Mark Twain National Forest
Distance from Cincinnati: 515 miles; 8 hours
Elevation: up to 1,702 feet
On the way to Mark Twain National Forest: City Museum: St. Louis, MO; Laumeier Sculpture Park and Museum: St. Louis, MO; World’s Largest Wind Chime: Casey, IL; Indianapolis City Market: IN; World’s Largest Catsup bottle: Collinsville, IL
Thousands of pristine streams and natural springs, ancient volcanic mountains, and scattered pockets of open grassy plains dot the landscape of the Mark Twain National Forest in the Ozark Highlands, making the 1.5-million acre forest a popular go-to for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and Huckleberry Finn-ing. The forest is divided into seven wilderness areas scattered across Missouri, and is home to a variety of wildlife: bald eagles, armadillos, roadrunners, and white-tailed deer, among others.
Red River Gorge
Distance from Cincinnati: 134 miles; 2 hours
Elevation: up to 1,274 feet
On the way to red River Gorge: Buffalo Trace Distillery: Frankfort, KY; Mary Todd Lincoln House: Lexington, KY
People trek from around the world to climb the Red’s craggy sandstone cliffs. While traditional climbing is most popular, there are plenty of places to boulder and free-climb shorter routes with no harness or ropes. In total, the more than 1,600 climbing routes offer ample rock-scaling opportunities for newbies as well as experienced climbers. For hikers, it’s crisscrossed with 500-plus miles of trails, more than 100 natural arches, and stunning vista points.
Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve
Distance from Cincinnati: 71 miles; 1 hour and 15 minutes
Elevation: up to 883 feet
On the way to Yellow Springs: CoCo Key Water Resort: Sharonville, OH; Stop-N-Lock graffiti wall: Dayton, OH; Miamisburg Mound: Miamisburg, OH; Young’s Jersey Dairy: Yellow Springs, OH
Limestone and dolomite cliff gorges are scattered throughout this 268-acre nature preserve in Yellow Springs. The land, which lies adjacent to John Bryan State Park, has a relatively mild terrain, but its trails are edged with plenty of spectacular views: rugged cliffs, waterfalls, and mid-river “slump blocks,” which are massive chunks of rock that have fallen off overhangs, often with entire ecosystems of trees and plants growing along or on top of them. In the spring, the area blooms with some of the best wildflower viewing around.
Hocking Hills State Park
Distance from Cincinnati: 131 miles; 2 hours and 20 minutes
Elevation: up to 1,160 feet
On the way to Hocking Hills: Take a slightly longer route and stop in Columbus, OH for: COSI, the World’s Largest Gavel, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams North Market, and The Topiary Park
Stand atop sandstone cliffs and take in sweeping views of the hills—the park’s unique mix of northern- and southern-native flora makes for Instagram-able panoramas in the fall—then trek down into the valleys to explore a bevy of centuries-old caves and majestic waterfalls. For starters, take the half-mile Loop Trail to Rock House, a massive cave once used by bootleggers as clandestine lodging (earning it the nickname “Robber’s Roost”), or the three-mile Cedar Falls trace to picturesque Cedar Falls.
Shenandoah National Park
Distance from Cincinnati: 473 miles; 7 hours and 45 minutes
Elevation: up to 4,000 feet and above
On the way to Shenandoah National Park: Hillbilly Hot Dogs: Lesage, WV; Luray Caverns: Luray, VA; Foamhenge: Natural Bridge, VA; Burning Rock Outdoor Adventure Park: Tams, WV
There is an embarrassment of outdoorsy riches at Shenandoah. Hike part of the Appalachian Trail, which slices through 101 miles of the park; motor along the scenic Skyline Drive with 70-plus overlooks; or simply take in some of the Blue Ridge Mountains’ popular peaks, such as Hawksbill Mountain (4,051 feet) and Old Rag Mountain (3,284 feet). In any event, you won’t be left wanting for breathtaking scenery.
New River Gorge
Distance from Cincinnati: 254 miles; 4 hours and 30 minutes
Elevation: 1,900–3,000 feet
On the way to New River Gorge: Mystery Hole: Ansted, WV; Cardboard Boat Museum: New Richmond, OH
One of the oldest rivers in the world, the New River carves the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s prime for whitewater rafting, with rapids ranging from Class I (ahh) to Class V (AHH!). Or remain aground with the many cliff-top trails and rocky outcroppings. Try the hike to Kaymoor Bottom, the two-mile loop has a 900-foot elevation change and an 800-step wooden staircase deep into the gorge.
Great Smoky Mountains
Distance from Cincinnati: 294 miles; 4 hours and 50 minutes
Elevation: up to 6,643 feet
On the way to the Great Smoky Mountains: Harland Sanders Museum and Café, Corbin, KY; Dollywood: Pigeon Forge, TN; SkyLift (gondola ride): Gatlinburg, TN
The most-visited national park in the U.S., the Smokies are famed for their diverse wildlife. Home to upwards of 100 types of native trees (more than any other park on the continent) and record numbers of bird, mammal, fish, reptile, and amphibious species (it’s dubbed “Salamander Capital of the World” for good reason), any nature lover will be easily enticed to explore its 800-plus miles of trails.