Sure, summer feels different this year. But there are plenty of places around Columbus to explore and have fun while staying safe, too.

The pandemic has made one thing certain this summer: You’re going to need to up your game when it comes to keeping kids busy.

Circumstances are changing weekly, but many of the usual go-to summer activities have been canceled, postponed or curtailed. With lots of popular spots closed or restricting visitors, many families are turning to the great outdoors and getting back to nature—at a socially safe distance, of course.

Park officials noted a marked increase in visitors this spring. Highbanks and Sharon Woods, part of the Metro Parks system, have been especially busy, as have some state parks. But with the abundance of green spaces in Central Ohio, there are lots of areas you may not be familiar with—especially if you tend to stick closer to home.

Need a new place to roam? We’ve got you covered.

Get top reads, event recommendations, guides, parenting trends and more ideas for family fun. Subscribe to Columbus Parent’s weekly e-newsletter, The Bulletin.

Eagles and Bison and Turtles, Oh My!

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium isn’t the only place to find wildlife in Central Ohio.

You may not know a black-billed cuckoo from a red-winged blackbird, but a hike at Pickerington Ponds Metro Park will expose you to those species and many others—including bald eagles.

There are eagle nests in several Metro Parks, but the one at Pickerington Ponds is easier to see this time of year—especially with binoculars. If you stroll down Killdeer Trail from the Wood Duck Picnic Area, you’ll find the nest in a tall stand of trees to the south. There was an eaglet in the nest this spring, easily visible from the trail. The youngsters typically leave the nest early in July, though you may spot the parents there or in the vicinity.

Blendon Woods Metro Park on the north side of Columbus offers a pair of observation blinds on Thoreau Lake, a short walk from the interpretive center. “It’s one of those places that birders love,” says Jill Snyder, assistant manager of interpretation and education for Metro Parks.

Herons and egrets are frequent visitors, and you may catch a glimpse of one of the huge snapping turtles that lives there or the small army of wild turkeys that roam the woods.

For some larger wildlife, a trip to see the bison at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park is a must. Viewing these massive animals near the fence line is a treat.

A Trail Runs Through It

If you just want to stretch your legs, there are endless opportunities in and around Central Ohio.

“I think trail use is more popular than ever,” says Tom Arbour, trails coordinator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Department of Parks and Watercraft. “People want to be out; they want to experience trails.”

With nature and interpretive centers still closed as of late June, Metro Parks naturalists went where the people were. “Every day, we have naturalists on the trails to engage with visitors, answer their questions,” Snyder says. She likes the woody, hilly trails at Slate Run Metro Park for a hike with a little more character.

On the other hand, one of ODNR’s newer trails might suit hikers who aren’t looking for elevation, such as the 4-mile multiuse circuit on the new dam at Buckeye Lake. “You can do an 8-mile bike ride [or shorter] and it’s all along the dam,” says Arbour. “It’s a nice, newer trail opportunity not too far outside Columbus.”

He also suggests hikers try the Hargus Lake perimeter trail at A.W. Marion State Park near Circleville, which features woodlands on the east side of the lake. And Lake Katherine State Park in Jackson County is a good alternative to Hocking Hills, which typically draws big crowds in the summer.

Arbour also says mountain bike trails can be good for hiking. “Mountain bikers use the natural contours to avoid steep up and downs,” he says. “That also makes for good hiking.”

Who Knew?

The nine sites in Preservation Parks of Delaware County have been popular during the pandemic, says Beth McCollam, marketing and communications manager for the system. If you’re looking for hidden gems, she suggests Blues Creek Park in Ostrander, with a catch-and-release fishing pond for all ages; Hogback Ridge Park in Sunbury, formed by Ice Age glaciers; and Gallant Woods Park in Delaware, with its wetlands habitats.

A thread that ties many of these parks together is the 230 miles of Central Ohio Greenways multiuse trails. 

Snyder says she considers Three Creeks Metro Park as the system’s hub for greenways access. Not only is the park the confluence of Alum, Big Walnut and Blacklick creeks, it’s where the Alum Creek and Blacklick Creek greenways meet, providing easy access to more than 40 miles of trails between Reynoldsburg and Westerville.

Be the Water

“Every year, we register more canoes and kayaks,” ODNR’s Arbour says. “That’s an increasing family activity to do.”

Arbour suggests consulting the Central Ohio Blueways web map on the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s site to find good places for putting in canoes and kayaks. The map covers more than 100 miles of waterways, including Alum, Big Darby and Big Walnut creeks as well as the Olentangy and Scioto rivers in Delaware, Franklin and Pickaway counties. “They did a lot of field scouting to let people know where the access sites are and where the water hazards are,” he says.

Those local waterways also can provide great fishing opportunities, says Ethan Simmons, a fisheries biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. He recommends local park ponds, streams and rivers right now; reservoirs have been heavily fished lately, he says. “The great thing about fishing in rivers is the diversity of the fish people can catch,” Simmons says, citing anything from sunfish and bass to catfish and carp. “Plus, kids can always wade in the creeks if they’re bored and stay cool, playing in the water.”

“We’ve been doing a lot of creeking,” says Olivia Hickey of Upper Arlington. “We’ve had hours of fun doing that.”

Hickey and her sons Max, 10, and Liam, 8, like to spend time at Prairie Oaks and Battelle Darby Creek metro parks. “We find a lot of rocks and shells. They love the big snail shells,” she says. There also are frequent sightings of darters, crayfish and “water pennies,” an aquatic beetle. “Even if you’re in a park that’s busy, you’re away from the people,” she says.

If you’re looking for a day trip, Simmons recommends the Kokosing River in Knox County. “It’s just a beautiful stream, especially outside of Mount Vernon near Gambier. And there’s a bike path that’s adjacent to it as well.”

While there’s no swimming for humans in the Metro Parks, there are spots where dogs can take advantage of the water, such as the off-leash area at Walnut Woods, says Snyder.

More Family Fare

For many families, getting back to nature means a camping trip.

“Memories are made around the campfire,” says Heidi Hetzel-Evans, communications manager for Ohio State Parks.

“Camping may look a little different this summer,” she says, because of restrictions to some facilities. The state parks are encouraging “self-contained” camping this year, she says, which means keeping to your group on your campsite.

For people who love nature but don’t want to sleep in it, cabins and lodges are reopening around the state. Find vacancies at reserveohio.com.

Families can learn about Delaware County through a scavenger hunt hosted by Preservation Parks. Clues on the system’s website (preservationparks.com) take players to each of the county’s 18 townships and touch on the county’s role in helping osprey return from near extinction and the creation of Delaware Lake and Alum Creek Dam.

Metro Parks also has scavenger hunts in several venues, including one at the Inniswood Sisters’ Garden, and several that can be done without leaving home. See metroparks.net for details.

This story is from the Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.