YOU WILL BEGIN your 433 mile crossing through Buckeye State crossing the Ohio River on a car ferry, heading into the Wild Northwest. This is your first clue that Ohio is nothing like a flat, monotonous cornfield. The road winds through the Hocking Hills, adorned with waterfalls and towering hemlocks, and passes through Amish country farms rich in buggies, hats and butter grease. These pastoral landscapes contrast with the effervescence of the state’s “Three Cs”, the cities of Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. The trip ends on the shores of Lake Erie, joining perhaps thousands of others at the Cleveland Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Summer Concert Series, a fitting celebration of Ohio pushed to the limit at the end. A few navigation notes: Unexpected detours, horse-drawn Amish strollers and poorly marked country roads are to be expected. GPS or paper maps are helpful. Call ahead, especially in small venues. Ohio is open, but the pandemic can still surprise.
Day 1: Cincinnati to Logan
From the rental lot at Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport, step back in time via KY-20 East. Follow the signs for the Anderson ferry. A hairpin road takes you to the bank of the Ohio River in Kentucky, where for $ 5 (plus $ 1 tip) a ferry that has been in service since 1817 will float your car to Ohio like the pioneers. Head east to downtown Cincinnati on US-50. Edgy vinyl homes and warehouses dot the road, but your destination, Over-the-Rhine, sparkles. The neighborhood’s 19th-century cornice buildings, originally filled with German immigrants, form the largest collection of Italian Revival architecture in the country. Neglected for years, OTR is now covered in creamy paint and optimism, and replenished with shiny young things and craft brews. Busy Washington Park is fun to explore.
Leave Cincy via US-52, parallel to the great river east to Ripley. This pre-war town was an important terminus of the underground railroad commemorated by an abolitionist monument and the restored home of John P. Parker, a former slave. In Portsmouth take OH-104 North to Chillicothe for a salad at Paper City, a sunny cafe on South Paint Street (papercitycoffee.com).
Head north on OH-159, then east on OH-180 into the Hocking Hills. Possessing deep gorges and mossy waterfalls, this is arguably Ohio’s most scenic real estate, a deciduous Kauai. The topography makes GPS navigation spotty here. Pick up a map from the Hocking Hills Visitor Center in Logan and spend the night in one of the tiny houses in Hocking Hills. Handcrafted, these three “zen dens” on pretty Lake Logan exude Nordic simplicity (from $ 119 per night, hockinghillstinyhouses.com).
Six-course dinner at Glenlaurel Scottish Inn (fixed price starting at $ 65; reservation in advance of 72 hours encouraged; glenlaurel.com) reinforces a postprandial butterfly hunt led by Lepidoptera Chris Kline at his Butterfly Ridge Conservation Center. Game drives are 9 p.m. to midnight most Saturday nights in the summer (butterfly-ridge.com). If moths aren’t available, John Glenn Astronomy Park, named after the famous Ohio astronaut, offers stargazing and an occasional lecture instead. (jgap.info).