Ohio’s slogan is the “Heart of it All”, partly because the state looks a bit like a heart, but also because it sits within a one-day of half of North America’s entire population.
With the shore of Lake Erie in the north, glaciated plains in the west and the foothills of the Applachians in the east and southeast, it’s easy to see Ohio as a kind of crossroads.
There’s something beautiful to be discovered in every corner, from the picture-perfect tourist islands in Lake Erie to the striking river gorges around Hocking Hills, the Cuyahoga Valley and Yellow Springs.
My list of Ohio’s most beautiful places also features a lot of man-made entries, like an amusement park on a sandy peninsula, an opulent Gilded Age mansion, and a huge pre-Columbian earthwork effigy.
1. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
My first pick is Ohio’s only national park, wrapped in suburbs between Cleveland and Akron, so it’s easy to dip in and out. If this all seems like an unlikely setting for a national park, you’ll understand when you’re on the park’s 125+ miles of trails.
Here the Cuyahoga River twists through rock-strewn forests, undulating hills and pastoral farmland.
You can stay close to the riverbank on the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail, along 20 miles of this historic 308-mile waterway, completed in the 1830s and easing transport between the Ohio River and Lake Erie.
There’s more to do in the park than I can fit into a whole article, including some of the best hiking in Ohio, scenic train rides, world-class leaf peeping in fall, kayaking, golfing, and cross-country skiing on groomed trails in winter.
If you’ve only got time for one hike, I’d opt for the Ledges Trail, a steep tour around a plateau encrusted with outcroppings composed of sharon conglomerate, and with wonderful vistas of the woods to the west.
2. Hocking Hills State Park
In the same vein, I could ramble on for days about all the things you can see and do in the Hocking Hills Region in Southeastern Ohio.
A lot of the natural splendor is concentrated in this state park, brimming with waterfalls and gargantuan rock formations.
In the south of the park is the magnificent Ash Cave, where a narrow gorge cloaked in large beech and hemlock woods opens out on an immense rock shelter, 700 feet across and 100 feet deep. It’s no surprise that this is by far the largest formation of its kind in Ohio.
This is the headline but one of many extraordinary sights in the park, including Old Man’s Cave with its waterfalls, Cedar Falls, Cantwell Cliffs, the Devil’s Bathtub and another awesome rock shelter at Whispering Cave.
In a separate preserve nearby you’ve also got Conkles Hollow, a mysterious black hand sandstone gorge, 200 feet deep and with several waterfalls slipping over the edge.
Island getaways don’t get much more convenient than the Bass Islands, a few short miles from the south shore of Lake Erie. The hub for tourism here is South Bass Island, which also goes by the name of the village on the north side, Put-In-Bay.
Things move at a different speed here, and it’s not just because golf carts and bicycles are the preferred modes of transport. Put-In-Bay has a sociable downtown area, right by the dock.
Approaching from the water, your eye will be drawn to the world’s tallest granite column. The 352-foot Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial commemorates the American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie (1813), a turning point in the War of 1812.
The island is traced by narrow gravel beaches, mostly with pool-like waters, and you can rent a kayak, or take a seat on the tour train to see the main sights.
4. Yellow Springs
A unique village with a tradition for progressive politics and a large LGBT population, Yellow Springs is edged by some of the most beautiful scenery in southwestern Ohio.
Established as a cooperative community in the 1820s and home to the famously liberal Antioch College since 1850, Yellow Springs’ sense of openness goes back a long way.
It’s easy to be won over by Xenia Avenue, with its assortment of independent stores, cafes and eateries, and the Little Art Theatre cinema.
The iron-rich springs in the village’s name rise in the adjoining Glen Helen Nature Preserve, a gorgeous space with waterfalls, interesting rock formations and lush deciduous forest.
The long-distance Little Miami Scenic Trail runs right through the town, while there’s yet more magical scenery close by at the Clifton Gorge.
5. John Bryan State Park/Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve
Just east of Yellow Springs there’s a National Natural Monument where the Little Miami River flows through a picturesque canyon.
The Clifton Gorge is walled by resilient dolomite and shale, dating back around 400 million years, and is among the finest natural features of its kind in Ohio.
You can check out the gorge in these town neighboring properties, and there are some remarkable sights to see, such as a curiously narrow and deep channel formed by potholes joining together.
Elsewhere the rocky overhangs have collapsed to leave gigantic slabs on the riverbed. The state park is more geared towards recreation, with a campground, mountain biking, and a public rock climbing and rappelling area. My ideal time to be here is in spring when the wildflowers are a joy.
