Explore All Nine NPS Sites in Ohio

Overview and Getting There

Ohio has an amazing matrix of national sites, including the family homes of three American presidents, The National First Ladies Library, the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Site, preserving the early, formative years of the Wright Brothers, and limestone, quartz, and sandstone cliffs and ledges that are more than 300 million years old, in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And, older than that, are the earthen mounds left by the Hopewell Culture, dating back to 200 B.C.. Many of the national sites are at their most accessible, with many tours on the schedule, between May and September. 

Our course begins in Cleveland and traverses the state in one week. See it all, covering 735 miles, or adapt the route by beginning in Cincinnati or Columbus, instead of Cleveland.

As most cities enjoy regular service via all major airlines, shop around. When one is at a premium, it’s likely another may be on sale. Many Ohio cities go on sale with the AA Reduced Mileage awards, available to AA branded credit cards. This is also a good use of Avios points, as Ohio is often a satisfying spot for miles redemption. For Avios, Ohio is within the lowest band for most of America. As of publication date, car rentals tend to be cheapest in Cleveland and Columbus.

The major cities of Ohio possess their own, singular, long, and important American history. Our guide will get you to the parks and sites, please do chime in with your suggestions for restaurants, sites, views, and points of interest along the way. Beginning in Cleveland, the national and historic sites on our tour are as follows:

  • Cuyahoga National Park
  • The James Garfield House
  • First Ladies National Historic Site
  • Hopewell Culture National Historic Park
  • Taft National Historic Site
  • Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
  • Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park
  • River Raisin National Battlefield Park
  • Perry’s Victory National Park

Key Routes and Sites

Assuming your flight into Cleveland arrives by midday, proceed to the James Garfield House either after getting settled, if you arrive in the morning, or perhaps from the airport directly. The last tour is always at 4:15 and the site is 35 miles east of Cleveland. Tours are (approximately) 1.5 hours long. There are lots of great places to stay in Cleveland, up and down the spectrum, from the Ritz and The Intercontinental all the way down the tiers of all major hotel chains. If you can, aim to catch one of the in-depth "Behind the Scenes” tours, which occur the first Saturday of each month. This tour includes a visit to the basement, servants quarters, and third floor of the home, along with an inside look at the windmill and 1870’s barn, all areas not visited during regular tours.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park,  photo  by Betsey Weber /  CC BY

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, photo by Betsey Weber / CC BY

For Day 2, plan on an early start from your hotel in Cleveland, for a good full day at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a network of forests, trails, marshes, preserved mills and historic sites that bank the “Crooked River” on either side. This park is only thirty minutes from most hotels in Cleveland, and is also en route to the next stop on this tour, Akron. You might tour Cuyahoga Valley for more than one day, as there is much to see; we have highlighted a few starting points. The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is accessible, multi-use, and more level. The Brandywine Gorge Trail crosses Brandywine Creek, where the 65-foot Brandywine Falls present a striking view. The Boston Store, built by the entrepreneurial Kelley Brothers in 1836, later became a boarding house for workers, a post office, and a private residence, before becoming the park visitors' center. The Ritchie Ledges are sandstone cliffs abutting a hemlock forest that is patched with outcroppings of Sharon Conglomerate, a 310 million year old formation of sediment flow from New England; among other qualities, these stunning formations feature rippling, honeycomb weathering patterns, and fissures that are large enough to walk through.  

There are concessionaire tours available via boat and kayak, and ponds for paddling and canoeing. The National Park Service does not recommend paddling alone or without a group due to various factors, including strong currents, dams, and run-off water quality from storms. Options for water recreation on the river are currently further in development by the NPS.

Saxton House, National First Ladies Library, photo by Dustin M. Ramsey.

On your last day exploring Cuyahoga, plan to overnight in Akron, about twenty minutes south of the park, where there are a variety of mid-tier hotel chains. From there, the next day will begin with a 30-minute drive, further south to Canton, to tour the National First Ladies Library at the First Ladies National Historic Site, a museum that is dedicated to examining the politics and history of the First Ladies of America. The site is the former family home of Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of President William McKinley. The McKinley’s lived here between 1878 and 1891. An auxiliary Education and Research center with a 91-seat Victorian theatre is a block north of the museum, in a former City Bank Building. Check the website for the most current exhibits. Lodging overnight in Canton will allow for a visit to the Football Hall of Fame. When you do venture onward, drive two hours southwest to Columbus, where a selection of mid-tier hotel chains is again in abundance, as is a vibrant cultural and culinary scene.

