How to Bikepack Across Ohio on the Ohio to Erie Trail

Bikepacking the Ohio to Erie Trail

Length: 326 miles
Location: The trail runs from the Ohio River in Cincinnati to Lake Erie in Cleveland
Trail Type: Out and back or shuttle
Scenery: A variety from urban to riparian corridor to rolling farmland and back

Trail Overview

Crossing a wetland in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The Ohio to Erie Trail (OTET) crosses the state of Ohio on a diagonal, from Cincinnati in the southwest, through Columbus and on through Akron and Cleveland. The vast majority (app. 85%) of the mileage is on separate recreational trails, which are mostly paved. Considerable portions of the route are within parks such as 50+ miles in Little Miami State Park and 20 miles within Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Aside from some short stretches within the cities of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland, the on-road sections tend to be on lightly traveled country roads.

There are camping options along the OTET, many right on the trail. For those “credit card” touring, hotels are relatively convenient.

A high-end bike is not required. Just remember that it has to handle both paved surfaces and packed gravel. Most lightweight camping gear transitions nicely to being carried on a bike equipped with panniers. Biking with a full backpack is certainly doable, but just as certainly unpleasant. I am able to fit all my needed bike/camping gear in a set of rear panniers. My tent poles just fit, but if not, they could be strapped to the rear rack.

Terrain

Long sections of the trail, especially the southern portions, are on paved rails to trails conversions and have less than a 2% grade. The extreme northern portion is along an old canal towpath and pretty flat as well, with a surface of crushed limestone. In between, some of the trail, and the road sections, are gently rolling, but there are a few challenging hills. Wind, noticeable on a bike, generally, but not always, blows southwest to northeast, helping the traveler heading in that same direction.

Getting There

The Southern Terminus is right by the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. Interstates 75 and 71 both run close by. Parking options abound in the area. In addition, bus service with bike racks is available from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

The Northern Terminus is in Edgewater Park on Lake Erie. Interstates 71 and 90, as well as US Rt 20, run close by.

Shuttles are available for part or all of the trail at reasonable rates. For 2019, the rate to shuttle a bike (and rider) the entire length of the trail is $125.

Why Bike This Trail

One of the newer bridges: over Alum Creek.

The OTET is a great trail to try out bike touring and travels along a surprisingly scenic route. Logistics are relatively straightforward. The route is well marked and there is no need for long carries of food or water. There are ample opportunities for camping, hotels, restaurants, groceries, and (more than enough) bars along the way. There are even a few bike shops right on the trail in case there are equipment needs. The numerous small towns along the route really seem to cater to bikers.

Much of the early mileage is alongside the Little Miami River, a state and national scenic waterway. Additional stretches are along other picturesque waterways, including Big Darby Creek, the Scioto River, Alum Creek, Kokosing River, Tuscarawas River, Ohio & Erie Canal remnants, and the Cuyahoga River through its namesake national park.

Picturesque rolling farms surround much of the rest of the route. In northern Ohio, plan to share sections of the trail with Amish horses and buggies.

The history of the area is on full display, not only in small town squares but in signage and exhibits along the trail detailing past uses such as canals, railroads, manufacturing, and more.

Climate and Weather

The weather in Ohio is typically warm enough to ride the length of the trail from April through early November. September and October temperatures are often in the sweet spot (50-70) for biking. It took me six days to ride the entire distance. Getting six days in a row without rain would be tough. Bring rain gear.

Camping

Trailside camp in London, OH.

This is not a wilderness trip. Most camping is at actual campgrounds along or near the trail. However, there are a few spots along the trail where it is allowed to pitch a tent for the night; no services, no charge.

From Cincinnati, between 40-48 miles in, there are three campgrounds operated by canoe liveries. At the city of London (mile 100) you’ll find a beautifully maintained camping area/restrooms right on the trail. There’s no charge, but feel free to use the donation box

Near the halfway point of Columbus, camping gets tough.  There are however, hotels near the route in Westerville, just north of Columbus. Farther north there are private campgrounds near the trail at miles 180 and 190 as well as a free primitive spot provided by Knox County Parks near the Bridge of Dreams and mile 200. There is also camping (and multiple hotels) near the trail at Millersburg (mile 220). From Massillon north, there are several options, including a couple of primitive sites right on the trail in the Akron area. Most camping options are listed at the OTET website.

