The Ohio Buckeye Trail

Originally Posted July, 2015

For more info on this route, click here

In the 1950’s, a foot-trail was conceived from the Ohio River to Lake Erie to encourage young people to slow down the pace of day-to-day life, and learn about their native land. An association was formed and the Buckeye Trail was built along back roads and trails throughout Ohio’s most scenic and historic locations. Ohioans know many of these roads, trails, and regions, but most don’t notice the small rectangular blue blazes along these roads. Painted on trees, polls, and posts, these symbols mark a thoughtfully chosen route that navigates specific points of interest within Ohio. With the help of my friend Gary, I started noticing these symbols. All of a sudden, a pattern started occurring where I would be riding my bike and say, “man... this is an awesome road” and a few seconds later, I would see a Buckeye Trail symbol. Once I started noticing them, they were everywhere I looked on my local rides. I finally got around to looking in my atlas and sure enough, the Buckeye Trail was completely marked, 1444 miles circling the state of Ohio. I immediately wanted to ride it.            

I didn’t know anyone who had ridden extended portions of the trail; in fact, I had a hard time finding anyone familiar with the sections outside the hiking trails within the state parks. I decided to create my own plan based on my knowledge of the route and preferences as a rider. I like crossing things, so riding from my house in Maineville, Ohio (Cincinnati) to Lake Erie was appealing. It was especially appealing because Tom and I had already ridden across the West side of the state. As a result of glaciers, the terrain on the West side of Ohio is very flat with rolling plains. Our route was a short 260 miles characterized by straight flat roads and a whole lot of agriculture to look at, it was also paved. When I first moved to Ohio, I imagined a place exactly like what we rode through 4-years ago. To say it was boring is incorrect, but I find that some rides are more interesting than others, just like movies. If you have to watch it for so long, it better be good. Was Ohio capable of holding my attention for a week? I thought so.

I wanted to ride across the East side of the state, the side that was untouched by glaciers and is much more rugged, wild, and hilly. I pulled out my laptop and started tracing the route from the atlas into a GPS file, replacing the obvious hiking (no biking) trails, with an alternative back road/dirt road/two-track. Aside from those modifications, we were following the blue blazes. The final numbers for the route from my house to Lake Erie turned out to be a whopping 626 miles with some 36,000 ft of climbing. This would be a big trip, and would require some long-term preparation.

The route file sat lonely in my Ride with GPS account for one year, but once spring approached it was time to gather the team for an early June departure. The timing was perfect, Tom and I had a cross-country tour on the horizon, and my little sister was planning to move away from Ohio, to Portland. The Buckeye Trail ride would be the perfect tune-up for our legs and equipment for our trip, while being the ideal send off for Mary to move away from her home state of the last 18-years. Our date for departure was set for June 14 for a seven-day pilgrimage to see what the rest of the state was made of.

We departed for our ride on a Sunday and finished on the following Saturday. We wanted to stay true to the forefathers (and mothers) of this route by taking as leisurely of an approach to the route while remaining within our time limit of seven days. This meant that with a 90 mile per day average, we had a little bit of time to enjoy extra curricular activities like swimming, some site seeing, extended breaks from the elements, early evenings and relatively late mornings at our campground or motel.

While the idea of this route sounds appealing, the rugged reality of how hilly the terrain is in Southeastern Ohio is no joke. Then, there is Ohio’s climate; cold wet winters with humid hot summers. Normally, the high heat and humidity doesn’t hit hard in Ohio until July-August, but it’s Ohio, you can’t predict the weather. The week of our ride just so happened to be the week of hurricane Bill’s party on our weather system, which gradually made its way up to Ohio giving us roughly 2.5 days of clear blue skies, 90 degree temperatures, and very high humidity before the clouds opened on us. This was a relief, as the rain would wash away the sweat and cool down the air, however, it also made everything wet, really wet, all the time.

The first four days were rough. The heat, humidity, rain, mud, and the wet everything, pushed our understanding of discomfort to new levels and because of this, our energy was low and slow at times. We kept going, and just like that, the pain was gone. The terrain was the same, the weather was the same, but we had adapted, and the leisurely mindset we set out to have, finally made it’s way back into our consciousness.

            Throughout the journey we enjoyed our favorite Blue Rock Quarry, the tight twisty gravel roads of Scioto State Park, the caves of Hocking Hills, the remoteness of Wayne National Forest, the oddness of the historic communal village of Zoar, and the friendliest town, called Deersville, where a couple returning home from their camp trip gifted us a feast of leftovers and beer. We rode the dirt towpath along the historic Ohio and Erie Canal (flooded at the time) through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and saw Brandywine Falls. We blew bubbles, played with fireworks, took shelter in barns, ate barbecue, ice cream and donuts (on separate occasions), camped in a bathroom, and joked with the locals who couldn’t understand why it was taking us so long to ride our bikes across Ohio, which can be done in half the time via a more direct route. We enjoyed our state and national parks. We saw evidence of the life cycle of the coal and oil industry and it’s effect on the water, and the towns, many of which are now deserted. We saw Lake Erie and all of its Mayfly glory and dipped our feet in the water while drinking a local Great Lakes Beer.

            I have seen Ohio, and I like riding my bicycle in Ohio. I especially like Ohio during the autumn months, which is the time of year I’d recommend taking on this challenging, yet scenic, roller coaster of a route. In autumn, Ohio turns red, orange, and yellow, and the air is lighter and crisper. In retrospect we are happy to have done the ride when we did. The timing was ideal for building more memories with Mary before her departure and we will be talking about this trip for years to come. Also, Tom and I could not have asked for a better tune-up for our cross-country ride in August, where weather conditions will likely be similar to what we encountered. We go forward in our journeys with a better understanding and appreciation for the place we call home. If you are looking to see Ohio for what it is, follow the blue blazes.

Photos by Mary Lytle (@maryroselytle), Tom Swallow (@carbon10speed), and Sarah Swallow (@swallowbicycleworks)

Buckeye Trail Bicycle Route (Cincinnati to Lake Erie):

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Buckeye Trail Map Photo Source