The Ohio to Erie Trail: Biking Across Ohio

September was fast approaching. It’s my favorite month of the year for traveling and I was looking forward to backpacking around Lake Tahoe with my brother. Unfortunately, he was not feeling it in the same way and decided the trip wasn’t for him. After getting over the shock how anyone would not want to be in the Sierras in September I began thinking about other options. Without a long lead time, and a shortage of hiking friends, I was looking at a solo trip. After solo hiking several longer trails (Colorado Trail, Long Trail, JMT…) in the last few years I was ready for something different. How about a bike ride? That could be interesting.

Running from the Ohio River at downtown Cincinnati to Lake Erie near downtown Cleveland, the Ohio to Erie Trail runs 326 miles through the heart of Ohio. Most of the route is off road and there appeared to be enough camping or lodging available along the route to make a feasible ride for an older (read slower) cyclist. In addition, the trail runs near my house so logistics were straightforward. Looks like I had my September trip!

My first stop was at the local bike shop to see if my aging “hybrid” bike had what it takes to complete the journey. I was told it would be “like driving a Cadillac,” but apparently not in a good way. Slow, but comfortable was the way the other mechanic described how my trip would go. I was good with that. With significant mileage on packed gravel, my race bike with narrow tires seemed like a poor choice.
Using maps from the Ohio to Erie Trail (OTET) organization and their website, I put together a plan to travel the distance in six days, using a combination of camping and hotels. Averaging around 55 miles per day seemed doable even with the slow Caddy loaded down and powered by a nearly 60 year old engine.

Utilizing a borrowed pair of panniers and my lightweight backpacking equipment I was able to keep the load well under 20 pounds. That included a change of clothes, rain gear, camping gear, a couple spare tubes, a few tools, snacks and water. Looking at the route, it appeared I could get nearly all of my meals as I traveled.
The first stretch, from the Ohio River to my house near Morrow, looked like it had some of the worst on-road riding of the trip. While there had been some additional trail built in the last few years, the official trail still took riders down Rt 50 (Wooster Pike), a busy four lane road, for six miles. As I drove that road down to the start at the river, it became an easy decision for me to stay away from Wooster and take the new, nearby trail.
Parking near the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, it was easy to hop on the trail and pedal to the start near Great American Ballpark. It was a beautiful fall day and I got started heading east along the Ohio River a bit after 10 AM. This meant missing, as planned, the morning rush hour on the sections of city streets. Rolling through Sawyer Point Park and Friendship Park, the path was flat and scenic. A 2 ½ mile section on Riverside drive wasn’t bad as a separate bike lane was well marked. Some more park/trail and a shift to behind a septic treatment plant kept most of the route off road until I reached the popular bike trail around Lunken Airport. The wide, smooth path was sandwiched between Wilmer Road and a number of airplane hangers. Once past the airport, the OTET route continued onto Wooster Pike.

After looking at that route earlier that day, I made the decision to go rogue. By turning east onto Rt 125 (Beechmont Ave.) I pedaled less than a mile on a busy road, with a reasonably good shoulder, and crossed the Little Miami River. From there, taking the first exit onto north Rt 32 put me immediately onto a new section of the Little Miami Scenic Trail (LMST). It was a pleasant few miles through neighborhood parks until the official OTET route rejoined me by Avoca Park. Getting to this point took well under an hour. In checking with the OTET organization, neither the City of Cincinnati or Hamilton County will allow them to designate Beechmont as a bike route. The official route (and the one you should follow) will remain Wooster Pike for the time being. Either way, the rest of the day and beyond would be off road on the LMST.
Much of the LMST is constructed on an old railroad line. As such, there are no steep hills along its entire length. While the lack of elevation change can be boring for some, the trail is often within sight of the pretty Little Miami River, which in 1968, became Ohio’s first National Wild and Scenic River. In addition, there are numerous small towns with plenty of great places to stop for a break or to buy a snack or enjoy a meal. Not that I would notice, but there also seemed to be a plethora of bars alongside the path on this, and other, stretches.

