Cultural landmarks, culinary destinations and other curiosities to explore beyond the outer belt

The etymology of “staycation” stems from the economic recession of 2008. Instead of lavish journeys to Italy and Iceland, apparently we were forced to stay home and make our own fun. But that term is really just pejorative, as a “vacation” simply means one thing — to vacate wherever it is we are stationary. 

Is heading to Clifton Mill on a Saturday afternoon a vacation? What about visiting the ruins of a dying mall in Springfield? Or a graveyard in Urbana? How about just driving to Newark for pizza? No matter how mundane or trivial, a destination is anywhere you are going. 

Ohio’s slogan, “the heart of it all,” actually rings true once you abandon, or evacuate, the urbanity of Columbus. Yes, we currently live in a “red” state, and the climes you encounter in rural Ohio may seem very different. Be that as it may, pass no judgment. Ohio is filled with small communities that are striving to make a better place to live and are welcoming of outsiders looking for diversions, regardless of political or social divisions. 

So here’s a guide to help you explore the Ohio right outside of I-270 and beyond the exurbs that insulate our city. Think of these as road maps for mini-vacations, jaunts, sojourns, “one-tank” travels and escapes from the summer routine. Below are some of the places I’ve frequented in recent months that require little to no money other than the requisite gas and food. And each, based on the odometer readings of my beat-up Toyota, is fewer than 200 miles round-trip.  

This isn’t a definitive guide or a guarantee of the admission/hours of operation. Many of these off-the-beaten-path outposts follow their own compass, but they’re worth the research and the time to discover. Bon voyage!

Marion/Waldo/Delaware

Round trip: 86 miles 

Ohio is known as the “mother of presidents,” so anyone in search of that history will find our state’s presidential museums and gravesites to be a symposium of America’s evolution and hokey tourist stops. The closest landmark is in downtown Delaware, where perched in front of a BP gas station is a plaque commemorating the site of Rutherford B. Hayes’ birthplace. By October the city plans to have a statue to seal the connection. 

Of the eight presidents born in Ohio, five are buried here. The closest is the ostentatious memorial to Warren G. Harding. To say these days are a boon for Harding is an understatement. The Marion monarch must be celebrating in his monolithic marble tomb, consecrated in 1931, knowing he’s moving up the list from his depths as one of the worst and most corrupt men to hold the office. Next summer will bring a Harding boon when his renovated home and museum will have its inauguration, but for now you can sit at his grave and smirk along with him. 

On your way to Marion, you’ll want to take a detour off of U.S. 23 and stop in Waldo. At the G & R Tavern you can grab one of the restaurant’s “world famous” bologna sandwiches and fresh-made pies for pocket change. The accolades are apt, as I’ve never had this particular delicacy anywhere else in the world. As Marion is not a culinary destination, I’d suggest taking a hike in Delaware State Park or Alum Creek before finishing your day in (now very hip) downtown Delaware, where places like Mohio Pizza and Speck, a new Italian eatery from Veritas Chef Josh Dalton, are pulling discriminatory diners from the city. There’s also the radical new taproom not too far away at Hoof Hearted Brewing’s original Marengo compound. 

Other points of interest: Wyandot Popcorn Museum, Huber Machinery Museum, Perkins Observatory, Mom Wilson’s Country Sausage

Urbana

Round trip: 97 miles

I’ve made it a mission in my life to try the world’s greatest hamburgers, and I’ve come to find the concentration of high-quality burgers in Ohio is unparalleled. We are the fertile crescent, and the absolute center falls in Urbana. There’s no reasonable explanation for Crabill’s Hamburgers and why in 1927 Forest Crabill unlocked the slider secret. The small, six-seat depot on the outskirts of this once-bustling railroad town is stuck in time and thriving.  

Unfortunately, Crabill’s no longer serves Mumford’s potato chips as its only side besides pie. Still, a fresh bag of Mumford’s, which could very well qualify as the best chips in the state, can be acquired at the deli downtown. 

While you’re in the area, make sure to visit the quaint campus of Urbana University to see the Johnny Appleseed Museum. Dedicated to John Chapman, who followed the Swedenborgian philosophies of the university’s founder, the one-room roadside attraction is a quirky history of a very normal man mythologized as an American folk legend. 

