From Pre-Columbian earthen mounds to the birthplace of human flight, the Ohio National Parks sites tell a unique story.
It’s the story of the frontier and the struggle to hold it from both the British and the Native Americans. It’s the story of the struggle for equality by the descendants of slaves. Ohio’s story is the struggle to develop trade routes in the wilderness and the story of presidents and their wives.
While there is only one “National Park” in Ohio, there are a total of eight National Parks sites plus a few affiliated sites. These Ohio national parks paint a vivid picture of the 17th state, how it came to be and some of its most important contributions.
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Southern Ohio National Parks
South of Columbus, you will find four sites to visit: two in the Dayton area, one in the Cincinnati area and one to the east.
We stayed between Dayton and Cincinnati in Lebanon, Ohio at the Lebanon/Cincinnati NE KOA. We enjoyed the campground and would certainly stay there again. It made a good base for visiting these sites even if it did require a bit of driving.
While in you are in town, you might as well indulge in a little local cuisine: Skyline Chili.
Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati chain, serves its unique version of chili on top of hot dogs and spaghetti. We found the chili unique, with a cinnamon note, and found the food quite tasty.
Pro tip: Get your cheese coneys with half cheese. There were a couple bites where all I got was cheese.
Now, on to everything you need to know about the park sites.
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
Charles Young was one of the first black graduates of West Point and was a commander of the famed Buffalo Soldiers (black cavalry regiments). He was also one of the first superintendents of Sequoia and General Grant national parks (now known as Sequoia and Kings Canyon).
An accomplished officer, the Army assigned Young to create a military science program at the historically black Wilberforce University. It was here he purchased his “forever home,” intending to live out his retirement.
Young attained the rank of colonel and would have likely made general were it not for his health and racist concerns from white politicians that combat could place him in a position to command white soldiers. The Army intended to medically retire Young but he refused, instead riding his horse from his home in Ohio to Washington, DC to prove he was still able to serve.
The national monument is one of the newer national parks sites. While it is open, the exhibits are limited and only available by appointment.
Students from nearby Wilberforce University and Central State University gave us a tour.The tour was informative but lacked the polish we typically get from other NPS sites. Still, we learned a lot about Young.
Plan on spending about an hour here. Again, be sure to call at least a few days in advance to schedule an appointment.
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park
Located about an hour east of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers NM, the Hopewell Culture NHP preserves five sites of earthen mounds and walls built by the Hopewell Culture, which flourished from 200 BC to 500 AD.
What makes these mounds so significant is the shapes and repetition of those shapes across multiple sites. Indeed, the sites had identically sized squares and circles at several sites located miles away from each other.
We visited the Mound City complex and walked the mounds after watching the video and checking out the visitor center exhibits. The Park Service rebuilt the mounds at the Mound City Complex after excavation. At other sites, farmers have plowed over mounds for years, like the Hopewell Mound Group, which we also visited.
Plan on spending about an hour and a half here, more if you visit more than the Mound City Complex.
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park
The main thing the Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP preserves is the bicycle shop and the field where the Wright Brothers worked on their airplane. It also preserves the home of Paul Dunbar, a famed black poet.
We suggest starting your visit in downtown Dayton at the Wright’s bicycle shop, which serves as the main visitor center for the park. There are exhibits on the lives of the Wright Brothers as well as Dunbar and this will give you a good understanding of both.
From there, head over to Dunbar’s home, which is nearby.
Pro Tip: Be sure to check when the Dunbar home is open for tours before heading by.
The Dunbar home was a really cool stop and taught me quite a bit about a great American poet. I did not know his work, even as a literature teacher. I will certainly incorporate his works into my lessons next year.
The other spot of this park to be sure you see is Huffman Prairie.
Huffman Prairie is where the Wright Brothers test flew their airplane, developed a catapult to allow the airplane to take off regardless of wind and made changes to the plane so that it could actually sustain flight.
This is actually located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base but you can drive on and visit it during normal business hours. There is a visitor center nearby as well which has a few cool exhibits on the history of flight but you do not need to stop at both visitor centers, especially if you stop at the nearby National Museum of the US Air Force.
Plan on spending about half a day.
Dayton Aviation Heritage Area Site: the National Museum of the US Air Force
If you got up early to visit the Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP, you could finish by around lunch time and then head over to the National Museum of the US Air Force, which is part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage Area
No kidding, this is one of the best military museums I have ever seen. It is the most comprehensive look at military aviation out there.
We visited on the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the museum had quite a few exhibits about WWII but those were just drops in the bucket. The museum follows aviation from its very beginnings through to the modern day, including extensive exhibits on all of the major wars and the Cold War.
It includes pretty much every aircraft operated by the Air Force, including some of my favorites like the A-10 Warthog (what I wanted to fly when I was a kid), the SR-71 Blackbird (the fastest manned aircraft out there), the B-2 Spirit (stealth bomber) and the F-22 Raptor (the Air Force’s current top of the line fighter).