As this is my “home” section of trail, I made pretty good time through the morning. Much of the trail is a green tunnel with possible stops after a few miles in Milford, a few more miles at Miamiville, or six more miles at Loveland. The trail is an integral part of Loveland and you pass right by a canoe/kayak livery, bike shop (where I had my ride checked out) and numerous restaurants. I could recommend several of them, but stopped for lunch at Bike Trail Junction, which is literally feet from the trail.
After a relaxing lunch, I stepped out of the place and right onto my bike. Loveland is quite possibly the busiest spot on the entire route, but on a weekday afternoon in September, I saw just a few other bikers as I continued north. The afternoon remained sunny and pleasant with ongoing views of the Little Miami. Several miles up the path is the interesting historical site of the Peters Cartridge Company, a major producer of munitions for the Allied forces in both World Wars. The remaining building is planned to be converted into retail and apartments in the not too distant future.
A short 14 miles after lunch I rolled into Morrow, my endpoint for the day. I traveled 39 miles up the OTET route and had 4 miles of country road yet to travel to get to my house. Without a convenient, comfortable spot to get dinner and my own bed, I would have traveled a few more miles to a riverside campground operated by Morgan’s Canoe Livery. As it was, I was home by midafternoon, plenty of time to get a ride to retrieve my truck that I’d left downtown.

The next stage of the trip is right here.

Cultivation of a New Backpacker

This article first appeared on The Trek

I’ve spent much of my backpacking time hiking alone. As most of my friends are near my age (pushing 60) and working, there’s not been much interest in walking in the woods for days with me. So, when my current girlfriend (and former wife) Michelle expressed an interest, I was all in.

Equipment was simple. I’m one of those guys that’s often upgrading my gear, but never selling the old stuff. (I have spork service for eight.) The only purchase needed was a pack that fit her, which made birthday shopping pretty easy. (We went with Osprey Exos 48.) Besides, if she hated the experience, there’s always Ebay. The tough part would be to pick and plan a first trip. I was looking to provide more than a short hike in/hike out trip, but nothing too brutal either.

There are several loops within a few hours of Cincinnati that can be done with a single night of camping. I chose a 21-23 mile loop around Burr Oak Lake for a few reasons.

1. The distance would be a challenge for her as a new backpacker, but doable in two days.
2. The distance was short enough that I could bring extra items like a pillow and camp chair to improve conditions.
3. The route had some elevation changes, but no climbs over 400 feet.
4. The entire route is almost completely within Burr Oak State Park; scenic and well maintained.
5. There are several possible bail out points if things went badly.
6. There is a campground at the halfway point with flush toilets. Cathole training can wait until another trip.

I was planning on waiting until fall for the trip, but a break appeared in the weather forecast that I couldn’t pass up. I was looking at the upcoming Sunday and Monday both with highs around 80, lows in the 50’s with low humidity and no chance of rain. July in southern Ohio almost never looks that good. Michelle was able to get off work at the last minute and we were a go.

With plenty of food and more than enough clothes my pack weighed 18 pounds, Michelle’s was 14 (plus water). Several water hydrants are near the trail so one liter each starting out would be plenty.

The trip itself

We started out clockwise from the backpack trail head around 2 pm figuring on a two mph pace to get us to camp by early evening. The weather was breezy, warm and the low humidity made for pleasant hiking. The trail quickly established itself along the shoreline with small grades and constant views of 660 acre Burr Oak Lake. Occasional summer wildflowers added some color to the healthy forest. There were plenty of people around as we passed near the park’s lodge and Dock #2, but met no one else actually on the trail. Dock #2 contains not only a boat ramp and dock, but also campsites, water and pit toilets.

At six miles we walked across the lake’s dam and stopped at a well placed picnic table for a snack and to reload the water. We were right on schedule with no issues with either equipment or personnel. Walking down the opposite side of the lake, we could see where we had passed earlier. Luckily, the trail remained relatively flat. A couple deer sightings broke up the next few miles as afternoon turned to evening.

After passing our third dock of the day, the trail turned into a road walk. Although it was short and flat, there’s nothing like road walking to make a day seem tough. By then though, the end was in sight; at the top of the steepest grade of the day. I spent the next ten minutes silently cursing my choice of hikes, but suddenly we were in the campground. At just under 11 miles, we were done for the day. There were plenty of open sites and I picked the first flat spot we saw, right across from a shower building. As a bonus, there was a pop machine to provide cold sugar, caffeine and mixer. Things were looking up. I broke out a couple camp chairs and a new Thermacell Backpacker Mosquito Repellent device and we had one of my more comfortable backpacking camps.

