At first glance, you might never guess that the serene forests dotting the Appalachian foothills in Southeastern Ohio were once the site of sprawling coal mines. Since the mines began steadily closing in the 1950s, the area’s ecosystem has been restored, creating lush grasslands and favorable habitats for wildlife. The small towns, once home to coal miners and their families, are regrowing, too.
Ohio’s Winding Road (OWR) connects nine counties in southeastern Ohio, providing a gateway into the outdoor oasis of forested rolling hills, waterways and panoramic vistas — an ideal environment for campers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts — and into the nearby communities once known as “little cities of black diamonds.”
“These towns were little boom cities built on black diamonds, which was a nickname for coal,” says John Winnenberg, a community activist and board member of Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area, a nonprofit regional group that helped create Ohio’s Winding Road.
“Over the recent decades, as the coal industry left, there has been a recovery and healing of the land and a return of the forest. Now, instead of our fortunes being based on underground minerals, they are based on an experience economy — and not only to experience our beautiful scenery, but to learn about our history in terms of the immigrants who came here to work in the mines, and the rise of mining labor unions that started here. Today, that same landscape that suffered the degradation of coal mining has been transformed from little cities of black diamonds into little cities of the forest.”
When you visit these “cities of the forest,” you’ll find experiences ranging from guided tours of historic locations to art displays and live music to a multitude of recreational opportunities. Read on to discover the other experiences that await you along Ohio’s Winding Road.
Located in the heart of the Wayne National Forest in Perry County, Shawnee is one of the many historic coal mining villages along Ohio’s Winding Road. During its boom years in the early 1900s, Shawnee was a melting pot of immigrants from the British Isles, mostly Welsh, Scots and Irish, who came here to work in the mines. Shawnee still reflects its thriving past, with interesting architecture and a twentieth-century opera house, the Tecumseh Theater, currently under restoration by Sunday Creek Associates, a local non-profit development group.
Shawnee is also the headquarters of the Buckeye Trail, the largest loop hiking trail in the U.S. Spanning 1,444 miles, the Buckeye Trail circles the entire state of Ohio and travels through diverse terrain, including paved sections and along railroad tracks, wooded footpaths and canal towpaths. The first 20 miles of the trail were dedicated in 1959, after writer Merrill Gilfillan proposed a path that would travel from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. The trail has expanded from its conception, but the goals of the original founders remain — the Buckeye Trail gives hikers the chance to immerse themselves into Ohio’s diverse landscape.
“One of the reasons that the Buckeye Trail is so appealing is that visitors can camp anywhere along it as it passes through the Wayne National Forest,” notes Winneberg while discussing the foot trail from Shawnee to Burr Oak State Park, which is being upgraded. In Shawnee, the Buckeye Trail also offers a one-mile loop around Tecumseh Lake, or a 3-mile loop from Tecumseh Lake through the forest and back, rather than through hiking.
Time your visit on a summer weekend to catch Shawnee’s farmer’s market. Rest your legs and order lunch at the Black Diamond Tavern. Explore the downtown and note the colorful buildings and historic architecture. If you’re up for more outdoor adventure after lunch, the Tecumseh Lake Trail is just a quarter mile from downtown Shawnee.
Mountain bikers of all skill levels will want to test the Baileys Trail System, which currently has 14 miles of trails winding through rolling hills, jewel-green forests and abandoned coal mines. Another 12 miles are under construction, with 88 total miles planned. When completed, the Baileys will feature trails designed for beginners through expert mountain bikers, with community trailheads and connectivity to cities in Athens County via the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway. Backpackers, trail runners and nature viewers are also welcome on the Baileys.
The Hockhocking, a 20-mile trail, offers a smooth asphalt surface that meanders through diverse terrain from Athens to Hocking College in Nelsonville. The paved trail is suitable for either mountain bikes or road bikes. The Baileys Trail System currently has direct community connections to Chauncey and Doanville, with its trailhead located at the Chauncey-Dover Community Park.
“Pedal power is a new way to experience the forest, both through Baileys Trail and the Hockhocking,” says Winnenberg. “The Baileys is becoming very popular with mountain bikers because they enjoy longer distances. In the eastern U.S., long mountain biking trails are few and far between, so the Baileys will become a huge attraction when it is built out to its full 88-mile length.”
After your bike ride, pull off at the main trailhead in Chauncey. The quaint town welcomes visitors with their new café Bailey Mae’s Trailhead Café. Other places to rest and refuel include Little Fish Brewing Co. for a refreshing pint on the patio, The Mine Tavern for a burger or Crumbs Bakery to treat yourself to something sweet.
Burr Oak State Park, located just outside of Glouster, offers a multitude of activities and attractions. In addition to an inland lake and expansive hiking and bridle trails, the park is equipped with a full-service lodge and conference center, an archery range, a disc golf course and areas designed for boating, swimming, fishing and hunting. Along with boat rentals and launch ramps, Burr Oak also features several lodging options such as campsites with full hook-ups and private cabins.
Immerse yourself in nature and learn more about Ohio’s ecosystem by attending one of Burr Oak’s nature programs. Julie Gee, a naturalist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources at Burr Oak, leads a variety of guided tours, including pontoon boat tours on the lake, birding walks and guided wildflower walks in the spring. Gee also hosts discussions of the park’s diverse trees, edibles found in the wild and reptiles and amphibians native to the area.
“When I think of what is offered along Ohio’s Winding Road, I think the most valuable assets are the very genuine, authentic experiences that we provide to visitors,” says Gee. “When people come to Burr Oak State Park, nature is all around them. The forest and the lake — it’s all natural and authentic.”
Be sure to stop in the park’s Nature Center to experience its new interpretive displays and a 180-gallon aquarium that houses native fish and a snapping turtle.
“We also have a new three-dimensional topographic map of Ohio featuring the path of the glaciers in the state during the ice ages, where they traveled and the deposits they left,” Gee adds, “The Nature Center is a great experience for new and returning visitors.”
Plan your visit so that you can catch one of Glouster’s First Friday events. Held on the First Friday of each month, you’ll find local music and art showings as well as food and beverages. For more entertainment and dining options, head to Athens, only a half-hour drive away.
The exhilarating adventure of twisting through winding trails on a mountain bike. The sense of peace you’ll feel after a day spent among the trees. The feeling of joy in taking a dip in a lake or reeling in a largemouth bass. These are the experiences that are sure to leave a lasting impact on you after visiting Ohio’s Winding Road. And you’ll have a chance to make an impact, too.
For Winnenberg and others, Southeastern Ohio’s transition to an outdoor destination is important both for sharing the landscape with visitors and for improving the quality of life for locals. When you visit the region and indulge in the offerings of small businesses, you’ll have a chance to give back to the communities that once helped fuel the nation.
Need help planning your exploration? Check out these walking tours.
Stop by Ohio’s Winding Road’s spring/summer pop-up market. You’ll find artworks, wellness and food products, and more.
After a day of outdoor adventure, stop by these local restaurants and breweries to refuel.