6. Mohican State Park/Mohican-Memorial State Forest
My idea of bliss, there’s more than 5,500 acres of restful nature at these two hilly properties in Ashland County.
With some 45 miles of hiking trails and perfect waters for paddling and tubing, the parks are on the Clear Fork of the Mohican River, on the edge of its confluence with the Black Fork.
The Clear Fork weaves through a narrow gorge and is fed by creeks with a pair of stunning waterfalls at Big Lyons Falls and Little Lyons Falls.
There’s a trail along the rim of the gorge, and a sequence of bridges crossing the river. You can scale an 80-foot fire tower from 1934 for an all-encompassing view of the area’s hills and forests, and track down a restored water-powered gristmill from 1831.
There’s a wide array of tree species growing here, but the stands of hemlock in the gorge are important for the abundance of rare breeding birds that they support.
7. Salt Fork State Park
There’s acres upon acres of wonderfully wild scenery at Ohio’s largest state park in the unglaciated part of the state.
Salt Fork State Park will capture the imaginations of intrepid people with its steep forested hills, misty valleys, and impressive formations like the rock shelter, Hosack’s Cave.
The man-made Salt Fork Lake bends around the park’s west and south sides, and is primed for boating, water-skiing and tubing, but also has the largest inland beach in Ohio at 2,500 feet.
And while you can be as outdoorsy as you want on 20 miles of trails, the park has all the comforts and amenities of a 21st-century destination. You’ve got two marinas, an acclaimed 18-hole golf course, a full-service resort lodge with indoor and outdoor pools.
Also read: All 63 US National Parks by Popularity
8. Kelleys Island
A short ferry ride from Marblehead, Kelleys Island is another pocket-sized escape on just 677 acres. Until the mid-20th century this place was a hive of industrial activity, with limestone quarries, lime kilns, red cedar lumber and orchards.
Clues from these times are everywhere you look, and at a former quarry site on the north side of the island there’s a large section of exposed limestone with unique narrow grooves carved by glaciation.
The state park has observation points and interpretive boards to explain these processes better than I could. If you’re staying on Kelleys Island you’ll realize you have little use for a car, and can get around on a rentable bike or golf cart.
There’s a line of eateries, bars and stores by the dock, and you can spend your time relaxing on beaches, camping by the shore, hiking in forest, fishing on Lake Erie or checking out the coast in a kayak.
Standing out in a list of quaint little towns and natural wonders, Ohio’s third-largest city has an impressive setting, on a bend in the wide Ohio River, surrounded by low rolling hills.
You have to cross over to Kentucky for the defining view of the Cincinnati skyline, with the stadiums for the Bengals and Reds in the foreground. North of downtown is one the largest and most complete historic districts in the United States.
Developed in the 19th century, when Cincinnati was one of the ten largest cities in the country, the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood looks like nowhere else in the Midwest, with its dense lattice of streets full of ornate brick buildings, now a canvas for upmarket shopping and dining.
Maybe the city’s single most beautiful building is the Cincinnati Union Terminal (1933) an Art Deco masterpiece, still an active Amtrak station, but also the home of the must-see Cincinnati Museum Center.
Be sure to read our guides on Cincinnati:
10. Marblehead State Park
One of the images most associated with Lake Erie is this historic lighthouse, aiding navigation from the tip of the Marblehead Peninsula since 1822.
This makes Marblehead Light the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the American side of the Great Lakes. The lighthouse and its grounds are a treat, with manicured lawns, a grove of hardwood trees and access to the rugged headland.
You can take a tour of the lighthouse in the summer, heading up to the parapet for a sweeping panorama of Sandusky Bay, Kelleys Island and Cedar Point to the southeast.
11. Ohio Caverns
Near the highest point in Ohio is the largest cave system in the state, billed as ‘America’s Most Colorful Caverns’. More than two miles of caves have been surveyed here, with passageways descending as far as 103 feet.
It’s thrilling to think that the processes that created the stalagmites and stalactites here are ongoing, with around 90% of the formations still active.
The star of the show is The Crystal King, the largest stalactite in the state, weighing more than 400 lb and visible on the Natural Wonder Tour. I’d advise you to bring something with long sleeves in summer, as the caves have a year-round temperature of 54°.
12. Caesar Creek State Park
I’d sum up this 7,350-acre state park as a giant playground for outdoor recreation, ready for boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, mountain biking and more.