Other points of interest: Simon Kenton’s grave at Oak Dale Cemetery, Depot Coffee House, Champaign County Aviation Museum at Grimes Field 

Springfield

Round trip: 105 miles 

Founded in 1801, Springfield has seen its share of ups and downs. Once an industrial powerhouse, home to International Harvester and a number of long-gone auto manufacturers, the city peaked in the ’60s with a population of more than 80,000. Springfield has since seen a steady decline, falling right in the middle of the proverbial “rust belt.” Sure, blight and abandonment dot the landscape, but the city has taken great strides to reclaim those glory days. Cruise east of the slowly revitalizing downtown on High Street to see a number of historic hillside mansions getting a facelift. The gem of that trip is no doubt Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westcott House. Built in 1908 for magnate Burton Westcott, the house is a shining example of Wright’s prairie-style design and the only one available to tour in Ohio. 

While reservations and a hefty entry price are required for the Westcott House, travel a few miles south to an extremely nondescript neighborhood to witness the always-free, folk-art masterpiece that is Hartman Rock Garden. At the age of 48, after losing his foundry job in the midst of the Great Depression, Ben Hartman started construction on a cement fishing pond on his property. Over the next 12 years the garden became a passion project that expanded to reflect his miniature version of the world, with carefully crafted rock churches and bridges, historic figures and structures, flowers and fountains. It’s truly a sight to behold; just be cognizant that you are in someone else’s backyard. 

Other points of interest: Springfield Museum of Art, Veterans Park Amphitheater for free shows all summer, Mike and Rosy’s Deli, Mother Stewart’s Brewing 

Yellow Springs

Round trip: 120 miles 

Yellow Springs is rooted in the utopian philosophy of 19th-century social reformer Robert Owen. A group of Owenites founded this southwest Ohio village in 1825, and though their communal dream never took shape, Yellow Springs continues to thrive as a hidden haven of bohemia, boasting colorful streets filled with hippie emporiums; funky, vegan-friendly cafes (especially The Winds); a pizza parlor known for its alternative toppings (Ha Ha Pizza); the historic, one-screen Little Art Theatre; and a bar that opened in 1827 (Ye Olde Trail Tavern). While those attractions have always stood as highlights, recent additions — including Yellow Springs Brewery and S & G Artisan Distillery — have made the village a welcome getaway from urban bustle.

Few visitors take the time to explore Antioch College. Located west of downtown, the institution has forged Yellow Springs’ stature as a progressive enclave. While the number of students and staff has declined over the years, it’s still a shepherd for cooperative education, social activism and sustainable farming. A quick tour of the grounds should include Antioch Hall (built in 1850), the Eero Saarinen-designed dormitory Birch Hall, and the mid-century modern allure of the Olive Kettering Library, which houses the prestigious Antioch Review and the classrooms where Rod Serling (creator of “The Twilight Zone”) once taught.  

Other points of interest: Peach’s Grill, Hopewell Indian Mound, John Bryan State Park, Young’s Jersey Dairy, Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce 

Dayton

Round trip: 152 miles

Dayton has been in the news a lot lately, mostly for apocalyptic reasons. But this fascinating, continually evolving city has proved resilient through tough times. Its rich history of inventors and musical innovators is undeniable. For a time there was a Funk Hall of Fame and Museum, though, indicative of Dayton itself, it’s in flux. In its place is an incredible mural that honors even the most obscure of Dayton’s funk family and welcomes revelers to the historic Oregon District.

The Wright Brothers are the biggest rock stars of Dayton lore, as all of their aviation heritage sites are essential. And now you can tour Orville’s storied Hawthorn Hill estate, previously inaccessible to the public since his 1948 death. In the peaceful splendor of Woodland Cemetery, you can pay respects to the Wright Brothers (and their father), along with African American poet/novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar,  author Erma Bombeck and Joseph W. Green, inventor of Cheez-It crackers. Woodland is one of the first “garden” cemeteries in the nation and includes the best view of Dayton’s inspiring skyline. 

Two downtown additions in the last few years include The Century Bar and the Proto BuildBar, both very different from the average bar experience (especially in Dayton). The Century Bar has an it-seems-like-it’s-closed, speakeasy atmosphere — perfect after a day of learning how important Dayton is to the history of our state and nation. Plus, the bar has one of the most discriminate bourbon selections outside of Kentucky. The Proto BuildBar is a learning playground with drinks where you can play vintage game consoles, commandeer 3D printers and learn to solder circuits in robots. I’m still waiting for Proto to craft a bust of Zapp founder Roger Troutman that I can print while sipping my Warped Wing Brainiac Pale Ale.

