Explore Hidden Gems of
Ohio’s Appalachian Country

By Kelsey Miller

Downtown Portsmouth, Megan Leigh Barnard

Ohio’s natural beauty and rich history shine in Appalachian Country. Stretching from the Ohio River on the southern end, through rolling hills and forests, to the northern shore of Lake Erie, Ohio’s Appalachian Country spans 32 counties. Follow winding roads to see natural wonders and American Indian earthworks, visit historic downtowns, hike or ride horseback through the woods, and stroll along the pristine lakes and rivers. Wonder at the beauty of Ohio’s Appalachian Country in these off-the-beaten path havens. Follow these five road trips in hidden gem destinations for a glimpse of what awaits you.

Portsmouth Floodwall Murals, Megan Leigh Barnard

1. Ohio’s Early History

STOP: History and natural beauty shine in the river town of Portsmouth. With over 60 images painted on previously drab floodwalls, the Portsmouth Floodwall Murals depict the history of Portsmouth, stretching back over 2,000 years. Along with the city’s influence on Ohio’s early commerce and the Underground Railroad, famous residents are depicted including singer/movie star Roy Rogers, nicknamed the  "King of the Cowboys," and Branch Rickey, who was instrumental in breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Southern Ohio Museum features the largest single collection of works by American Scene painter Clarence Holbrook Carter, as well as 10,000 prehistoric American Indian objects. Rotating galleries also feature well-known and emerging contemporary Ohio and regional artists.

Discover what it was like to live along the river 200-plus years ago. The 1810 House was home to three generations of the Kinney family, and now stands as a living example of pioneer history in the area. Birders, boaters and backpackers will find Shawnee State Park ideal for exploration. The park also offers horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking trails, disc golf courses and an archery range. Test your skills of deduction at Deadbolt Escape Rooms and Mysteries. Try to escape from a state forest cabin, solve a crime for the local police or find a way out of Count Dracula’s castle before dusk.

Stay: Take in views of the Ohio River at Selby 100 Mile House & Gardens, an impressive 37-room colonial style mansion in Stout. Stay in the home or in a private cottage attached to the main house and take a walk in the garden to enjoy the peaceful sounds of nature. Bask in the quiet setting of Shawnee State Park by staying at Shawnee Lodge and Conference Center.

Eat: Feast on fine hickory-smoked ribs or steaks at The Scioto Ribber. A quaint cafe located in the historic Boneyfiddle District of Portsmouth, Market Street Café offers grilled paninis and create-your-own smoothies. Enjoy coffee roasted in-house at Lofts Coffee Company and know you’re making a difference, since the company actively supports the local community.

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Downtown Gallipolis, Megan Leigh Barnard

2. Along the Waterfront

STOP: Pull out your bike and take a ride along the Ohio River in Gallipolis. Follow the Gallia County Hike & Bike Trail, 8.5 miles along an old railroad right-of-way through serene farmland. Explore 60 acres of protected wetlands at Elizabeth Evans Waterfowl and Bird Sanctuary and bring your binoculars (and camera) to spot wetland birds and other wildlife. Enjoy homestyle cooking like biscuits and gravy at the original Bob Evans Farm Restaurant in nearby Rio Grande. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Bob Evans Farm Homestead Museum offers a peek into the lives of Bob and Jewell Evans and how they built the restaurant from its humble beginnings to its success today.

Listen to the sounds of Mozart and Beethoven at the historic Ariel Opera House. It’s home to the Ohio Valley Symphony, the only professional orchestra in the Ohio River Valley. Take the entire family to a children’s theater performance at the French Art Colony. The multi-arts center stages art exhibitions, as well as performances by The Riverby Theatre Guild. Learn more about African American cultures and traditions in southeastern Ohio at the John Gee Black Historical Center. It’s housed in a former African Methodist Episcopal Church that opened in 1868 and was named for one of its principal founders. Stop at Silver Memorial Bridge in Gallipolis for views of the Ohio River and to pay homage to the victims of the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge that led to significant changes in bridge design and inspection regulations. The original bridge is connected to the Mothman myth, with tales of the red-eyed creature visiting the bridge to foretell its collapse.

STAY: Stay overnight amid the locals. Several Airbnbs are available for rental, allowing for a private retreat after a day of exploring. Sleep with a view of the Ohio River where you rent Kanauga Landing in Gallipolis or the charming Little Brick House in Rio Grande. Opt for a traditional hotel room at Riverside Motel that offers serene views of the Ohio River right from your window.

EAT: Cheers to good times at Gallia County’s first winery and craft brewery at Merry Family Winery in Bidwell. Even the youngest family members can join in the toast with homemade root beer. Eat authentic, delicious Italian food along the Ohio River at Tuscany Italian Restaurant, including decadent homemade desserts like the towering three-layer carrot cake. Or opt for pizza and barbecue at Zack & Scotty’s family friendly restaurant.

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Learn about the history of electric tattooing at the Ohio Tattoo Museum in Bidwell and admire the craft of tattooing. As you weave through the country roads past Old-Order Amish farms, stop for fresh produce at stands along the way, and shop from other Amish community members selling everything from finely crafted furniture to custom deck chairs. Don’t miss the Mennonite-owned Four Mile Bakery & General Store where you’ll find freshly baked donuts for breakfast or the ride home (if they last that long!).

Downtown Nelsonville

3. At the Forest’s Edge

STOP: Take a walk in the woods and then get adventurous in Nelsonville. Explore the trails and bask under the canopy of trees in Wayne National Forest, which covers over a quarter of a million scenic acres of the Appalachian foothills. You’ll find plenty of ways to explore the area — riding an ATV, horseback riding, hiking, fishing and camping.

Roll past scenic landscapes on a three-hour dinner train ride on the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway. Bring the kids to help fend off the bandits on the interactive train robbery ride, come in costume for Halloween rides or watch out the window to admire the colorful fall foliage. A short drive away in Glouster, Burr Oak State Park offers activities that will appeal to any outdoor enthusiast, including an archery range, hiking trails and a lake perfect for boating, fishing and swimming. Stay the night in the lodge to stargaze at night. Pick up a pair of hiking boots and camping equipment at the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store that’s headquartered in downtown Nelsonville.

Bring home a souvenir from the New Leaf Marketplace, one of the local retail shops on the historic Public Square. Walk around the square to find Stuart’s Opera House, lovingly restored from when it hosted vaudeville and minstrel shows in the late 1800s. Watch a theater performance or a live concert. Big name music acts come to the city every year for the Nelsonville Music Festival, set for October of 2021.

STAY: When you book a treehouse for a night or two from Among the Trees Lodging, you’ll enjoy the closeness of nature while also having comforts like an outdoor hot tub! Visit with other guests on the wraparound porch and in the sitting room at Hyde House Bed and Breakfast. Built in 1882, the Victorian-themed bed and breakfast is just off the Public Square and a perfect spot to stay after a show at Stuart’s Opera House. Just across the street is Primrose House Bed and Breakfast, once doubling as a doctor’s office and home.

EAT: Meet the culinary professionals of tomorrow at Rhapsody Restaurant, a casual fine dining restaurant run by the hospitality and culinary students from nearby Hocking College. Just a few doors down from the Opera House, it’s an ideal pre-show dinner spot. Opt for barbecue made with in-house crafted sauces and rubs at Starbrick BBQ, found inside the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store.

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4. Home to Explorers

STOP: With a gorgeous state park and national attractions, Cambridge attracts history lovers and innovators. One of NASA’s most famous astronauts grew up nearby. Experience history along with the Glenn family at the John and Annie Glenn Museum in New Concord. Costumed historians guide you through life during the Great Depression, on the home front during WWII and during Glenn’s historic orbit of Earth in 1962 — all in Glenn’s childhood home.

Explore two museums in one place at the National Road & Zane Grey Museum in Norwich. Learn about America’s first federally funded highway and the history of vehicles, then dive into the life of “The Father of the Adult Western” Zane Grey with a collection of memorabilia from his western novels. Over 10,000 pieces of Cambridge Glass are on display at The National Museum of Cambridge Glass, where visitors can explore what it might have been like to work at one of the most prosperous glass companies in the world.

The Cambridge Performing Arts Center produces wholesome musicals and shows featuring local talent that the entire family can enjoy at the historic Strand Theater. Bear witness to Ohio’s only passion play at The Living Word Outdoor Drama, featuring the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in an authentic recreation of Old Jerusalem. Follow volunteers in period clothing on a tour of a restored 1840s home, the Kennedy Stone House, in Salt Fork State Park. Another can’t-miss spot in the park is Hosak’s Cave, an ancient rock monument found after an uphill, yet short and scenic, hike. It’s at its prettiest during spring rainfalls when a waterfall spills over the rocks.

The Cambridge Underground lot, discovered in 2011 during a sidewalk renovation, reveals a unique look into the early 1800s storefront located under Wheeling Avenue. As efforts are being made to preserve the historical area, tours are infrequent, but if you can go, it’ll be the most unique tour you’ll ever experience! With four riding stables around the county, there are plenty of opportunities to go horseback riding. Saddle up at Salt Fork Stables in Winterset, Rocky Fork Ranch Resort in Kimbolton, M & H Stable and Arena in Salesville or go on a horseback riding safari at The Wilds, an expansive free-range animal habitat in Cumberland.

STAY: When you stay the night at Salt Fork State Park Lodge, you’ll be right in the middle of all the action. Sunbathe on the state’s largest inland beach, go tubing or waterskiing and take to miles of hiking trails. For a more private retreat, stay in the comfortable Colonel Taylor Inn, a three-story, Victorian mansion with four private rooms. 

EAT: Pair a glass of wine with the brick-oven fired pizza at Georgetown Tavern on the Hill. Get a seat on the patio overlooking the vineyard below. Order the 3’s A Crowd sub with roast beef, turkey, ham and Swiss cheese at McKenna’s Market. The downtown deli is known for its hearty subs, along with Amish cheese, old-fashioned candies and hard-to-find sodas.

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Covered Bridge - Harpersfield, Carl A. Stimac

5. Ohio’s Northern Shore

STOP: Spend the day along Ohio’s northern coast in Ashtabula. Walk along the shoreline of Lake Erie and hunt for colorful beach glass in the sand, then explore Historic Ashtabula Harbor that’s filled with restaurants and unique retail establishments.

Find beach access to Lake Erie at Walnut Beach Park, where you can hear the waves lapping on to the shore as you relax in the sun while the kids play in the sand. Follow a nature trail through wetlands and sand dunes. The Indian Trails Park offers you a chance to venture onto the water and kayak down the more scenic views. Take a driving tour to explore the 19 covered bridges across Ashtabula County, including Smolen-Gulf, the longest covered bridge in the U.S. Snap a selfie on the Riverview pedestrian bridge, located under the Smolen-Golf bridge.

With its location so close to Canada, Ashtabula was an important stop on the path to freedom. Learn more at Hubbard House Underground Railroad Museum, a restored 1840s home furnished with period pieces that tells the story of how owners William and Katharine Hubbard helped fleeing enslaved people reach Canada. See a dance performance, concert or theater performance at the Ashtabula Arts Center. The city has a packed calendar of events. Don’t miss the amazing D-Day Reenactment in Conneaut. Every August, nearly 2,000 historical reenactors bring the D-Day Normandy invasion to life on the beach at Township Park. Pay homage to the region’s tradition of winemaking at the Grape Jamboree. Held every September, the gathering celebrates the bountiful grape harvest in the Geneva area, with grape stomping, wine tastings and more grape-themed activities.

STAY: Stay near Walnut Beach when you book a night at The 1888 House on Airbnb, and enjoy its charming historical woodwork, original fixtures and enclosed gazebo. The Walnut Beach Inn Airbnb is steps away from Walnut Beach and boasts all new appliances and four bedrooms to fit your family.

EAT: Start your morning with a walk on the beach while sipping a steaming cup of coffee. Pick up a latte at Harbor Perk Coffeehouse & Roasting Co., where experts roast their beans before your eyes. End the day with a dinner of southern barbecue paired with a wide selection of craft beer at The Briquettes Smokehouse.

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