Just off Ohio’s northwest coast, these isles let folks get away from it all, without having to travel all the way to an ocean.
By Denise Seith
There’s something alluring about an island, especially when it’s not connected to the mainland by a bridge. The attraction is more than just a physical detachment from everyday life, though; it’s that mental million-miles-away-from-it-all feeling you get by simply arriving. And all the better if you can roll up with all the comforts of home “” which is just what you can do when visiting Ohio’s Lake Erie islands.
Ohio has islands? Outsiders may be surprised, but thousands of those in the know ferry or fly to this small cluster of isles to enjoy nature, serenity, and outstanding outdoor recreation. Lake Erie islands have been summer destinations for more than a century, and they are still among the most popular spots in the Buckeye State.
In all, more than a dozen petite islands lie between mainland Ohio and Canada. Each has an interesting history, and many possess unusual names, such as Rattlesnake, Hen and Chick, Gibraltar, and Starve. But the phrase “Lake Erie Islands” usually refers to Kelleys Island and the three main Bass Islands (North Bass, Middle Bass, and South Bass).
Island Gulls and Buoys
The choice to kick back, relax, and do nothing more than swing in a hammock and watch the stunning sunsets is tempting, but once you’ve wound down to “island time,” you’ll want to explore. With so many activities and sights on these islands, your biggest decision will be what to do first.
Anglers call this region the “walleye capital of the world.” Smallmouth bass, white bass, and catfish are also plentiful, and if you’ve never tasted fresh Lake Erie perch, you’re in for a very tasty treat. Because of Lake Erie’s relatively shallow warm waters and subsequent high nutrient levels, greater numbers and varieties of fish are caught here than in any other Great Lake; so, don’t forget the rod and tackle box. If winter happens to be your favorite travel season, you’ll feel right at home, because ice fishing is a common activity when the lake freezes.
Birding is a particularly popular pastime, too. Especially during annual migrations (May and September), more than 200 species of songbirds and birds of prey can be spotted across the diverse island habitats. And not just common crows, cranes, and cormorants, either “” Audubon Society members track everything with wings, from bald eagles and Eastern bluebirds to rose-breasted grosbeaks, Blackburnian warblers, and yellow-billed cuckoos.
No large retailers or hotel chains clutter the Lake Erie islands. You’ll feel a real sense of community from friendly folks as you enjoy small-town conveniences such ice cream stands, family-owned wineries, miniature golf, special events and festivals, and a few local sight-seeing tours, all ensuring a comfortable, pleasurable visit.
Since half the fun of any trip is getting there, begin your island experience by private boat, public ferry, or small aircraft. Assuming you’ll arrive by ferry, enjoy the short cruise from the mainland. Sailing is particularly pretty and refreshing in the summer when lake breezes keep you cool as seagulls swirl and dip in endless shades of blue sky and water.
The largest American island in Lake Erie is reachable in approximately 20 minutes by ferry from the Marblehead Peninsula on Ohio’s mainland. Once ashore, park your motorhome (if you plan to camp here) and your towed car, too. The best way to navigate the winding two-lane paved roads around Kelleys Island (and the other Lake Erie Islands as well) is by foot, bicycle, or golf cart. Parking spots are extremely rare, and you can rent a golf cart or bike easily.
Kelleys is a nautical gem in many ways. For starters, the entire island is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Plus, 800 acres of Ohio state parkland ensure endless camping, hiking, nature watching (butterflies, birds, coyotes, and white-tailed deer, to name a few), and even fossil hunting. With this isle’s wide, sandy beaches along much of the shoreline, sunbathing, swimming, sandcastle building, fishing, and boating are just right, too. And with more than 10 sunken schooners and steamships just offshore, the waters around Kelleys Island are especially appealing to divers.
For a taste of homegrown grapes, stop in at Kelleys Island Wine Company. In addition to tastings, you can enjoy a meal there, play a game of volleyball, or pitch horseshoes.
