Looking for some small-town fun-in-the-sun this upcoming season? Well, say hi to Ohio. The Buckeye State occupies a humble, homegrown slice of the Northeastern United States. It snags a solid stretch of shoreline from Lake Erie, the warmest, and therefore most swimmable, of the five Great Lakes. Though not without its heavy-hitters, such as the big "C" cities of Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, it is the smaller communities that make up the heart and soul of this understated state. The following six spots are the best places to flock to for a mix of thrills and relaxation during those upcoming sizzling summer days.
Though not the smallest of small towns (2020 population of 25,095 in the core area, 75,662 in the total metropolitan, or "micropolitan" area), Sandusky is all kinds of fun in the summer. Located in Erie County, where the Southwestern shore of Lake Erie transitions into Sandusky Bay, the city of Sandusky opens the door to cooling, quenching water activities. Swimming, boating, and fishing are all immediately available, and there are ferries that run to the lovely islands of Put-In-Bay and Kelleys Island, our next two stops on this summer tour. But the smash hit in this area is the mega-coaster theme park, Cedar Point. Hear the screams and laughter get carried in by the water from the small peninsula that stretches out just East of downtown.
Once you've had your fill at Kelleys Island, jump back on the ferry and skip over to Put-In-Bay, an adorable island village within view to the Northwest of Kelleys. Located on South Bass Island, this popular and idyllic spot has been nicknamed "Key West of the North." The preferred mode of transportation in these parts is in a golf cart. Enjoy the fresh air flapping by as you scoot around town, and to many of the key sites on the outskirts, such as: South Bass Island State Park, Oak Point State Park, Scheeff East Point Nature Preserve, and Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial, which commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie and celebrates the peace between the U.S., the now amiable neighbors to the North, and Britain.
Up in the Northeastern corner of the state, in Ashtabula County, the zippy resort town of Geneva-on-the-Lake continues the Lake Erie summer vibe. Good old "GOTL" looks like a throwback to the 1950s, with classic arcades, ice-cream parlors, pizza-by-the-slice, and all the other All-American cheat foods that are great to indulge in after a day on the beach. This nostalgia-inducing place has easy-going bike paths, a high-octane go-kart track and zipline, a waterside ferris wheel, outdoor concerts, and an array of vintage and antique shops. And immediately West of GOTL, is the 698-acre Geneva State Park, complete with a family-friendly campground, cottages, and a lodge.
Less than 25 miles East of Sandusky, and just over 40 miles West of Cleveland, the small city of Vermillion offers low-stress summer days in the heart of Lake Erie's Southwestern shore. And given that it is an active railroad town, what better way to start the carefree journey than by arriving on a train? This Erie and Lorain County community has been appropriately dubbed "Harbour Town" and the "Town of Sea Captains." The Vermillion River cuts through town, offering a safe haven for many marinas, boat clubs, and yacht clubs. It is greeted by swimmers and sunbathers at Main Street Beach, just as it joins the warm, shallow, and inviting waters of the Great Lake. Right next door, the Vermillion Lighthouse permanently poses for pictures. And finally, the charming downtown strip reveals plenty of dining, lodging, and shopping opportunities that will occupy couples and families alike.
Of course, there is more to a memorable summer vacation than just spending time on the lake. Deep inland, in the farmlands of Greene County, the village of Yellow Springs is a wonderful place to unwind and enjoy the fair-weather outdoor recreation that is abundant in this area. Though just 20 miles East of Dayton, and 55 West of Columbus, Yellow Springs feels far from city life. The Glen Helen Nature Reserve is a zen oasis in the middle of the community. The Inman Trail follows the shore of Yellow Springs Creek, through the bright green forest, and to such photogenic sites as the trickling Yellow Spring, and the more robust Cascades, before looping back on an adjoining sister creek. Just East of town, the John Bryan State Park and adjacent Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, open up a slew of other hiking opportunities, with the sizable limestone gorge being the main draw. This is also a perfect spot to jump on the 78-mile Little Miami Scenic Trail (the fourth-longest paved biking trail in the country) to connect some of the tranquil woodlands, farms, and small towns of Southwestern Ohio.
Speaking of Kelleys Island (AKA "Lake Erie's Emerald Isle"), if you happen to take the ferry out from Sandusky (or rather, Lakeside Marblehead, which is just across the bay) then you will arrive at the adorable island and village of the same name, also in Erie County. The only thing cooler than lake life in the summer, is island lake life. This community has a population of only a few hundred people, so it contrasts/compliments the energy of Sandusky quite nicely. Tourists can pass a pleasant afternoon by visiting the 677-acre Kelleys Island State Park, or the Glacial Grooves State Memorial, the world's largest display of glacial scouring (that can be easily accessed). For a more informal itinerary, rent a bike from one of the many companies downtown and explore the rock at your leisure. Don't forget to stop by the monarch butterfly greenhouse, which opens late spring and offers free admission.
Who would have thought that Ohio had such a wide spectrum of summer settings? There are picturesque islands, lakeside resorts, country gems, energetic getaways, and secretive, chilled-out villages. There is plenty to do for both kids and adults – whatever your idea of a cool summer vacation may look like. So if you are looking to escape the cities for a few days, and don't feel like fighting the crowds on either coast, stay in the Midwest, and pick one of these six small towns to entertain you.