If you think of Ohio as a flatland with cornfields interrupted by rustbelt cities, you overlook its topography, for whereas the northern half is largely flat, its bottom half is endowed with hills, gorges and waterfalls. In both halves, there are rivers and lakes with tree-lined shorelines, but if you prefer bucolic trips, there's paddling with pastures and cows too. Here are some prime places to paddle, whatever your style.


Northern Ohio

Ledges to keep you on your toes on the Sandusky River.

Sandusky River: It's the second river to join Ohio's scenic rivers list and it's one of the longest rivers to flow into Lake Erie, so you can do a longer paddle if you prefer. Its shorelines vary from forest to red barns backed by hayfields. There are enough ledges and ripples to spice your day.

Little Beaver Creek: Right on Ohio's eastern border, the sunlight shafts through the thickly forested banks and dapples this surprisingly wild creek. Boulders, short drops, rapids, and riffles make for a rollicking day.

Maumee: For canoeists and kayakers, the sweet stretch of this river begins at the Ohio-Indiana state line and continues 43 miles to the U.S. 24 bridge, west of Defiance. Below U.S. 24, powerboats can access the river from Toledo marinas, but west of the bridge, it's quiet with surprising gradient for northern Ohio, as shorelines rise sharply. Topped with ancient trees, you'll feel like you've paddled back in time.

Eric Heis, Public Information Officer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said, "The Maumee river was recently designated as the Maumee River Paddling Trail and it’s 108 miles long. About 13 miles in, by Perrysburg, motor boats become scarce as sand bars and shallow depths become more frequent. Along the trail, you pass five Toledo Metroparks, three state parks, three wildlife areas, and 15 other public parks. A total of 39 public access points dot the water trail."

Access points aren't all that dot the Maumee.

"At certain times of the year, with high water levels, you can find class I-III rapids and great surf rapids. I recommend starting at Mary Jane Thurston State Park and head downriver for 18 miles to Perrysburg."

Dodging trees amidst a flooded forest on the upper Cuyahoga River. Photo by Aaron Black-Schmidt

Cuyahoga River: From the braided upper sections near Burton to the Class IV-V drops in Cuyahoga Falls, this classic river continues through Cuyahoga Valley National Park on it’s way through downtown Cleveland before terminating in Lake Erie. C&K staffers delved deeper into the possibilities this river has to offer here.


Central Ohio

Clendening Lake in the fall.

Clendening Lake: It's got 43 miles of shoreline and is 1,800 acres, so it's big enough for a long paddle, but it's selling points are an undeveloped shoreline and a 10-hp limit. In short, it delivers a sweet and sylvan paddle. There's enough lake for a couple days of paddling and Clendening Marina has a shoreline campground and also rents rooms for $66 and cabins for under a hundred. Consider going in the fall, when the lake is nearly empty and Ohio's beech and sugar maples are blazing.

Olentangy River: For a 15-mile paddle, launch early at Big Meadows Picnic area at Highbanks Metropolitan Park. Paddle in the shade of a 100-foot-high shale bluff. Then ride the river to downtown Columbus, which is a Class I-II run, depending upon water levels. There will be parks on one or both banks on most of the river until the last mile or so. The Park of Roses is worth a stop, with more than 12,000 roses of more than 400 varieties, as is the Ohio State University's horseshoe stadium.

The confluence of the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers is in downtown Columbus. Turn left there for the Scioto Mile, a massive undertaking where they removed the dams that had made the Scioto River turgid and brown. They also restored the natural gradient, clarity, and flora. Dine at Milestone 229, a comfort eatery in Bicentennial Park. Start with the Skillet Mac 'n Cheese with double-smoked hickory bacon, diced tomato, and scallions and finish with Lake Erie perch on a potato roll and oatmeal raisin cream pie. If you prefer a shorter paddle, the Olentangy River Paddle starts downriver of Highbanks Metro Park, ends at the confluence and is nine miles long.

Big and Little Darby Creeks: If you want both woods and pasture, pristine and Holstein, Big and Little Darby Creeks deliver. At times, you'll be paddling through cool forests and then you'll break into sunny, breezy stretches. Both are state and national scenic rivers and harbor scores of aquatic species, many quite rare.


Southern Ohio

Scenery abounds on the Little Miami River.

Little Miami River: There are reasons the Little Miami River was chosen as Ohio's first designated scenic river. It begins as a meandering stream, ducks and accelerates into a gorge, and then widens and slows before it flows into the Ohio River.
The site of Morgan's Canoe and Outdoor Adventures, at Fort Ancient and the first canoe livery on the Little Miami, was chosen to take advantage of the river's prettiest stretch.

Dirk Morgan, co-owner, said, "My father chose the location of Fort Ancient because he knew the middle section was most scenic and less developed. It also maintains a great canoeing level with nice Class I rapids to keep it exciting!"

And the river is prettier than ever.

"Because of the efforts of individuals and groups like Little Miami Conservancy, the river is in better shape than it was 59 years ago."

AEP ponds: AEP, a utility company, once scooped coal out of the hills of southeastern Ohio, pitting the land. Those pits filled with water, creating hundreds of little lakes. AEP restored the shorelines and gave this warren of water to the public. It is the coziest of paddling, as the deep forest keeps the water unruffled and you're likely to have lake after lake to yourself. If you like to fish, all are stocked. Some have road access, but others require a worthwhile portage before the paddle.

Hocking River rambling.

Hocking River: Another cozy paddle is the Hocking River. Trees arch over this rambling, shallow river, giving you an easy, shady day. Casey Fairclough, Office Guru at Fox's Hocking Hills Canoe Livery, which shuttles a seven-mile stretch, said, "Explore one of Ohio's largest natural rock bridges. Travel along and find a gravel bar or two that make a great spot to picnic, or just play in the water!" Fox's also grants permission to use their put-ins and take-outs if you bring your own boats and they offer shuttle transportation too.

One of the best things about the Hocking River is the nearby Hocking Hills State Park, perhaps the prettiest patch of Ohio. Don't miss Old Man's Cave, a gorgeous gorge with a series of waterfalls, and Cedar Falls, the largest volume waterfall in the park. If you ride the Hocking River far enough, it'll take you to Athens, a quirky college town in Ohio's Hill Country, where old hippies, who call themselves "Peace Geezers," and young bohemians live on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, the barrier that bested the bulldozing glaciers of the Ice Ages.

Plenty of room for barges and paddlers alike on the Ohio River.

Ohio River: The word, "Ohio," comes from the Iroquois word, "O-Y-O," which means "the great river" and whereas a brawny river with barges, locks, and dams isn't every paddler's idea of a great day, some, like me, like to ride a beast. Its banks are surprisingly undeveloped, a remnant of when Ohio was once the wilderness and the Ohio River was the watery way to parts unknown. Keep your head on a swivel, for the barges aren't nimble and take more than a mile to stop.

Learn more about the scenic rivers at watercraft.ohiodnr.gov and download maps and trail guides of many Ohio rivers and lakes at paddle.ohiodnr.gov/maps. All whitewater opportunities are listed at americanwhitewater.org.

More from CK

Why Dayton, Ohio is one of America’s best paddling towns.

Best places to paddle in Cleveland, Ohio.

Photos from the Ohio River Paddlefest.