As you explore the island, the varied, quaint architecture might be what you’ll notice first. From Italianate, Queen Anne, and Gothic Revival to late Victorian styles, many of the island’s first homes and businesses are still in use. In fact, some of Kelleys Island’s 375 year-round residents are descendants of Datus and Irad Kelley, who first developed the island. The oldest house (located on Division Road) is a flat saltbox style and was built in 1835 by Addison Kelley for his father, Datus. Today it is part antique gift shop and part private residence.
The Kelley brothers, originally from Connecticut, began buying land on the island in the early 1830s (back then it was called Cunningham Island). In no time, the Kelleys and their families owned just about the whole island and began developing various industries such as quarrying, logging, fishing, fruit-growing, and wine-making. Of course, the lovely respite also was a place to entertain guests in the summer, many of whom were famous musicians, actors, and politicians of the day. Presidents Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft were said to be frequent visitors. The Kelleys Island Historical Association offers excellent details and maps for history buffs who want to learn more about the island’s past.
The north side of the island (adjacent to Kelleys Island State Park campground and public beach) harbors an especially “groovy” natural attraction you won’t want to miss: giant rock slabs with impressive glacial grooves that were scoured into them approximately 18,000 years ago by an advancing glacier. These grooves, measuring 430 feet long, 15 feet deep, and 35 feet wide, are the largest and finest examples of glacial gashes left in the world. Fencing protects this National Natural Landmark, but a walkway and stairs provide access to good views.
Travel to the south shore to see Inscription Rock, which holds prehistoric pictographs of animals and human figures. Archaeologists estimate these images were created between A.D. 1200 and 1600. Before its discovery in 1833, the limestone slab had been badly eroded by time and weather. Its markings are now protected by a roof, and a viewing platform accommodates visitors.
Downtown is the commercial hub of the island with gift shops, a video arcade, casual eateries, a bait and tackle shop, and a small grocery store. And don’t forget sweet indulgences such as hand-dipped ice cream cones and fresh fudge.
The campground on Kelleys Island offers both electric and non-electric sites. Showers, a dump station, and flush toilets are available in season. The sites at this campground vary in size, so please call ahead to reserve a space and be assured your motorhome will fit.
South Bass Island
In just less than 20 minutes, passengers and vehicles can ferry from Catawba Point on the mainland to South Bass Island on the 100-year-old Miller Boat Line, or by Jet Express (passengers only) from downtown Port Clinton. You also can take a longer trip aboard the Island Rocket from Sandusky. And, of course, there’s always the option of arriving in your own boat, if you have one.
Since the Victorian era, South Bass Island has been a famous summer resort destination. It remains more bustling than Kelleys Island, so if fewer crowds are what you’re seeking, skip the weekends and visit South Bass during the week instead.
Most visitors arrive in the village of Put-In-Bay, which got its name from the original inhabitants, the Ottawa and Huron Indians, who “put in at the bay” during their many journeys across Lake Erie. Around 1850, a developer first turned Put-In-Bay into a sheep ranch and eventually converted much of the island into a fruit farm (the Lake Erie Islands stay frost-free longer than any other area in the state because of the tempering effect of the lake). The cultivation of grapes soon turned very profitable, and continues today. Concord, Catawba, Delaware, and Niagara are native-grown grapes found in local libations; you might even hear the Lake Erie Islands referred to as the “Wine Islands.”
If you’re camping here, South Bass Island State Park on the west side will be your home base. It has a fishing pier, a stone beach, picnic shelters, and 125 no-hookup sites, plus 10 full-hookup sites. As with the Kelleys Island campground, call before you visit to assure you can secure a site that accommodates your motorhome.
Also as with Kelleys Island, a bicycle or breezy golf cart is the best way to enjoy the sights (a bus also can take you from Put-In-Bay to downtown). Do not count on being able to find a place to park a towed car in town.
Heineman Winery & Crystal Cave, located about a mile from Put-In-Bay, has been going strong since 1888 and today is run by third- and fourth-generation members of the family. You can tour their facility (wine and juice tasting are included in the ticket price) and learn how their varieties are made and aged. Crystal Cave, the world’s largest geode, is located underneath the winery. Cool cave tours are especially delightful on a hot summer day because the underground temperature is quite chilly. The walls of the cave are covered in strontium sulfate, a blue mineral called celestite. Some of these crystals grow to be 18 inches long.
