Along the northern edge of Ohio, you will find the beautiful shores of Lake Erie. Vast views of crashing winter waves and lake effect snow have drawn visitors from all over the world to explore here during the months that Old Man Winter rules the weather. Winter is not a time to hide inside; it is a time to strap on some snowshoes to explore and then to enjoy a warm crackling fire with a cup of hot chocolate with piles of whipped cream.
Getting to Lake Erie, even in winter, is usually accessible via a road trip, but if you’re the flying type, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is right on the lake. Cleveland is the perfect base to start your winter activities on Lake Erie.
1. Find A Frozen Waterfall
Bundle up for some opportunities for beautiful hikes to frozen waterfalls. Northeast Ohio is home to multiple waterfalls that can completely freeze over during winter. These falls are roaring with water during the warmer weather, but there is a whole different atmosphere surrounding these water-filled ice displays in winter. Stand patiently and listen to the quiet interspersed with water sounds and loud cracks as winter settles in over the falls.
2. Visit The Wineries In Ashtabula County
Winter in the Grand River Valley is magical. Lake effect snow blankets Ashtabula County with a stunning display of sparkly snow, giving the landscape a brilliant blanket of white. Sprinkled throughout the county are the wineries of Ashtabula. It is said that there is something extraordinary about these wineries during the winter months. Upstairs in the winery, guests enjoy crackling fires while the barrels of aging wine are in the wine cellars. Inside, find a quiet gathering of friends sipping wine while warming up from the winter chill.
Fun fact: It is not unusual to drive up to the wineries to park beside a snowmobile.
Pro Tip: While you are there, explore the stunning covered bridges around snow-covered Ashtabula county.
3. Watch The Walleye Drop
Head to the Walleye Capital of the World on New Year’s Eve to watch Wylie the Walleye drop at midnight. Brave the cold and count down the New Year with the locals for this spirited event. Before the walleye drop, take the “Bar Swim” loop on one of the heated luxury buses that swim around Port Clinton, taking you out for some themed specialty drinks to warm you up before the drop. After Wylie drops, the night sky bursts to life with a stunning display of fireworks.
4. Go Ice Fishing
In winter, if the weather conditions are right, Lake Erie becomes home to colorful ice shanty villages with structures big and small. Ice anglers and professional guides measure the ice thickness and wait for the perfect moment to get out and catch the perch and walleye. While you can go ice fishing right off the mainland, up your game a little and charter a flight to Put-in-Bay or Kelleys Island for a once-in-a-lifetime experience off the shores on one of the islands. Book a quiet stay at a bed and breakfast where you will practically own the island.
Pro Tip: Hop aboard Island Air Taxi to take your winter trip over to the islands.
5. See Ice Covered Lighthouses And Ice Gardens
Lighthouses on the shores of Lake Erie bring visitors from all around during “tourist season,” however, in winter, the crowds are smaller, and the display is beyond anything you have ever seen. If you’re lucky, some winter wind will kick up the waves on Lake Erie so you can marvel at the ice-encased lighthouses. My personal favorite is the West Pier Lighthouse in Cleveland. In 2010, we had a year where this lighthouse was absolutely breathtaking.
While the lighthouse is photogenic, don’t miss Mother Nature’s stunning ice display along the shores. Every branch, rock, or outcrop becomes a piece of art as water and wind create something new to see every year. Frozen gardens change daily, and with the chaotic winter weather, you never know what you might see.
Pro Tip: If you time it just right, you might be able to see a phenomenon called ice balls formed along the shores.
6. Stay At Geneva-on-the-Lake
Geneva-on-the-Lake is hopping in summer, but visitors who like it a little more quiet come in the winter to enjoy the beauty of the lake from a different perspective. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowbiking in Geneva State Park keep you active before heading back to your lodging for the night. Grab dinner at the Crosswinds Grill for a farm-to-table experience that is off the charts. The Crosswinds Grill is located at The Lakehouse Inn, a boutique destination that offers unique winter experiences. After a day of winter play, relax with a spa treatment and enjoy your cold-weather escape.
Pro Tip: If the weather is cooperative, take a walk on the state park beach and look for pieces of sea glass.
7. Play Indoors At Kalahari Waterpark
If you are a kid at heart, Sandusky, Ohio, has warm winter fun waiting for you indoors at Kalahari Resort. As the doors slide open to let you in, you are hit with the tropical warmth when it is freezing cold outside. Pre-book a cabana near the wave pool for your stay and sip some delicious drinks poolside before heading off to the spa for a hot chocolate facial. It is not all about water in this premier resort; the food served here is beyond fantastic. Extreme milkshakes, mammoth burgers, and the Italian kitchen is a foodie’s dream. After all your fun during the day and you still have some energy, play a round of mini bowling or hit a game of putt-putt at the glow-in-the-dark course.
Pro Tip: Stop at the Candy Hut for a piece of chocolate-covered bacon sprinkled with sea salt — it is to die for.
8. Walk The Boardwalk At Maumee Bay State Park
Birding along the shores of Lake Erie is one of my favorite things to do, and taking a walk along the trails at Maumee Bay State Park is always high on my list of places to go any time of the year. In winter, this boardwalk becomes an open door to see some of Ohio’s native wildlife and migrating birds. On one occasion, as I was walking through, a group of deer came crashing through the marsh, sprinting by without a care in the world, that is until they saw me. They stopped to give me the ‘what-are-you-doing-here’ glare before heading deeper into the woods.
If you fall in love with the gorgeous state park, you don’t have to leave; book a room at Maumee Bay State Park Lodge to enjoy the lake views from your lakeside room, where you can enjoy all the wild waves and icy blasts in comfort. Sink down into the hot tub before bed to warm your bones after your day of birding and wildlife watching.
If you want some more birding while in the area, take the Lake Erie Birding Trail through the Western Lake Erie Marshes. This driveable trail takes you through some of the beautiful parks along the lake, where you might see majestic eagles, great blue herons, white egrets, and maybe some swans.
Pro Tip: Visit during the Biggest Birding Week in America to see the colorful warblers as they migrate through the Lake Erie region.
9. Drive The Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail Scenic Byway
If the weather conditions are perfect, you can drive the Lake Erie Scenic Byway from one end of Ohio to the other, stopping at small towns along the route and enjoying the metropolitans, too. Visit coffee shops, wineries, and historic stops as you meander your way along the coast of Lake Erie.
About halfway along the route, you will land in Sandusky, where I like to spend a little time when I drive through. I don’t care how old I get; I enjoy going to the Merry Go Round Museum, where I can ride the restored carousel a few times. If you visit here, take time to look at all the hand-carved animals, some dating back to the turn of the century.
Finish your drive with dinner at Tony Packo’s, an iconic restaurant along the shores of Toledo. Since 1908, Tony Packos has been serving up its Hungarian food with delicious hot dogs served on its famous buns. Wander around the original location and check out all the signed buns from the famous people who have dined here; Burt Reynolds was the first celebrity to do it while filming The Rainmaker.
Pro Tip: DO NOT start this byway without the byway map and app!
Consider these other outdoor activities in Ohio: