Top 10 hidden gems of central Ohio
Today my family discovered yet another hidden gem, a spot we had never been to before, in central Ohio where we live. This inspired me to catalog our favorite “hidden gems.”
Central Ohio has some excellent landmarks that a visitor would enjoy. The Columbus Zoo is world class; the Whetstone Park of Roses is stunning when in bloom; the riverfront, COSI, LeVeque Tower, and State House downtown are all well worth a visit; nearby German Village is a great spot to stroll; Ohio State is nice to visit, especially around the Oval, Library, and Mirror Lake; the Columbus Metropolitan Library downtown is one of the best public libraries in the country; Franklin Park Conservatory is a beautiful spot; the various metro parks make an excellent park system; you’ve probably heard of Ohio Caverns, which we love; and everybody has heard about the Hocking Hills. But if you live in the area, you probably know about those spots.
Here are some spots you might or might not have encountered yet, which we have visited several times (or plan to visit again) and which we love—from least hidden to most hidden.
10. Hoover Dam. This is the least “hidden” and perhaps it doesn’t belong on the list, but I didn’t know about it for a long time. This isn’t an earthen dam like so many others in Ohio, it is a tall and wide concrete dam with a massive gushing spillway. You can walk all the way across the dam, as well as from the top of the dam to the marshy, blue heron-filled area at the bottom. At the observation area on the eastern side, last time we were there, there were a bunch of swallow nests. On both sides of the dam and on either side of Hoover Reservoir are places to walk, play, and picnic. Hoover Dam is just one of the nicest places in central Ohio.
9. Slate Run Living Historical Farm. Again, perhaps it’s not so well hidden now. If you have little kids, and maybe even if you don’t, this is a must-see. A well-maintained, apparently well-run farm following 19th century farming ways, Slate Run features an open farmhouse, a separate kitchen, gardens, root cellar, horse-plowed fields, a massive barn, and a big variety of farm animals, from chicken and other poultry to cows, sheep, horses, and pigs. Just a great way to learn about the old ways of farm life. We also enjoy the pond.
8. The Wilds. Again, many people know about this so perhaps it isn’t very “hidden.” But if you haven’t visited, you might find it to be a surprise. The bus and other tours allow you leisure to take in the unusual, vast, hilly landscape as well as the big animals scattered over a 14 square miles in giant paddocks. The animals we saw when we have visited in the past included rhinos, giraffes, unusual deer and oxen, zebras, bison, a cheetah, and many others. Like a safari, but fairly close to home. Also worth a mention is that the drive to the Wilds is quite nice, especially if you go through the very scenic Blue Rock Forest.
7. Conkles Hollow State Nature Preserve. Some of the Hocking Hills attractions, like Old Man’s Cave and Cedar Falls, are unquestionably excellent and are far from “hidden.” But one of our favorite spots is the less-visited but surprisingly awesome Conkles Hollow. The trail is very green and scenic, but flat and paved for most of the way, and thus excellent for small children. What awaits you at the end is stunning, resembling some landscapes I remember from the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park out west. The gorge is reputedly one of the deepest in Ohio and the end of it is a magical place.
6. Rising Park and Shallenberger State Nature Preserve. I put these together because they’re both in the Lancaster area and they both feature similarly short, but steep hikes to the top of a hill, from which you get a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape. Rising Park is well-known (hardly a hidden gem) to the people of Lancaster, but worth a visit to those from outside the area. The main attraction is the gorgeous view overlooking the town of Lancaster, but there is also a scenic reservoir, an old house on the property, and plenty of places to wander. We visited Shallenberger in winter when the leaves didn’t block the view. We had passed it many times on the way to the Hocking Hills, but spotted it on a map and decided to visit one day. Very nice little preserve, short and scenic but steep hike to the top of a hill that overlooks the surrounding country in all directions, although leaves might get in the way in the summer.
5. Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve. Now we come to some of the slightly more hidden spots. On the east side of Newark is this lovely area, a paved bike and hiking trail—a converted rail bed—next to the Licking River going through a very scenic gorge. Apparently, it was called “Blackhand” after Indian hand paintings on the cliff walls. There are some nice little waterfalls in the tributary dales along the trail, as well as some sandstone cliffs of the sort you’ll find in the Hocking Hills. Old canal towpaths and locks are nearby. Also interesting is a notch or gap cut through a hillside, which is a little like a roofless tunnel.
4. Rockbridge State Nature Preserve. This is on the other side of 33 from the Hocking Hills, between Lancaster and Logan. The parking lot might take some finding, and the trails leading to the main attraction—a large natural bridge, or arch—take a bit of puzzling out. But Rockbridge itself is a stunning location, and the rugged hike to it is one of the nicer hikes central Ohio has to offer.
3. Tar Hollow State Park and Forest. One of the nicest areas just to take a drive would be Tar Hollow State Park and Forest, which we visited in the fall—highly recommended. Sweeping vistas. There’s a pretty reservoir, Pine Lake, with swimming and paddleboats. In the middle of the forest is a giant fire tower that it is possible to climb, although it seemed somewhat rickety and lacking in railings for our two young boys, so we didn’t attempt it. While there we were absolutely swarmed by ladybugs.
2. Rock Mill Park. This out-of-the way area is worth a bit of extra driving. The mill itself has been lovingly restored, with a giant mill wheel. To get to it, you walk across a particularly excellent example of an Ohio covered bridge—over a beautiful gorge—and if you proceed down a path from the mill, you’ll come to one of the nicest waterfalls in the central Ohio area, which will strike you as a bit of the Hocking Hills, only a lot closer than you might have expected.
1. Wahkeena Nature Preserve. We first visited this preserve yesterday. We simply saw it on a map, read some intriguing descriptions, and decided to go. We’re glad we did, because it’s a very unusual, surprising place. Several things make it very special: beavers, a pine forest, wildflowers, an excellent free guide map, and an especially interesting nature center. There are two big beaver lodges at one edge of the pond. There are all sorts of little surprises. There is a floating boardwalk across one end of the pond, which takes you by one of three beaver dams. There are some stunningly tall pine trees you’ll walk by on the very nice 1.5 mile circuit—a fragrant bit of landscape, reminds me of California and other western forests. Wildflowers are abundant, identified handily on the excellent guide map. A family of geese with brand new goslings, hatched earlier the same day (April 24), was swimming about. Frogs galore of course. Near the top of the hill are sandstone cliffs of the typical Hocking Hills variety. The guide map has numbers and letters which match numbers and letters posted along the well-maintained trail, with naturalist notes we enjoyed reading—I wish more parks would do this. A barred owl and a red-shouldered hawk are in a quiet area not far from the nature center, both injured, non-releasable, and cared for by preserve personnel. Unlike many nature centers, this one is hands-on and reading-light, but full of small stuffed Ohio mammals and birds of every description, many dozens of them, live turtles and snakes in aquariums, a fascinating indoor beehive and knowledgeable talkative staff members on hand. Absolutely perfect learning place for children.
Honorable mentions… The Wagnalls Memorial Library in Lithopolis is one of our favorite libraries, gorgeous old building, wonderful place to read. Pigeon Roost Farm is a great spot for fun, hay wagon rides, corn maze, etc., in the fall as a place to take little kids, although it’s getting a little too popular so maybe doesn’t qualify as a “hidden” gem. Yoctangee Park in Chillicothe has swans and beautiful trees—like Rising Park in Lancaster, not at all hidden to the residents of Chillicothe. Charles Alley Park on the south side of Lancaster has some very nice, scenic hikes in the hills above a reservoir. Close to home is one of our favorite places, maybe a “hidden gem” for some people not in the area: Chestnut Ridge Metro Park. Excellent hiking and views.
What have I missed? Please turn us on to other spots around that we have missed! Share in the comments!
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.