Then you get a bit further and you find the exhibits on space travel, experimental aircraft and Air Force One. We both really enjoyed seeing the presidential aircraft all the way up to the plane that carried Kennedy’s body back from Dallas and where Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office.
Depending on how much depth you get into in the museum, you can easily spend a full day here. Because we had recently been to the World War II Museum in New Orleans, we were able to move through the WWII exhibits relatively quickly. Still, we spent a very full half day in the museum and could have spent more time here.
Where to Eat in Dayton
While our lunch at the National Museum of the US Air Force was only so-so, we found a really cool brewpub in Dayton for dinner: Carillon Brewing Company.
What makes this place unique is its adoption of brewing techniques from the mid-1800s to produce something more old school. The beers were quite tasty and the food, which was period-appropriate for area’s German immigrants, was really good.
William Howard Taft National Historic Site
William Howard Taft was the 27th president of the US, one of seven from Ohio, and is the only man to serve as both president and chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Taft was born in Cincinnati and spent most of his life in some sort of public service, serving as a Solicitor General and appeals judge before President William McKinley appointed him as governor in the Philippines and President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as secretary of war.
Taft’s greatest ambition was to become the chief justice of the Supreme Court but he turned down several appointments to the court. Eventually, Roosevelt selected Taft to succeed him as president. Taft won the office but soon his policies ran afoul of his former mentor. He ultimately lost reelection when Roosevelt ran against him as an independent, splitting the Republican vote, allowing Woodrow Wilson to win the Presidency.
Taft became a professor at his alma mater, Yale, until Harding appointed him to the Supreme Court, which he finally accepted.
The Taft site has a great visitor center with a lot about this unique man. It also has the house Taft grew up in, which has been restored to what it would have looked like when he was a boy. Sadly, very little of the furniture is original to the home but is all period appropriate.
Plan on spending about an hour here.
Where to Eat in Cincinnati
Since we were in town to visit the Taft site, we decided to eat at the Taft’s Ale House for lunch. Boy, are we glad we did!
Truly, we were impressed with the beer. There were several interesting brews including a honey ale and a lemongrass lager we really enjoyed. The food, a tri-tip sandwich and tri-tip tacos, was delicious as well.
We skipped dessert here because Bonnie spotted something interesting on Apple Maps and we had to investigate the Buzzed Bull Creamery.
I will admit, I was a bit skeptical. This place was promising to infuse liquor with ice cream using liquid nitrogen and for it to taste amazing.
I had a Tiger Stripes milk shake infused with Bacardi Ocho rum and Bonnie had the Buzzed Bull ice cream infused with Buffalo Trace bourbon. It was delicious.
I can’t recommend this place enough. I can’t wait until they open a location in Atlanta.
Northern Ohio National Parks
North of Columbus, you will find Ohio’s full national park, as well as sites dedicated to the Ohio’s frontier battles, one to President James Garfield and one dedicated entirely to the First Ladies.
We stayed in two different sites while exploring these sites: Ravenna and Swanton. In Ravenna, we stayed at the West Branch State Park. We really enjoyed that campground and wish we could have spent more time there. The sites were great. Our only regret was the weather kept us inside more than we wanted.
In Swanton, we found a campground with full hookups but it was not good. We can’t recommend that campground at all. This place had the wrong kind of permanent residents. Our neighbors here had trash and other stuff strewn throughout their site. Indeed, our site had a random microwave sitting on the picnic table.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
The gem of the Ohio National Parks sites is 32,572 acres of respite from the urban areas of Cleveland and Akron.
The valley is home to several communities and has lots of in holdings, which gives the park a very different feel than most national parks. It feels more like a recreation area mixed with a historical park. Still, it has a subtle grace which is inviting.
Bring your hiking shoes or bike to take advantage of the park’s number one attraction: the Towpath Trail which follows the old towpath of the Ohio and Erie Canal through the middle of the valley.
For more information on the park, check out Bonnie’s in depth article on spending two days in the park.
James A. Garfield National Historic Site
Located near the northeast corner of the state, the James A. Garfield NHS preserves the adult home of President Garfield in Mentor.
Garfield was the 20th president of the US and was a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He fought at the battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga and went on to represent Ohio in Congress.
He was a compromise choice at the Republican convention and went on to do a front porch campaign from his house in Mentor. The house was relatively small when he lived there and reporters covering the campaign would have to camp out on his lawn. His home became so popular, it was a stop on the railroad which ran along the rear of his property.
The house has been restored and contains tons of original furniture and artwork. What impressed me most was the library. Following Garfield’s assassination six months into his presidency, family friends raised money for his widow, Lucretia, and their children. They raised enough money so she could renovate the home and build an extensive library.
The library featured Garfield’s diary and other papers from his time in office as well an extensive collection of his books. Indeed, it was the first presidential library. She even went so far as to have a bank-style vault installed to protect the papers from fires.
Plan on spending about two hours here.
Affiliated Site: David Berger National Memorial
This statue of five broken circles celebrates the life and accomplishments of David Berger, an American citizen competing for the Israeli Olympic team for the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Palestinian terrorists killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team, including Berger.