Other points of interest: Canal Street Arcade and Deli, Branch & Bone Artisan Ales, Omega Music, Smales Pretzel Bakery, Dayton Dragons minor league baseball

Hocking Hills/Lancaster

Round trip: 132 miles

The Hocking Hills have long been a destination for Central Ohioans looking for an escape to nature. Spots such as Old Man’s Cave, Lake Hope, Cantwell Cliffs and Conkle’s Hollow can provide a full day of adventures. Those who have traversed several years and miles on these familiar trails can rejoice, as just last year the park opened two new trails that connect Whispering Cave to Hemlock Bridge. Whispering Cave is a somewhat intermediate hike, but has quite the grand finale of rock formations and cliffs at its end. Close by is the recently minted John Glenn Astronomy Park. Though by day it may look like a monument to modern paganism, on weekend evenings it hosts a number of programs observing the night sky, sometimes stretching until midnight. 

On the journey home, make sure to visit the tiny and curious Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan (which is exactly as exotic as it sounds), and then head to Lancaster, where there are a number of options for drinking and dining. If you’ve never been to the flagship Rockmill Brewery, it’s likely your best option for an evening visit. The bucolic farmhouse feels as far away from Columbus as one can get, with Backcountry BBQ providing dinner and great lounging areas around the pond for a very chill vibe. 

Other points of interest: Skyview Drive-In theater, Brewery 33, Ale House 1890, one of the few remaining Rax restaurants, Donut World 

Indian Lake/Bellefontaine

Round trip: 138 miles 

Buckeye Lake has endured a series of logistical problems in the last decade, and while things are getting better, Indian Lake, 45 miles northwest, sits slightly smaller, slightly shallower, and with just as many (if not more) activities to enjoy, including world-class fishing, boating, kayaking, camping and birding. Believe it or not, before there was Cedar Point or Kings Island, there was Sandy Beach Amusement Park on the lake’s south shore; the area was dubbed “Ohio’s Million Dollar Playground.” Now all that remains of the golden age is a commemorative plaque and a steel arch bridge over the harbor. Things are more modest and charmingly ungentrified today. For the essence of the “laker” lifestyle, take in an oversized burger and an earnest set of country and western at the ultimate waterside dive, the Tilton Hilton (which actually tilts). If it turns into an overnight stay, there are plenty of dirt-cheap rentals right on the lake.  

Upon your return, a brief stop in Bellefontaine is recommended if only to eat at Six Hundred Downtown. The family-owned pizzeria has an award-winning, Detroit-style pie that you need to order in advance. While you wait, walk to the newly renovated county seat that sits adjacent to Court Avenue, the oldest concrete street in America. There’s also Campbell Hill, Ohio’s highest (yet very underwhelming) point of elevation. 

Other points of interest: Paradune Brewing Farm, Vicario’s Pizza, Cranberry Resort, Brewfontaine, Ohio Caverns, Piatt Castles

Granville/Newark

Round trip: 80 miles 

Years back, when touring Savannah, Georgia, I came up with the nomenclature “scrump,” short for scrumptious, to describe that city and other idyllic small towns that are thoughtfully planned, inherently walkable and isolated from the rest of the world. Granville is wonderfully “scrump,” starting with the campus of Denison University, which sits atop the hill at the center of Granville. In 1916, the founders hired the Frederick Law Olmsted architecture firm, famous for creating Central Park (among others), to design the university’s quad. As a result, a century later, the grounds are lush with flora and in perfect balance with the school’s classic temples to higher learning. Certainly take the time to check out the Swasey Chapel and Observatory. There’s also a plaza with spectacular views of Granville spread out below. 

Downtown, it seems every other home or building is on the National Register of Historic Places, so plan to roam the neighborhood and admire the gardens, fountains, and colonial charm of Granville. The village is also home to Three Tigers Brewing, not often heard in conversation around Columbus because of its limited distribution. That quality control is what keeps the brewery micro and worthy of superlatives, not to mention a nice diversion from the standard fare found in most taprooms. Working in tandem with Mai Chau next door, bountiful options of Vietnamese street food match the beer well.

Granville can be more than a day trip with a stay at the historic Buxton Inn, which has been continuously operating since 1812. Be warned, though; it’s said to be haunted by a ghost cat and other spirits. Should you decide to travel on, there’s always Newark not far up the road. While I’m still writing my thesis as to the reasons Columbus’ “cracker-crust” pizza migrated to Newark parlors and then boomed, it’s safe to say you’ll find no dearth of amazing pizza worth the extra miles. Louie’s and Plaza Pizza are sure bets.  

Other points of interest: Robbins Hunter Museum, Newark Earthworks, Dawes Arboretum, Midland Theatre 

To see further adventures and travel recommendations from Kevin J. Elliott, follow his Instragram feed @wumme.