Along the northern edge of Ohio you will find the beautiful shores of Lake Erie. Huge views of rushing winter waves and lake effects have drawn visitors from all over the world to explore here during the months when Old Man Winter controls the weather. Winter is not a time to hide inside; it’s time to strap on some snowshoes to explore and then enjoy a warm crackling fire with a cup of hot chocolate with piles of whipped cream.
Getting to Lake Erie, even in the winter, is usually accessible via a road trip, but if you’re the flying type, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is right on the lake. Cleveland is the perfect base to start your winter activities on Lake Erie.
1. Find a frozen waterfall
Sit down for some opportunities for beautiful walks to frozen waterfalls. Northeast Ohio is home to several waterfalls that can freeze completely in the winter. These waterfalls roar with water in the warmer weather, but there is a whole different atmosphere around these water-filled ice exhibits in the winter. Stand patiently and listen to the silence mixed with water noises and loud cracks as winter settles over the waterfalls.
Two of the most notable are Brandywine Falls and the Great Falls of Tinkers Creek Gorge.
2. Visit wineries in Ashtabula County
The winter in the Grand River Valley is magical. Lake effect snow blankets Ashtabula County with a stunning view of sparkling snow giving the landscape a brilliant white carpet. Wineries in Ashtabula are spread throughout the county. It is said that there is something extraordinary about these wineries during the winter months. Upstairs in the vineyard, guests enjoy crackling bonfires, while barrels of aging wine are in the wine cellars. Inside, you can find a quiet gathering of friends sipping wine while warming up from the winter cold.
Fun fact: It is not uncommon to drive up to wineries to park next to a snowmobile.
Pro tip: While there, explore the stunning covered bridges around the snow-capped Ashtabula County.
See The Walleye Drop
Go to the World Walleye Capital of the World on New Year’s Eve to see Wylie the Walleye fall at midnight. Bold the cold and count the New Year down with the locals for this lively event. Before the sandy beach, take the “Bar Swim” loop on one of the heated luxury buses that swim around Port Clinton where you head out for some themed specialty drinks to warm up before the fall. After Wylie falls, the night sky bursts to life with an amazing fireworks display.
4. Go ice fishing
In winter, if the weather conditions are right, Lake Erie becomes home to colorful ice house towns with large and small structures. Ice fishermen and professional guides measure the ice thickness and wait for the perfect moment to get out and catch perch and pikeperch. While you can go ice fishing just off the mainland, turn up your game a bit and charter a flight to Put-in-Bay or Kelleys Island for a unique experience off the coasts of one of the islands. Book a quiet stay at a bed and breakfast where you will practically own the island.
Pro tip: Hop aboard the Island Air Taxi to take your winter trip over to the islands.
5. See ice-covered lighthouses and ice gardens
Lighthouses on the shores of Lake Erie bring visitors from all over the road during the “tourist season”, but in the winter the crowds are smaller and the view is beyond anything you have ever seen. If you’re lucky, some winter wind will kick up the waves on Lake Erie so you can admire the ice-encapsulated lighthouses. My personal favorite is the West Pier Lighthouse in Cleveland. In 2010, we had a year where this lighthouse was absolutely breathtaking.
While the lighthouse is photogenic, do not miss Mother Nature’s stunning ice show along the coasts. Every branch, rock or protrusion becomes a work of art as water and wind create something new to see every year. Frozen gardens change daily, and with the chaotic winter weather you never know what you might see.
Pro tip: If you time it exactly right, you might see a phenomenon called ice balls formed along the shores.
6. Stay at Geneva-on-the-Lake
Geneva-on-the-Lake jumps in the summer, but visitors who like it a little quieter come in the winter to enjoy the beauty of the lake from a different perspective. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowbiking in Geneva State Park keep you active before returning to your accommodation. Grab dinner at Crosswinds Grill for a farm-to-table experience that is not on the charts. The Crosswinds Grill is located on The Lakehouse Inn, a boutique destination that offers unique winter experiences. After a day of winter play, you can relax with a spa treatment and enjoy your escape in cold weather.
Pro tip: If the weather is cooperative, you can take a walk on the state park beach and look for pieces of sea glass.
7. Play indoors in the Kalahari Waterpark
If you’re a kid at heart, Sandusky, Ohio, has warm winter fun waiting for you indoors at Kalahari Resort. When the doors open to let you in, you are struck by the tropical heat when it is freezing cold outside. Pre-book a cabana near the wave pool for your stay and enjoy some delicious poolside drinks before heading to the spa for a hot chocolate facial. It’s not just about water in this leading resort; the food served here is more than amazing. Extreme milkshakes, mammoth burgers and Italian cuisine are a foodies dream. After all the fun during the day and you still have some energy, you can play a round of minibowling or hit a putt-putt game on the glow-in-the-dark pitch.
Pro tip: Stop by Candy Hut for a piece of chocolate coated bacon sprinkled with sea salt – it’s to die for.
8. Walk the boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Park
Bird watching along the shores of Lake Erie is one of my favorite things to do, and taking a walk along the trails in Maumee Bay State Park is always high on my list of places to go at any time of the year. In winter, this boardwalk becomes an open door to see some of Ohio’s native wildlife and migratory birds. On one occasion, as I was walking through, a group of deer rushed through the marsh and sprinted past without concern in the world, that is, until they saw me. They stopped to give me the “what-are-you-doing-here” dazzle before going deeper into the woods.
If you fall in love with the beautiful state park, you do not have to leave; book a room at Maumee Bay State Park Lodge to enjoy the view of the lake from your room by the lake where you can enjoy all the wild waves and icy winds in comfort. Sink into the hot tub before bed to warm your bones after your day of bird watching and wildlife.
If you want more bird watching while in the area, take the Lake Erie Birding Trail through the Western Lake Erie Marshes. This ready-made path takes you through some of the beautiful parks along the lake where you can see majestic eagles, great blue herons, white herons and maybe some swans.
Pro tip: Visit during the largest bird week in America to see the colorful songbirds as they migrate through the Lake Erie region.
9. Drive the Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail Scenic Byway
If the weather conditions are perfect, you can drive the Lake Erie Scenic Byway from one end of Ohio to the other, stop at small towns along the route and also enjoy the big cities. Visit coffee shops, wineries and historic stops as you meander along the shores of Lake Erie.
About halfway along the route you land in Sandusky, where I like to spend some time as I drive through. I do not care how old I get; I enjoy going to the Merry Go Round Museum where I can ride in the restored carousel a few times. If you visit here, take the time to look at all the hand-carved animals, some dating back to the turn of the century.
Finish your drive with dinner at Tony Packo’s, an iconic restaurant along the shores of Toledo. Since 1908, Tony Packos has been serving his Hungarian food with delicious hot dogs served on his famous buns. Take a walk around the original location and check out all the signed buns from the famous people who have eaten here; Burt Reynolds was the first celebrity to do so while filming The rainmaker.
Pro tip: DO NOT start this byway without the byway card and the app!
Consider these other outdoor activities in Ohio: