5 Perfect Places on the Ohio Coast of Lake Erie for Bird Watchers, Hikers, and Lake Lovers
Ohio State Route 2 may not have the same character as Route 66, but for those looking for a smoother, quieter, and more relaxing getaway, this 40-mile stretch from Bono to Marblehead (strictly speaking, the last eight miles or so to Marblehead not on US-2) has it all to soothe your senses and enjoy life’s simpler pleasures. Part of the approximately 190 mile Lake Erie Bird Watching Trail, this stretch of the Ohio coast has attracted vacationers, bird watchers, and lake historians to the area for decades. And for good reason: with miles of hiking trails, endless bird and wildlife viewing opportunities, golden beaches, camping and rental pitches, miles of lakeside views with direct access to Erie Islands and a unique American city where life seems to run at three-quarters of speed, it’s no wonder that visitors looking for a place to truly relax return here year after year.
Bird watchers migrate here too
Ohio SR 2 travels 227 miles in northern Ohio from the Indiana state border to Hicksville in the west, eventually joining US20 in Painesville Township. The course is part of the Lake Erie Bird Watching Trail (actually seven individual loop trails) that stretch just west of Toledo all the way to Ashtabula and are home to over 400 different bird species.
1. Metzger Marsh Wildlife Reserve
From Bono (15 miles east of Toledo) through the countryside, past fields of swaying yellow canola, even those with little knowledge or interest in birds cannot fail to notice the white egrets. and the blue herons that soar majestically in the marshes and ditches by the side of the road. This marsh area is home to these beautiful birds, and there are a number of wildlife areas where you can stop, hike the marshes, and watch the birds. Going from west to east, Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area (900+ acres half of which is accessible to the public) is a peaceful place to stroll (up to two miles one way) with great views of Lake Erie and plenty of opportunities to appreciate wildlife (including eagles bald).
Pro tips: There are several stops along the route to a parking lot. Although the trail is an easy hike it is not paved so hiking boots are a good idea. There are no facilities here.
2. Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge
Adjacent to the Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area is the larger property, 7,000 acres Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, which visitors described as “an absolute dream”. Originally part of the much larger and delightfully named “Grand Marais Noir”, today’s refuge has 16 km of hiking trails alongside past walks and viewpoints. On certain dates, you can drive on “seasonal routes”. It’s cool, because you can visit areas of the refuge that are usually not open.
Pro tips: Hunting and fishing are permitted in the designated areas of the refuge. You can borrow field guides and binoculars from the visitor center to make your wildlife viewing more enjoyable.
3. Magee Marsh Wildlife Area
A little further is the 2,200 acres The fauna of Magee swamp area. If you’re visiting here from early to mid-May, be prepared to mingle with hundreds of other bird watchers and photographers. This is when the warblers stop here on their northward migration, and it is the Nirvana Warbler for many. People come from miles around to witness the large congregation of birds preparing to take off over the lake and head north. Their return trip in the fall is also an amazing time to visit, as up to 300 species of birds have been spotted in the area at that time.
Pro tips: There is a mile walk with some good views. Toilets are available in the beach parking lot. There is no entrance fee. Waterfowl and deer hunting is available here with the appropriate permit.
4. The iconic Marblehead Lighthouse
Heading further south and east on Hwy 2 toward Port Clinton, take Hwy 163 along the finger that protrudes directly east into Lake Erie – the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. Stop and explore the nail – Marble head – with its iconic red-topped lighthouse overlooking the shores of Lake Erie and Sandusky Bay. This lighthouse was a sentinel and operated continuously, longer than any other lighthouse in the Great Lakes. Entry into the lighthouse is possible (which will reopen at the end of May 2021) for a small fee, and the climb of 77 steps to the top offers fantastic views of the nearby island of Kelleys and Cedar Point Amusement Park five miles (20 miles by car) away. The adjacent former lighthouse keeper’s cottage is now a museum created by a local non-profit organization for the preservation of this unique village and in particular the lighthouse.
Pro tips: For early risers, go Marblehead Lighthouse State Park and snap an iconic photo as the sun rises in the sky over the lake, heralding the dawn of a new day. Sit down and have lunch at a picnic table in the shade of the lighthouse, watching the fishermen throw walleye into the lake.
5. Marble head
With a permanent population of around 1,000, walking along the only main street in Marblehead is like walking through a neighborhood where everyone knows everyone. Do you stop at the Chamber of Commerce – or is it a barber or even a soap store? It’s actually the three, located in one building (with two other people living upstairs). The barber has been cutting hair here for 22 years. Go through the house to the next two rooms and you will find the Marblehead Soap Company, a local, three-generation family-owned store that makes handcrafted natural soaps and other organic body products that they supply to the hotel across the street. The family also raises bees, and with around 200 hives there is no shortage of local honey to choose from.
The historic school – with its red doors for boys and girls – is now a cellar and an inn. A perfect combination! Rocky Point Vineyard, featuring six local wines and many more, is on the first floor of the three-story building. In the summer, guests can take advantage of a large patio with fire pits for the cooler evenings to sip, sit and most likely take a nap. The Inn of the Red Fern offers five star accommodation on the top two floors and is one of the top rated inns on the North Ohio Coast.
Just around the corner from Marblehead Lighthouse State Park is Byzantine Catholic Church of St. Mary with its distinctive onion domes and a clear, if not surprising, connection to its Eastern European roots.
The small Lucien Clemens Park, with its lawn, benches, small beach and waterbreak for safe swimming, is a distinguished addition to the city and epitomizes Marblehead – understated, relaxed and family-friendly.
A short detour from Main Street on a neighborhood side road leads to the lake. Here, a few benches provide another excuse to sit back and watch life go by – in this case, the Kelley’s Island ferry shuttles people and cars and the seagulls spin and dive incessantly.
Just west of Marblehead on the shores of Lake Erie, East Harbor State Park is a center of activity. The campground and marina make it a great base for exploring this 40 mile stretch of northern Ohio coastline. The park has 1.6 km of trails, 3 km of beach and safe swimming in the lake.
There is plenty of accommodation along this 40 mile route – from the popular Red Fern Inn to cabin rentals, RV sites and campgrounds. Whatever you choose, bring sturdy walking shoes and dress in layers – the weather on the coast can be a few degrees cooler than inland. And don’t forget the sunscreen.