After a couple freeze dried dinners and some doctored Pepsi, it was time to turn in. It was still a bit light out, but between the full moon and lights all over the shower building, complete darkness wasn’t coming anyway.
We shared a Big Agnes Copper Spur, the two person version. It was plenty roomy for the two of us, but had me reevaluating sharing it with my brother on a future excursion. That may become a two tent trip.

The bottom of Michelle’s feet were bothering her a bit in the morning. As she slipped her shoes on without needing to untie them, I took a guess as to why. After I had her use some friction block and snug up the shoes, we started out. The morning was cloudy and muggier than the forecast had called for. We soon dropped into a deep valley when I heard some noise and stopped. “Is that rain?” Michelle asked. Thank you Accuweather! (I often wonder if the reason many people refuse to believe the long term predictions for Climate Change is because short term weather forecasts are so often spectacularly wrong; but that’s a discussion for another time.)

As warm as it was, the rain actually felt pretty good. The lightning was a little disconcerting, but the rain felt good. Spotting a deer with a new fawn was a highlight of the morning. Breaking through thousands of spiderwebs was not. It was obvious nobody else was on the trail. The topography got more interesting/rugged with several 200 foot climbs and drops. We walked near multiple small caves within the valleys until hitting a flat stretch near the upper reaches of the lake.

The rain turned on and off several times through the morning making the trail wet, but not overly slippery. At the very end of the lake there is a creek crossing that can often just be jumped across. Not this day however. As we stood there gauging the depth, a large carp swam up through our crossing. Since her shoes and 2nd pair of socks were already fairly wet, Michelle kept hers on to wade across; possibly a mistake.

Once back heading south, the trail was flat and easy for a couple miles. Herons were thick out in the shallows and toads and other critters were frequent along the trail. We took a snack break at a spot overlooking the scene. The heavy foliage of one of the park’s namesake oaks kept us dry through another shower. Michelle’s feet were starting to suffer though. I broke out the moleskin to cover the start of a couple blisters, had her reapply the friction block and handed over my still dry spare socks. The minor first aid was an immediate relief. I was hoping that it would also hold off any further damage for the rest of the hike.

A couple more relatively flat miles brought us to Dock #3 with water, restrooms and campsites. It worked out to be right at noon and in between showers. Taking advantage of the timing, we had lunch at a picnic table watching several dozen Canada Geese nearby. It was also decision time. We could continue to follow the shoreline for another 4+ miles to the car. However, another trail promised a more direct, and hilly, route that looked to be just under 2 miles. Michelle’s feet were holding up, but for how long? A thunderclap sealed the decision; away from the lake we would go.

Despite the added climbs and drops, the miles were covered quickly and by 1:30 we exited the woods right by the car. Michelle had successfully completed her first backpacking trip hiking an impressive 21 miles over two (short) days. It was straight to the park’s lodge for a burger and a beer to celebrate.

If I had it to do over again, I’d possibly pick a shorter hike. Michelle did walk a little slow for the next couple days. Running water and a pop machine at camp made for a nice transition into backpacking though. Regardless, she told me she enjoyed it and I’ve yet to see the backpack appear on eBay. Perhaps there will be a new backpacking partner in my future.

Trail Details

Burr Oak State Park Backpacking Trail

The backpacking trail encircles 660-plus acre Burr Oak Lake in Southeastern Ohio.

From Athens, Ohio, take State Route 13 North to east on State Route 78, to park entrance on the left. Park at Backpack Trailhead.

The 21-23 mile loop includes three fee-based camp areas. A longer trip is possible by taking the Wildcat Hollow Backpack Trail from the northern reaches of the loop into Wayne National Forest. Free camping is allowed in the National Forest.

The trail is well maintained and very well marked, though some sections may be impassable during very wet periods. Burr Oak Lake is a flood control reservoir with the water level controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. Most of the trail is flat to rolling with a few steeper grades generally 200 vertical feet or less. Additional information is available at the park’s website.