The memorial is located at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Cleveland. It takes about 10 minutes to visit the site and was a quick stop on our way to the James A. Garfield NHS. If you’re an avid passport stamp collector, be sure to check the hours for the community center. Otherwise, you can visit the memorial anytime.
First Ladies National Historic Site
This site has the potential to be really cool, celebrating all of the First Ladies. When we visited, the exhibits in the visitor center were centered on the seven Ohio first ladies, which was cool, but felt limited.
We learned a lot about those wonderful women but, honestly, we wanted more.
The site is centered around the home of William and Ida Saxton McKinley. This was a good choice since the tour makes it quite clear the house was very much her family home. We enjoyed seeing the house and learning more about the family.
Pro tip: Plan on arriving at the bottom of the hour. The tours are at the top of the hour and 30 minutes is plenty of time to see all of the exhibits of the visitor center and the film.
Plan on spending about an hour and a half.
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial serves two purposes. First, it memorializes the Battle of Lake Erie, a critical battle of the War of 1812. During this battle, Commodore Oliver Hazzard Perry captured a British squadron flying the famous battle flag, “Dont Give Up The Ship.”
There is a 352-foot tall memorial tower built in 1915 to honor this decisive victory. In the rotunda of the tower, the remains of three US officers and three British officers are interred together, a symbol of lasting peace.
Indeed, the park’s second purpose is to memorialize the peace between the US and Britain and celebrate the world’s longest unarmed border, now with Canada.
We were there for a Maritime Exposition, which had tons of stuff for the kids to do, as well as demonstrations of musketry and carronades (a short-range cannon). Additionally, the USS Niagra, one of the ships which fought in the Battle of Lake Erie, was in port.
Here’s the thing about visiting the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial: it’s on South Bass Island. It requires taking a ferry to get there. The ferry cost $34 per person… Ouch! That said, the town of Put-In-Bay is pretty cool and worth the visit.
Put-In-Bay is easily the Key West of Ohio. This small community is home to PLENTY of bars. It’s also home to lots of shops, a couple of wineries and, generally, cool stuff to do.
We had a blast despite the rain, which hit us in waves throughout the day. We braved the weather to take the tour train around the island (much like the Conch Train in Key West). The island was really neat and we enjoyed the historical commentary throughout the tour.
We took shelter in the Put-In-Bay Brewery and Distillery for a flight of beer and mac and jack bites (mmm!). The beer was tasty but nothing mind-blowing. The rum was not barrel-aged so had a bit of a bite.
Not getting to spend more time exploring the island on a golf cart or enjoying some of the other bars was particularly irksome but the rain has been heavy and frequent.
You can easily see the park and the highlights of the island in one day. That said, Put-In-Bay would also make a great weekend getaway.
Affiliated Site: Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis National Historic Site
Operated by the Toledo MetroParks, the Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis NHS preserves the area where the Battle of Fallen Timbers was fought.
The battle was fought by US forces against Native Americans with British support as the culmination of the Northwest Indian War. US forces easily defeated their opponents. There is a small park where the battle occurred with a memorial area on the other side of the highway.
There is a building for a visitor center but it is currently being used as a community room.
Plan on spending half an hour unless you want to hike the trails.
Nearby Site: River Raisin National Battlefield Park
While River Raisin National Battlefield Park is in Michigan, it is not far from the Ohio border, so we visited this site while in the area.
River Raisin NBP tells the story of two battles for the community of Frenchtown, along the River Raisin. Attacking in January 1813 to avoid the guns from British warships, American forces captured Frenchtown from the British as part of their campaign to retake Detroit.
Four days later, the British and Native American allies counterattacked and all but wiped out the American force, handing the US Army one of its worst defeats. That said, the defeat became a rallying cry later in the war: “Remember the Raisin!” The battle cry was heard in the Battle of Thames, a decisive American victory.
River Raisin NBP is a relatively new park and has not been fully developed by the Park Service. The visitor center holds a few exhibits, but the battlefield itself has not been developed beyond a few historical markers.
Plan on spending about an hour.
Where to Eat in Toledo
We were in Swanton for Bonnie’s birthday, so we were on the lookout for a nice place to get dinner in the greater Toledo area and we found it in Mancy’s Steaks.
We enjoyed smoked salmon dip, a couple of steaks with all the fixings and dessert with a couple of drinks.
It was perfect. The steaks were nicely done and the carrot cake was delicious. The pre-dinner cocktails were excellent, the wine list was extensive and the service was spot on.
We would come back to Mancy’s in a heartbeat.
Final Thoughts on Ohio National Parks
Ohio has a lot to offer for the history buff in particular. Every site, including Cuyahoga Valley National Park, is steeped in the history of the area. We learned a lot about parts of the US history we had no idea about.
The biggest difficulty in seeing all of the sites is distance. It was hard to pick campgrounds which were centrally located to several sites. Still, you can easily spend about 10 days exploring the state and have plenty of time to see and do everything.