It’s been a couple of months since I completed my quest to hike every trail in Portage County. But I haven’t been able to recapitulate and reflect on my 371.4-mile, 122-hour, year-long experience… until now.
The thing I appreciate most about this quest is the way that my familiarity with the character and geography of Portage County has grown exponentially over the course of this year. Not just its roads and trails, but also its restaurants and communities. I found some great places to go ice-skating and running. I discovered new Date Night destinations. And I got to spend a lot of time with God — and quality time with others — while exploring the area. In some ways, it feels unfair to “play favorites.” But then again, it’s also kind of fun.
By nature, this is a highly-subjective exercise. But I like to do things like this for the sake of my own reference. And if it benefits others who might be looking to get out and experience everything that northeast Ohio has to offer, so much the better.
So anyway: Here’s my list of my Top Ten Hikes in Portage County. This list offers a representative sampling of some of the best that this part of Ohio has to offer, ranked Letterman-style: from #10 to #1. Each listing includes a picture and a link to the trail maps.
#10 – Trail Lake Park
This is the newest park in the Portage County Parks system. And it also happens to be pretty close to my house. So it gets points in my book for just novelty and proximity. But it’s also a lovely place, with both paved trails and dirt single-tracks. There are also areas for picnicking, boating, and fishing.
#9 – Liberty Park
This trail is actually a part of the Summit County Metroparks system — but it’s in Portage County! It’s located within the Tinkers Creek State Nature Preserve, too, so it’s a weird geographic, bureaucratic anomaly. In any event, it seems to be something of a birdwatching mecca, as it has a couple of blinds providing cover for birders near the water and I happened to run into a few people with serious birdwatching equipment on the day I was there. I really appreciated the well-maintained trails, though, and I also happened to see a a couple of herons, several woodpeckers, and ducks, even without special equipment.
Aurora has quite a few nature preserves that aren’t in the state system or county system. My favorite of them, though, is the Aurora Audubon Sanctuary. It was established as a birdwatching preserve, but there is also a beaver dam and several different trails through different sorts of landscapes: forests, meadows, wetlands, and lakes.
#7 – Glacial Esker Trail
I’d never heard of the word “esker” before running across this trail. But I saw a sign while exploring the bigger Headwaters Trail system in the northern part of Portage County. And then I needed to look it up. So in case that’s the case for you, too, an esker is a remnant of ancient glacial activity: usually a long, winding ridge of gravel or sand. And in this case, that winding ridge of sediment happens to run alongside the Upper Cuyahoga River, just south-west of Mantua. One side of the esker contains the river bed. The other side of the esker is made up of wetlands. And it’s a really beautiful, unique area. I found it especially mesmerizing in a state of deep freeze, when I happened to visit in January.
West Branch State Park has way more trails than I’d previously imagined! The best trail discovery, though, was stumbling across a new section of the Buckeye Trail in the north-east section of the park. I learned this year that volunteers are continually expanding the Buckeye Trail system. Specifically, they’re trying to blaze more trails through wooded areas and not rely so heavily on roads to complete the loop. So it was great to find this new section of trail to help with my quest for 2021 and update my Buckeye Trail quest from 2019. It’s also just a lovely area, with thick forest, curving streams, and the big lake.
This nature preserve doesn’t appear on a lot of maps. But I happened to stumble upon it, rather accidentally, on a bike ride late in the summer of 2020 — and when I went back to explore, I discovered more than eight miles of trails through pristine forests of maple and beech trees. It’s a really beautiful, quiet area. Hiram College uses the nature preserve for research projects, but it’s also open to the public.
The trails surrounding the Mogadore Reservoir are meandering and rugged, a far cry from my mental image of a “reservoir trail” based on the paved oval around the reservoir where I used to roller-blade when I was in high school. The west side of the reservoir is furthest removed from Ohio State Route 43, so it’s the quietest section of trail. There are some really lovely spots beside the water for sitting and soaking in the beauty of it all.
#3 – Towner’s Woods
Towner’s Woods is a very familiar place, and some might say that “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But I think the familiarity only adds to the place’s charm. Every time I go to Towner’s Woods reminds me of the dozens of times I’ve hiked with my friends Jason and Chad… or the handful of times I’ve gone sledding with my kids… or the time I visited the Hopewell Burial Mound with my Dad. My favorite visit to Towner’s Woods in the last year, though, was probably Easter Morning, when I went there to watch the sun rise and reflect on the fact that the Son rose.
I didn’t previously realize that Portage County is home to several bogs and fens — which are an exceptionally-unique examples of a unique ecosystem not commonly found in other parts of the world. These bogs and fens attract a wide range of plants and animals that are not found elsewhere in Ohio, including tamarack trees (which look really strange and out-of-place) and cranberry bushes. Frame Bog at the J. Arthur Herrick Nature Preserve a great example of the area’s bogs and fens, and it doesn’t show up on a lot of maps.
I visited the Nelson Kennedy Ledges State Park several times over the course of 2021 (and in other years, previous). It feels like Iceland, mixed with Narnia, mixed with northeast Ohio. Two waterfalls, multiple caves, a million little nooks and crannies… What’s not to love?!?
Anything I’m missing?
This sort of quest has more vague parameters, with no central hub for information (at least not that I’ve been able to find). Let me know if you have any other experiences with public trails in Portage County, from which I (or others) might be able to learn. I hope that I get to keep exploring all the amazing opportunities for outdoor recreation that this part of the world has to offer for many years to come — but in any event, I’m glad for the way it’s enriched my life this year.