Thirty minutes south of Columbus is the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, an auspice and evolution of the 1923 Mound City Group National Monument, established by President Harding. The Hopewell culture thrived between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500, and once extended, both socially and via trade and exchange routes, from the Gulf of Mexico to Montreal; the culture passed on with little recorded evidence or documentation, and archeologists are still gaining an understanding of the Hopewell social structure and economic patterns. A series of trade routes linked the Hopewell population, rather than a unified governing society. The National Park Service summarizes, “The term Hopewell describes a broad network of economic, political, and spiritual beliefs and practices among different Native American groups. The culture is characterized by the construction of enclosures made of earthen walls, often built in geometric patterns and mounds of various shapes. The culture is known for a network of contacts with other groups, which stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. This network of contacts allowed the Hopewell to amass a collection of materials such as mica, shark's teeth, obsidian, copper, and marine shells.”

From Hopewell, our route takes you to Cincinnati, an approximate hour and forty-five minutes west, and further south. Do budget at least two days to explore the next two sites, the William Howard Taft National Historic Site, and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

Taft’s birthplace and home, a Victorian-era Greek Revival on a picturesque hilltop, features presidential memorabilia and a second floor exhibit on his life and career; the first floor has recreated four period rooms that reflect the family life, and a fifth as Taft’s birthplace. Note that it closes at 4pm. This site is on the northern end of Cincinnati so plan to see this on your way north after seeing the town.

From the Taft house, continue to Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, one of the newest monuments within the National Parks Service, established in 2013. It honors the legacy of Civil War commander Charles Young, the third African-American man to graduate from West Point, and the first to be ranked as a colonel, and later, superintendent of the U.S. Army troops national parks in California. It’s currently under development, and hours can be limited, so do confirm both hours and scheduled tours with the NPS. However, even if the park is closed, there are historical markers and grounds to explore.

Wright Brothers Cycle Company, Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Site.

If you have at least two hours of time after Charles Young, then make the 30 minute drive to the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Site, which is a collection of 6 different sites in Dayton relating to the birth of aviation, including the Wright brothers Cycle Company Complex, the predecessor to their forays into airplane construction. There are multiple sites, including an interpretive center, the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, and guided tours. Also nearby is the National Museum of the Air Force, not part of the NHS system. For overnights in Dayton, many IHG properties and a few lower-tier Hyatt and Marriott are also available.

A morning drive of approximately 2.5 hours north will end at River Raisin National Battlefield Park, which rests along the Brest Bay in Michigan, where the River Raisin and Lake Erie converge; the area is former homeland to native populations such as the Pottawatomi and Wyandot. The site interprets and commemorates the January 1813 battles from the War of 1812. (Note: In our Suggested Itineraries section, this segue to Michigan is also possible from Cleveland; again, all routes are adaptable based upon the length of your stay and sites of particular interest.) A newer unit, established in 2009, commemorates one of the deadliest and largest defeats of the U.S. in the war of 1812. There are several other historical sites and a heritage trail nearly by the park. Plan to lodge in Toledo for the night, about twenty minutes south, in Ohio.

Get a good start the next day to maximize time at Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, which is located on South Bass Island on Lake Erie. These sites commemorate the Battle of Lake Erie, from the War of 1812. Ferry service exists from several towns along Lake Erie, though Port Clinton and Sandusky are the most popular ferries. To get to Perry’s Victory, you’ll need to check boat and sailing times. If this is the last stop, consider a late flight home, or stay in Sandusky and take in Cedar Point, the “roller coaster capital of the world.” Or, backtrack to Cleveland if you have booked round trip.

Suggested Itineraries

Day 1- Cleveland
    James Garfield

Day 2- Akron
    National First Ladies

Day 3- Columbus

Day 4- Cincinnati

Day 5- Dayton
    Dayton, Charles Young

Day 6- Toledo
     River Raisin

Day 7 - Sandusky
    Perry’s Victory