Caesar Creek was dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s, forming a sprawling lake with a campground, marina, beach, several trailheads, and little visitor attractions on its wooded shores.
When the USACE blasted out the spillway they revealed an Ordovician reef system, so this is also an excellent place to do some fossil hunting, although strict rules do apply.
The Visitor Center is a handy first port of call to get oriented, while there’s a collection of 15 log cabins from the 18th and 19th century at Caesar’s Creek Pioneer Village.
Embedded in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a delightful riverside village, settled by Euro-Americans in the 1810s and boosted by the canal not long after.
If you’re exploring the national park you could take a break in Peninsula, pausing for a bite and browsing the local stores.
And to explore the surrounding nature, I love how you can just hop on a bike or start walking, with easy access to the towpath, and a massive system of other trails disappearing into the woods.
There’s a sequence of preserved locks and an aqueduct on the canal, while Main Street is a wonderful timeline of 19th-century architecture, including Federal, Green Revival and Italianate.
Also read: 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in Ohio
14. Serpent Mound
One of the most captivating archeological sites in Ohio is a prehistoric effigy mound, almost 1,400 feet in length.
Never more than three feet high, the Serpent Mound is an earthwork depiction of a snake, sitting on a parcel of high ground next to Ohio Brush Creek.
The effigy is extraordinary in its own right, but there’s a veil of mystery around this monument, which adds to its allure in my opinion.
It was most likely built by the Fort Ancient culture around 1000 CE, and served as a venue for ceremonies dedicated to a serpent spirit.
Serpent Mound sits on the rim of a meteorite impact crater, created hundreds of millions of years ago and gradually eroded to its current height.
You can indulge your curiosity at the Serpent Mound Museum, which goes into detail on its form and construction, and conducts guided archeological walks on the second Friday of the month.
15. Cedar Point
Ohio’s Lake Erie shoreline is dotted with places that have been on the tourist map since the end of the Civil War.
Surely the most famous is Cedar Point, the second-oldest operating amusement park in the United States, posted at the tip of a narrow peninsula.
This place’s reputation is founded on its roller coasters, with every new addition smashing records for speed and dimensions. Take the hybrid coaster Steel Vengeance, which broke ten world records when it was unveiled in 2018.
Among these high tech modern wonders, Cedar Point hasn’t forgotten its roots, with a few structures on the National Register of Historic Places, including three carousels from 1912, 1921 and 1924.
There’s an indoor and outdoor water park, while the sandy beach is always there if you want some time out. From here, the mind-blowing view of Cedar Park’s epic roller coasters qualifies the park for my list.
16. Rockbridge State Nature Preserve
Another of the striking geological formations to be found in the Hocking Hills region is a natural bridge, set within a small preserve and crossing a ravine. Rockbridge gives its name to a nearby community, and is the largest formation of its kind in Ohio.
Long-term, the forces of wind, rain and flowing groundwater have removed the softer layers of sandstone to render this peculiar structure, 100 feet long and up to 20 feet wide.
I recommend coming after a spell of rain, when a small waterfall pours into the ravine. There are two loops in the preserve, one to the natural bridge and another bringing you to a rock shelter.
17. Brandywine Falls
Given its location between cities, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park lends itself to day trips, so I thought this would be a good place to bring up Brandywine Falls.
Starting out at a parking lot on Stanford Road, a 1.5-mile trail takes you along the edge of a steep forested valley.
At the east end, a long section of boardwalk with a staircase leads down to a platform with a perfect view of the 65-foot Brandywine Falls, the tallest waterfall in northeast Ohio.
This drops into a spectacular U-shaped gorge made up of striated rock, with massive chunks ripped away by and deposited downstream from the falls.
18. Brecksville Reservation
The 1,444-mile Buckeye Trail leads you into this vast urban park abutting Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Driving along the mostly flat roads that cross Brecksville Reservation, you get little indication of the amazing divergence in terrain here.
On just over 3,000 acres the landscape is sliced by seven different gorges, the most exciting of which is in the north along Chippewa Creek and scraped out by glaciers.
The reservation’s natural beauty is only revealed on its roller coaster trails, rising and sinking through hollows where varying soils and sunlight provide a habitat for a host of unusual and endangered plants.
Folded into the wooded slopes of the Little Miami River Valley, Loveland is a bonny town that was first settled more than 200 years ago as a resort.
Later in the 19th century, Loveland became a railroad town at the junction of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the defunct Little Miami Railroad.
The right-of-way of the latter is now a long paved rail trail, meandering through the valley for almost 80 miles, and giving you wonderful options for bike rides to the north or south.
