During this past year, I was forced out of my usual travel routines and found myself in my car road-tripping throughout the Midwest. One day, I found myself driving the beautiful Ohio River Scenic Byway, and I was taken by surprise by the extraordinary stops along my way. My blinker seemed to be on every few minutes as I pulled off the road to take in the small-town charm that seemed to meet me at every mile marker.
When I came into Steubenville, I was surprised by all the abundant history and charm this little town had. Settlers moved into this region, known as the Seven Ranges, in 1786, after a fort was built along the banks of the Ohio River, and it is one of the oldest cities in the state.
You will want to spend the day checking out Historic Fort Stueben, which is open from May to October. Why was a fort built in Steubenville? The short answer is that the Continental Congress sent the First American Regiment here to fortify their defenses along the Ohio River, which caused this to become the gateway to the West. You will find yourself pulled into the interesting facts about the fort, the beauty of the garden, and the ongoing archeology of the fort grounds.
Steubenville has 21 painted murals, each one is specific to this area, and they tell the history of the town in art form. Take a drive around town to find them and snap some photos!
Pro Tip: Visit at Christmas when the town is dressed up for the Steubenville Nutcracker Village. Here you will find nutcrackers displayed throughout Fort Steuben Park and the Historic Business District. I love that each 6-foot nutcracker is 100 percent made in Steubenville by Nelson’s, created to stand tall and welcome in the festive holiday spirit.
Coming into Sardis seemed uneventful, but I saw this little sign that said Eat at Marv’s, and I thought, What the heck? Let’s do it! I am so glad I did. A group of siblings owns Marv’s Place, and they renovated this building that was built in 1894. If this building could talk, it would tell you all about the adventures it has had, from being a department store to a shirt factory, then an assembly point for Model A Fords, a casket factory, an apartment building, a pool room…and now, Marv’s Place. Marv’s is actually an acronym for Marvin’s Aging Relative Venture, and that should tell you about the fun and laughter I shared with the owner as she expressed her love of this place with me! After your walk back in time at Marv’s, make sure to visit the Old Sardis Town Pump located in the middle of the street in a pavilion. You can still fill your water bottle up with the cold refreshing water as the locals do. Before I left Sardis, they had told me to drive up to the cemetery to check out the views of the Ohio River. I was not disappointed and sat there a long time watching the boats and the setting sun.
Pro Tip: Locals call the view from the cemetery The Long Reach of the Ohio River.
Established in 1788, Marietta is the oldest city in the state of Ohio and the first official American settlement territory north and west of the Ohio River. This Riverboat town is the hidden gem of Ohio, and it takes a few days to see it all. When I come to Marietta, I enjoy staying at the Historic Lafayette Hotel because the views from this place are unbeatable. I love feeling the deep history that emanates from every corner of the building. Take a walk down the street to enjoy the fine dining and shopping opportunities right outside the hotel’s front door. Of all the small towns along the river, Marietta is the foodie’s dream! You can’t come here without having dinner at Austyn’s or a beer from the Marietta Brewing Company.
Pro Tip: Visit Marietta in September during the Ohio River Sternwheeler Festival to see the Ohio River alive with sternwheelers and barge activity.
Finding Gallipolis on my road trip along the Ohio River was one of its highlights. Driving had my eyes weary, so when I saw the swings located along the river surrounded by beautiful flowers, I had to pull into the closest parking spot to get out and enjoy the views of the river. I encourage you to make time to do the same. I can’t put into words the tranquility that this beautiful moment on the river brought to me.
After relaxing for a bit, make time to explore the center of town and visit Gallipolis City Park. Within the park, you will find three historical markers, the Spirit of the American Dough Boy, an old-style bandstand, and the Kerr Memorial Fountain. Before leaving town, visit Our House Tavern, where history comes alive as the interpreters share about this historic tavern and inn. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day by appointment only.
This small town packs a lot of punch when it comes to street art. In 1992, artist Robert Dafford helped turn a 2,000-foot concrete floodwall along the Ohio River into an outdoor art gallery depicting the history of Portsmouth. This is one of the world’s single largest murals! With history abounding, you can spend the whole afternoon shopping in the antique stores, checking out the historic homes, or enjoying a stroll along the river.
After you tour the murals, take a slight turn off the river to Shawnee State Park and Lodge. Here in the tranquility of the so-called Little Smokies, you can get away from it all and soak in nature. You can enjoy the hike on some trails and stay at the lodge before leaving this little slice of heaven.
Pro Tip: Treat yourself to the Tecumseh Outdoor Drama VIP experience! It’s the perfect evening activity while staying in the area.
I’ll admit, I’ve saved the best for last. Ripley has everything you look for in small-town charm and lots of history too! As with any small town you drive into, you think you have seen it all as you whizz through on the main street; however, it is only when you turn off onto the side streets that you find the hidden treasures. I stopped at the Olde Piano Antique Mall, where I received a warm southern Ohio welcome. The ladies running the counter shared all the town history they could before I set off to explore.
You’ll want to drive N. Front Street. It is lined with historic homes, manicured lawns, and places to stroll along the river’s edge. It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Like many small towns along the Ohio River, this town is full of small museums highlighting things that made significant impacts on American history. I recommend you make time to see The Rankin House and the John Parker Home. John Parker, a freed slave, helped hundreds to freedom across the Ohio River. It causes one to pause and think of the passages of freedom seekers that came through its doors.
The Ohio River runs along the southern border of Ohio, and the way is dotted with small unnamed patches of adventure. With so many options, you could find yourself camping at Leith Run Recreational Area, fishing off the river’s shores, or finding a little pull-off so you can enjoy a hiking trail in Wayne National Forest.
It isn’t just the small towns and things to do here; it is the people of this Appalachian region that keep me coming back. They are always ready to give you their favorite hidden spots to explore, share their go-to restaurants, and provide a helping hand should you need it. Once you come to southern Ohio for a visit, you will keep coming back for more of the Ohio River.