Destination of the week: Southeastern Ohio
State parks and scenery are the reason to hit the most rural area of the state.
Thu, Sep 08, 2011 at 10:42 AM
Southeastern Ohio is the most rural region in the state. Sometimes referred to as Appalachian Ohio because it sits in the foothills of the famous eastern U.S. mountain chain, the area lacks the big cities that characterize other parts of Ohio. While Cleveland, Cincinnati and even Columbus are the backbones of their respective regions, natural areas such as Wayne National Forest and the Ohio River Valley characterize southeastern Ohio.
The long stretches of uninterrupted countryside make southeastern Ohio an ideal place for nature-themed vacations. In addition to Wayne National Forest and the Ohio River, there are more than a dozen state parks and seven state forest areas. Each of these venues boasts miles and miles of trails for hiking, biking and even horseback riding.
Despite its rural character, southeastern Ohio's eco-attractions are easy to reach for non-tent-camping travelers. Small towns dot the region, with some sitting adjacent to the most popular parks and forests. These quaint places have modern accommodations for day-tripping nature-enthusiasts who want to come home for a shower and cocktail after a day of hiking. Some visitors will find the strong sense of history and laid-back, small-town lifestyle another attractive element of a vacation in southeastern Ohio.
With all its natural features and easy accessibility, southeastern Ohio is a worthwhile stop for eco-tourists looking for a unique destination in the eastern half of the U.S.
For outdoor enthusiasts who don't mind tent camping, the Hocking Hills area (known for its unique landscapes, rock formations and waterfalls) is filled with options. In addition, the southeast's state parks, such as Burr Oak State Park and Lake Hope State Park, feature primitive campgrounds as well as rental cabins. Happy Hills Campground, near Wayne National Forest and Lake Hope State Park, is another rustic option. It has rental cabins and a tent campground, as well as family-centered features such as paddleboats and a fun park.
Green sleeping is also possible without a tent. Mainstream, brand-name options include the Holiday Inn Express Hotel in Athens, one of the region's larger towns. This venue earned a Green Eco-Leaf rating for its basic energy-efficiency and recycling practices. For those who want to skip the chains, small-scale sleeping spots are easy to find. Motels, such as Zanesville's Baker's Motel, are a convenient and cheap option for travelers who need only basic amenities.
The River Garden Guest Wing, located on the border with West Virginia and a few miles from the river town of Marietta, offers bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations with views of the Ohio River. Shaw's Restaurant and Inn, in Lancaster (in the far western corner of Appalachian Ohio), is another upscale bed-and-breakfast option. This inn has an onsite restaurant that uses local products in its kitchen whenever possible.
The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls is a unique option for environmentally conscious travelers visiting the Hocking Hills region. This upscale spot has an extensive recycling program that extends as far as its parking lot and driveways, which were repaved with recycled asphalt and blacktop. Energy efficiency and natural cleaning and spa products are other green features at the inn.
Eco-minded travelers will be pleasantly surprised by the green scenes in some of southeastern Ohio's main towns. This trait is most evident when it comes to edibles. The region's main hub, Athens, is home to Farmacy, a natural foods store that specializes in organic products and natural and herbal supplements.
Another Athens venue, the Village Bakery and Cafe, has organic menu options and serves fair trade coffees. The cafe's offerings include bakery goods, salads, soups and sandwiches. Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan dishes are available. The Village's sister eateries, Della Zona, a pizza place, and Catalyst Cafe, a coffee and juice bar, are equally organic and give natural food fans plenty of choices in Athens.
Farmers markets are held on Saturday morning and early afternoon during the summer in many towns in the region. The River City Farmers Market in Marietta, the Zanesville Farmers Market and the Athens Farmers Market (also open on Wednesdays) are the best options for local food aficionados.
As with other rural areas, a car is all but necessary to fully explore southeastern Ohio. Once you arrive inside a state park or other natural area, other forms of transport are possible. Ambitious hikers can find lengthy hikes. Biking is possible inside state parks and on some area trails. However, pedaling on rural roads between attractions is less than ideal as far as safety is concerned.
Public transportation is virtually nonexistent. That said, Greyhound does offer bus service to several of the larger towns including Marietta, Zanesville and Athens.
Wayne National Forest consists of three units that run north to south near the Ohio River. With over 2,000 species of plants and animal inhabitants including bobcats, wild turkeys, deer, eagles, ospreys and hawks, Wayne is a prime venue for nature watching. The northernmost section of the forest is located near the Ohio River. It can be accessed from the river town of Marietta. The middle section is the most accessible, because it sits nearest to the regional hub of Athens. The third unit of the forest is in the far southeast, within driving distance of Charleston, W.Va. Trails in the forest draw hikers, as well as mountain bikers and all-terrain vehicle riders.
Those who want to get a taste of the landscapes and nature of southeastern Ohio without hitting the backcountry on foot can drive the Ohio River Scenic Byway. This 450-mile stretch of roadway follows the river, passing through small towns and skirting parks and forests. It is possible to drive the length of the road in a day (perhaps in 10 to 12 hours with infrequent stops), but it is also possible to spend a week exploring the small towns and natural areas along the byway.
Eco-tourists will, sooner or later, find themselves in one of the many state parks located in southeastern Ohio. Strouds Run State Park is one of the more convenient options. Just outside of Athens, it features a lake, as well as trails that wind through 2,600 acres of hardwood forest. Burr Oak State Park, which is located next to a section of Wayne National Forest, boasts a menu of shorter trails that pass through the wooded landscapes and hilly terrain of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Hikers intent on a more serious, multi-day trek can head to the far corner of southeastern Ohio to Shawnee State Park. The park is the starting point for the 60-mile Shawnee Backpack Trail, which winds through the Shawnee State Forest.
Two of the more popular state parks are Lake Hope State Park and Hocking Hills State Park. Hocking Hills State Park features popular, picture-worthy waterfalls, cliffs, gorges and thickly forested areas. Highlights include the Cantwell Cliffs, a collection of sheer cliffs that rise out of the forest, and Cedar Falls, a remote waterfall in one of Hocking's most rugged corners. Hocking Hills is also home to other unique rock formations, waterfalls, streams and gorges. Lake Hope State Park boasts a nature center and a menu of moderate-to-easy hiking trails. Ambitious trekkers have the option of venturing onto the trails of Zaleski State Forest, adjacent to Lake Hope, for longer hikes.
The Hocking Valley Scenic Railway is a sightseeing option for those who want to experience nature but don't care for lengthy hikes. Aside from the novelty of riding on a historic train, the rail ride is attractive because the train passes through some picture-worthy scenery during their trip.
Southeastern Ohio offers some of the best eco-tourism attractions in the central U.S. The forested landscapes, rivers and rock formations are unique and picturesque. The area retains a kind of wildness that will make it attractive for tourists who want unfiltered access to nature.
Related on MNN:
MNN homepage photo: kcolwell/Flickr