Loveland has a sweet 19th-century downtown, with an assortment of bars, restaurants and shopping, and a lovely waterfront park where O’Bannon Creek meets the Little Miami River.
There’s something out of the ordinary on the riverbank in the north of the town. Here you’ll come across Château Laroche, a replica of a European Medieval castle, begun in 1927 by a local Medievalist and sitting in exquisite terraced gardens.
20. Maumee Bay State Park
Awesome views of Lake Erie abound at this beautiful slice of coastline not far out of Toledo.
The five miles of bike path at Maumee Bay State Park connect with the City of Oregon Bike Trail, and there’s a two-mile interpretive boardwalk leading into a patch of swamp that once dominated the area.
The park and adjoining wilderness area and wildlife refuge are crucial for wildlife, with some 300 documented bird species and an astonishing array of wetland plants.
My pro tip is to set off on a stroll in the evening for wildlife encounters, namely the white-tailed deer, which are surprisingly bold.
For all its wilderness, the park is developed for tourism, with two sandy beaches, 256 campsites, cottages, an 18-hole golf course, and a lodge with 120 rooms and indoor and outdoor pools.
21. Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens
In the 1910s Frank Seiberling (1859-1955), co-founder of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, built himself one of the largest mansions in the United States in Akron, then the “Rubber Capital of the World”.
And while the 65-room Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens is most definitely huge, there’s a homeyness to the Tudor Revival design.
The Seiberlings traveled to England to source historic elements for the interiors, which combine a mix of authentic Tudor decor and 20th-century details designed in a Tudor style.
The grounds, including a conservatory and greenhouses, are possibly my favorite part, with restored contributions by noted landscape architects, Ellen Biddle Shipman and Warren Henry Manning.
On 70 acres, there’s a series of garden rooms, with sequestered Japanese and English gardens.
Frank’s daughter-in-law, Henrietta, was a member of the influential Christian fellowship, the Oxford Group—for an unexpected historic tidbit, the Gate Lodge is where the framework for Alcoholics Anonymous was thrashed out in the 1930s.
With Cedar Point, Marblehead and the Bass Islands all close by, it might be easy to bypass this endearing city on the shore. I think that would be a mistake, not least because Sandusky has recently been recognized as the Best Coastal Small Town in America.
With lots of elegant 19th-century architecture, downtown Sandusky is oriented to the water, where a succession of industrial piers have found new roles as marinas, and spectacular lakefront overlooks like Jackson Street Pier.
Things can be brisk during the winter in Sandusky, but that doesn’t deter visitors, as the city is noted for its lineup of indoor water parks, among them Kalahari Resorts, the largest in America.
23. Highbanks Metro Park
For picturesque nature without straying far from Columbus, my bet is this property on the east bank of the Olentangy River.
The name is accurate, with bluffs along the river composed of limestone and shale and rising as high as 110 feet.
There are ten trails at Highbanks Metro Park, a couple looping close to the river’s edge for views that look like nowhere else in the Columbus area.
You can also discover thrilling evidence of human habitation here, going back as far as 2,000 years, at burial mounds and irrigation earthworks built by the Pre-Columbian Adena Culture.
This lovable lakefront town in the northeast of Ohio has attracted vacationers since the 1860s, earning the moniker, Ohio’s First Summer Resort.
Among the more distinguished personalities to relax by Lake Erie here are John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford.
Geneva-on-the-Lake is a place for relaxing at the beach, camping, fishing, playing golf, boating, and touring nearby vineyards on Ohio Wine Country.
Parallel to the shore, Lake Road (The Strip) is full of nostalgic charm, with mini golf, fast food shacks, bars and quirky shops for beach supplies.
A bonus for me is how many of these businesses have stood the test of time, like Eddie’s Grill, a fast food spot, on the scene since 1950.
Further reading: 24 Amazing Hidden Gems in Ohio
25. Jacob’s Ladder – Christmas Rocks State Preserve
Footing my list is what may be the best short hike in all of Ohio. Creeping into Appalachia at the south end of Fairfield County, Christmas Rocks protects some rocky country with beautiful black hand sandstone formations.
Most impressive is Jacob’s Ladder, an outcropping that rises high over the Valley of Arney Run, for marvelous views of nothing but miles of hills.
Until recently the preserve could only be visited with a permit, and you can reach the lookout via a moderate to difficult loop, about a mile in length.
More on Ohio: 15 Best Places to Live in Ohio