass that has been discarded at sea or the seashore, broken into pieces, and smoothed by the erosive action of sand and water, often used in making jewelry) on the beach or enjoy the panoramic views.
Staying at Geneva on the Lake Lodge is the best way to enjoy the lake vibe. Here, you can take advantage of their wine shuttles through Ashtabula’s wine country plus the bike and golf cart rentals, or check out the zipline adventure park for the adrenaline lover.
Pro Tip: While not in the state park, just outside the entrance is “the strip” that runs through the heart of Geneva on the Lake where families have enjoyed food, fun, and memory-making for over 150 years.
3. Alum Creek State Park
Alum Creek, one of Ohio’s hidden gems, is tucked into the urbanized heart of the central part of the state in Lewis Center, Ohio. Crisscrossed with flat, level trails for hiking, various mountain biking opportunities for all skill levels, and a full-service marina, you will find yourself immersed with ample opportunities for outdoor fun. If you are feeling young at heart, take a walk through the Storybook Trail and enjoy the sounds of nature as you read the book along the way. I love to rent a pontoon boat for the day to explore the reservoir, have a picnic on board with the family, and jump into the cool waters for a swim. It is invigorating!
This park offers everything I love about the outdoors coupled with the perfect location to explore around central Ohio. Just minutes from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, you can use this state park as a base camp for an ideal stay in Columbus. You can stay at Alum Creek on one of the campsites or in the Camper cabin. Camping here is a summer tradition for our family, and sitting by the campfire with smores in hand while taking in the evening sounds is always worth returning for year after year.
Pro Tip: Alum Creek has the largest body of inland water in Ohio and has 3,000 feet of sandy beach; rent a kayak, stand up paddleboard, or relax on the shores to grab some sun.
4. Hocking Hills State Park
Most people you meet in Ohio will tell you that their favorite state park is Hocking Hills, which means it is one of the busiest. While you will find yourself surrounded by some of Ohio’s most beautiful geography and waterfalls, the trails here can be somewhat challenging. However, you can find two ADA-accessible paved trails located within Hocking Hills State Park: Ash Cave and Conkles Hollow Gorge Trail. These trails offer everything people come to the Hocking Hills region for, and they’ll make it easy for you to see what draws the crowds here. You’ll find lush green flora and fauna, strikingly tall cliffs, and gently flowing waterfalls.
When I am up for a more challenging hike, I tackle the Old Man’s Cave trail from the Hocking Hills Visitor Center. The visitor center is fantastic and gives you a glimpse into how this area was created and its stunningly diverse ecosystem. When I am feeling adventurous and looking for stunning views from the edge of the cliffs, I find myself climbing over 150+ stairs to the Conckes Hollow Rim Trail. The views from the rim are worth the trek, and the breezes off the horizon keep you cool in the summer months.
I live for the moments when I can come to spend the day climbing stairs, traversing rocks, and enjoying the coolness found in the gorges within Hocking Hills.
Pro Tips: Please note that parking at any of the trails within Hocking Hills can be congested and frustrating, so go early in the morning for the best parking opportunities on weekends. Also, this is more than a day trip destination; plan to stay three or more nights to enjoy all the trails and beauty. Stay up by Logan, Ohio, for easy access to food and evening activities.
5. Shawnee State Park
Ohio’s Appalachian foothills are located on the banks of the Ohio River, and here is where you find this park nestled into what many call the Little Smokies. As an outdoor enthusiast, this park offers everything the nature lover in me desires to see on a weekend away.
The modern Shawnee State Park Lodge has a rustic feel that overlooks some of Ohio’s most breathtaking views of her hardwood forest and has one of the premier barbecue smokehouse restaurants around. A stay here should never be short because the amenities seem unlimited.
Outdoor adventure here is plentiful, and the hardest decision you will have to make is to determine what you are up for when planning your day! If you enjoy the opportunity for long, arduous hikes, the Little Smokies will provide you with that; however, if you’re into more relaxing activities, you can swim at the beach, play a round of disk golf on the Black Bear course, or fish for some of Ohio’s plentiful panfish.
Pro Tip: Fall is the best time to come and explore the depths of color along the lush hillsides, enjoy a fire on the deck of Shawnee State Park Lodge, or drive the scenic Ohio River Byway.
No matter where you find yourself in one of Ohio’s free state parks, you will be surrounded by some of the best that the Midwest offers in the outdoors. Whether it is that glass of wine on the beach, a fishing trip for walleye, a walk on a sandy beach, a hike through the gorges, or a trip to the Little Smokies, Ohio’s State Parks will take you by surprise as you enjoy everything they have to offer.