Two Days in Ohio's Oak Openings Preserve
Nestled in rural northwest Ohio, halfway between Cleveland and Detroit, lies Oak Openings, a preserve of sprawling oak savanna and grassland prairie, and home to more endangered native plant species than anywhere else in Ohio. This globally rare ecosystem, once part of the Great Black Swamp, has been studied by botanists all over the world for its rare plant and animal species, including its rare butterfly population. The Nature Conservancy once named Oak Openings to its "Last Great Places on Earth," a list of regions across the globe worthy of conservation efforts. Ancient sand dunes flank the preserve's northwest while an area simply known as "The Spot", a beautiful pine grove that's drawn the eyes of photographers from across the country, rests in its heart. With more than seventy miles of hiking, biking, and horse trails, the country's first public treehouse village, and much more, Oak Openings Preserve is a great place for those looking for a tamed down weekend outdoors. This guide details two days in and around the preserve where you'll hike a few of the area's best trails, go horseback riding, relax in one of Ohio's best kept secret spots, and more.
Lakes & Ferns Loop + Sand Dunes (4 miles/100')
Precious Sea Stables
Start the trip with the preserve's best short trail, the Lakes & Ferns Trail. The flat four mile trail follows the western edge of beautiful Mallard Lake before entering a hardwood forest blanketed with fern fields as far as the eye can see. Hike this one counterclockwise and pick up the Sand Dunes Trail along the western section of the trail to view the remnants of the area's ancient glacial beach ridges. Portions of the Sand Dunes Trail may be closed from May 1 through July 1 for endangered ground nesting birds.
After, drive to Precious Sea Stables in Wallbridge for a relaxing hour long horseback ride. The privately owned horse farm has nearly two dozen rescue horses, some descended from iconic race horses like Seattle Slew and Secretariat. The farm is operated by a very caring owner who goes out of her way to ensure you have a great experience.
Next, make a stop at the Fort Meigs Historic Site in Perrysburg. The War of 1812 fort, one of America's largest reconstructed log forts, features several blockhouses, artillery batteries, a quartermaster's building, and much more. Each blockhouse is its own mini museum with informative displays of what life was like during the war, how it was fought, diary entries from soldiers, etc. After walking the fort grounds, stop at the museum and visitor center where you'll find uniforms worn by soldiers who defended the fort, weaponry, diaries, prisoner roles, and a ton more. History buffs will definitely get a kick out of the museum. If you're interested in grabbing a bite to eat after, check out Swig on Louisiana Ave. The cactus chili, hot dogs and Polish boys are worth the stop.
Head back to the preserve for some relaxation in an area simply known as The Spot. Here, at one of the best kept secrets in the entire state, acres of towering red pines dot the soft forest floor and make for the perfect place to hang a hammock.
The sights and sounds of The Spot are borderline mesmerizing. Tree tops sway high above, gently crashing into each other creating some of the most beautiful sounds you'll ever hear in a forest. If it's a fairly windy day it'll likely be the highlight of your trip. Surprisingly, you can find The Spot on Google Maps.
There are several options for lodging in the area, but the one we really like is the Cannaley Treehouse Village, the first public treehouse village in the country. Opened in July 2020, the village is extremely popular and usually requires a reservation up to a year in advance. The treehouses come fully furnished with beds, sinks, microwaves, dining tables and chairs, electric grills, and more. A communal firepit, bathrooms, and shower facility are located near the front of the treehouse village. HEAVY Wheelhouse microbrewery is a short walk from the village. We stayed in the Dragline Treehouse and really enjoyed the experience.
If you're unable to get a reservation for the Cannaley Treehouse Village, check out The Eco Camp, a small yurt campground adjacent to the Bluegrass RV Campground, five minutes from the Cannaley Treehouse Village. We stayed here during our last trip and found it to be worth the price tag. The yurts come furnished with queen sized beds and linens, side tables and a small overhead light. We recommend bringing candles. There is heat, but no air conditioning. Porta potties are located on site, but we recommend using the bathrooms and shower facilities in the Bluegrass Campground.
There are also many tent camping options in the area including the White Oak, Bluegrass, Hidden Lake, Twin Acres, Big Sandy, and Springbrook campgrounds. Near the center of the park you'll find the Caretaker's Cottage, a rustic four bedroom cabin with heat and air conditioning, refrigerator, stove, oven, microwave, sink, fireplace, and grill that can be rented as well.
A good place for dinner is the popular Mail Pouch Saloon in downtown Swanton. They have a bit of everything, but are known for their chicken "chunks" and burgers. The bar out back has a pretty solid beer menu and swings in place of bar stools make for an interesting visit.
Hognose, Blazingstar, Blue Racer & Badger Loop (7 miles/150')
Johnston Fruit Farm
Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve (1 mile/flat)
If you're interested in grabbing breakfast check out DeEtte's Dream Diner and give the oversized pancakes serious consideration. One pancake is big enough for two or more people. If you're just looking for coffee, you won't be disappointed with HEAVY Wheelhouse near the Cannaley Treehouse Village. They serve up coffee in the morning and microbrews later in the day. You'll often find local food trucks here for lunch and dinner on the weekends. After, head out on another great hike, a multi-trail loop along the western reaches of the preserve. The mostly shaded trail winds through hardwood forest, beside Swan Creek, and an area teeming with bullfrogs. This trail also doubles as a mountain bike trail, so keep your eyes peeled for approaching bikers.
A great place to spend some time after is at the nearby Johnston Fruit Farm where depending on the season you can pick your own berries, sunflowers, apples and pumpkins. They also have a small petting zoo with goats, ponies, and more. If you're interested in grabbing lunch after, check out Local Thyme in Whitehouse.
If you're interested in catching sunset later in the day head over to Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve, located roughly fifteen minutes north of Oak Openings, and walk the boardwalk trail. A good spot to watch the sunset is roughly a half mile from the trailhead just before reaching the woods. You're almost guaranteed to have the place to yourself.
If a sunset isn't in the cards, check out the Field of Dreams Drive-In Theater ten minutes from Oak Openings in Liberty Center. The old school drive-in is backdropped by a corn field and serves up pizza, burgers, dogs, fries, popcorn and more. It's a great spot and highly recommended.
And that's a weekend in Ohio's Oak Openings Preserve. Hopefully the trip leaves you with a better understanding of why the Toledo Metroparks won the gold medal for best park system in the US in 2020. Have a blast and make some memories!