Perry’s Cave also offers a chance for exploration; this cavern consists of calcium carbonate. Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center, also there, has a butterfly museum and a miniature golf course.
Commodore Oliver Perry, an American hero during the War of 1812, is rumored to have discovered Perry’s Cave. Regardless of whether this is true, South Bass Island is rich in naval history. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, the third tallest memorial in the United States, towers above the downtown harbor. Don’t miss the bird’s-eye view from atop the 352-foot column. The memorial commemorates Perry’s victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, during which he was known for saying, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Perry’s inferior fleet defeated the British and gave the Americans control of Lake Erie, which ultimately led to the defeat of the British.
The same war also ended the last native inhabitation; European settlers eventually moved out the remaining Ottawa and Huron Indians. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial also celebrates lasting peace between the United States and Canada, which you’ll learn more about inside the visitors center.
Although compact, the island’s downtown is a lively mix of shops, restaurants, taverns, a marina, and DeRivera Park for picnicking and special events. A rare 1917 all-wood carousel, Kimberly Carousel, named after the owner’s daughter, will take you for a magical ride. You also can board the Tour Train downtown for an hour-long, narrated trip to the island’s highlights. You can hop off to explore at designated stops and then re-board later if you wish.
Also sprinkled around the charismatic island is the Aquatic Visitors Center (where kids learn to fish for free); a 9-hole golf course; and Stonehenge Estate, which is filled with antiques and island memorabilia from the 1800s.
Middle Bass and North Bass
If Kelleys and South Bass haven’t satisfied your taste for island life, hop aboard the ferry to 750-acre Middle Bass Island. RV sites have water and sewer hookups and up to 50-amp electrical service. Rest rooms and showers are located nearby. Check in advance regarding site size and availability. All sites have access to a pool and a hot tub, and a restaurant and microbrewery are located on the island.
Little more than 30 residents live on this isle year-round, but on summer weekends that number can swell to 1,500 or more. This is the most “laid back” of all the islands most folks visit, with plenty of fishing and hiking opportunities.
As for North Bass Island (also known as Isle St. George), it’s been purchased by the state of Ohio for preservation purposes, to keep it from being developed. It once was used mainly for grape-growing. It may be open to the public in the future.
Although not a coconut palm is in sight, you won’t miss the typical tropical setting the word “island” might initially bring to mind. Lake Erie’s mild islands are as carefree as is Hawaii and as charming as any southern saltwater retreat, minus the geckos and palm fronds. In truth, Lake Erie Islands are an entertaining and inexpensive getaway filled with interesting attractions, natural scenic splendor, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors.
For information about all the state park campgrounds mentioned in this article, contact:
Lake Erie Islands State Park
4049 E. Moores Dock Road
Port Clinton, OH 43452
(866) 644-6727 “” Reservations only
www.ohioreserveworld.com “” campground reservations
Lake Erie Coastal Ohio
P.O. Box 1639
Sandusky, OH 44870
Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism
P.O. Box 1001
Columbus, OH 43216-1001
(800) BUCKEYE (282-5393)
Put-In-Bay Chamber of Commerce
148 Delaware Ave.
Put-in-Bay, OH 43456
While You’re There …
Don’t miss the chance to see great nearby attractions. For example, the Marblehead Peninsula (mainland Ohio) is home to the busiest United States Coast Guard station on the Great Lakes. And the famed 1822 Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating light on the Great Lakes, is open for tours. Downtown Marblehead features gift and antiques shops and art galleries, in new and restored buildings that retain an old-fashioned flavor. On the northern shore of the Marblehead Peninsula is Lakeside, a Victorian-era village that presents a summer-long “Chautauqua” of cultural and family-oriented activities.
For more information, contact:
Marblehead Peninsula Chamber of Commerce
210B W. Main St.
Marblehead, OH 43440
One of the United States’ most renowned amusement parks, dubbed “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World,” also is located near the Lake Erie Islands:
Cedar Point Amusement Park
One Cedar Point Drive
Sandusky, Ohio 44870