Water Sources

There are streams along much of the route, but I was able to find plenty of water and other fluids along the trail at drinking fountains, fast food joints, and gas stations. No filtering required.

Resupply Options

Since the ride rarely takes more than ten miles between towns, I never carried more than a few snacks with me. Nearly every town I passed through contained a restaurant, bar, or grocery. Be prepared for funny looks if you take your bike through a drive-through, however.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re looking to expand your backpacking experience, and still like the idea of a longer linear journey, a bikepacking trip may be for you. The Ohio to Erie Trail is a great option to start with. The route is well marked with plenty of support along the way. The relatively flat 326-mile length is doable in a week or less, even for a 60-year-old without a ton of biking experience.

The trip has a little something for nearly everyone. Besides three major cities, there are numerous small towns, considerable miles in parks, and countless farms that create a surprisingly scenic and interesting ride.

Ohiotoerie.org is a great place to start the planning process. If you decide to try it, they sell a complete set of maps for $15.

Looks like I’m done.

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Comments 23

  • Cindy Orrick : Feb 21st

    Thank you for the information, and you are so right about the need for shorter long trails. I look forward to reading more from you.

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Feb 22nd

      Thanks!

      Reply
  • Robert Seidle : Feb 21st

    Great info im doing the ride late summer this year . EXCITED!!!

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Feb 22nd

      You’ll enjoy it. It’s a great ride.

      Reply
  • Michael Kinter : Feb 22nd

    Thanks for a very well organized and precise article. Excellent.

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Feb 22nd

      I appreciate the kind words. Glad it was helpful.

      Reply
  • Dan : Feb 26th

    Great article!
    I’m planning to do the OTET in May. You didn’t mention this transportation option, but Amtrak has a station within a few miles of each end of the trail. I plan to take Amtrak from DC to Cinti, and back to DC from Cleveland. Only problem is those trains go thru in the wee hours of the morning.
    Unfortunately, the campground near Galena you link to in the article is RV only. I called and they said they are not licensed for rent camping.

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Feb 26th

      Thanks for letting me know about the issue with the campground. I’ve updated the article to remove that info.
      May should be a good time to ride the OTET. You’ll enjoy it!

      Reply
  • michael : Mar 30th

    Hi,
    I am concerned about the safety of riding through the rougher neighboorhoods of the big cities. I have heard Cleveland is the worst. So I was going to start my southernly route south of Clevelend. Do you have any thoughts about a slightly more southern “trailhead” to begin my journey? How did you find the cost of hotels along the route. I have used hostels in Europe but they do not seem to be available along this route.
    Thank you,

    Reply
    • Jim Rahtz : Mar 31st

      I’ve biked the entire length of the trail a couple times now. Other than a few miles where I dealt with road stretches and significant traffic, I didn’t experience any safety concerns on my trips. That being said, you can skip Cleveland in its entirety by starting in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. There’s a trailhead about 12 miles from Lake Erie at the Rockside Station of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. If you leave a vehicle in the park you should contact their Communications Center at 440-546-5945 to insure it’s not considered abandoned.
      I’m not aware of hostels along the route. There are however, several hotels that are very close to the trail. The ohiotoerietrail.org website has a list that covers most of them. Searching a website like expedia.com or hotels.com should be able to get you pricing.

      Reply
      • Roxanne : Aug 7th

        Hi, thanks for the great information. I’m still curious if there were any sections that you found tone unsafe either riding through or rouge camping. I’m going to be traveling solo female. Thanks so much

        Reply
        • Jim Rahtz : Aug 8th

          On the whole, I felt very safe while on the trail. There are sections near Columbus and Akron that run through areas that appeared to be industrial and/or a bit run down. (Much of the route is on old rail lines after all.) That being said, I never felt the least bit unsafe while riding through (multiple times).

          I never had any issues camping either. So you are aware, Knox County Parks allows you to camp near the Bridge of Dreams. That area seemed “isolated” to me. Again, I’m not aware of any issues, but I also don’t know your comfort level with solo camping.

          Enjoy the trip, it’s a great ride!

          Reply
  • ColoradoBuckeye : Apr 2nd

    If I wanted to go downhill on the ridge…go from Cleveland to Cinci. Would that be correct? Not in peak shape yet. I am looking to do this May also with hopes to go cross country this summer on the Great American Rail Trail (incomplete as it is). Also, I live in Columbus, downtown, and have a large outdoor area could use for camping support. Any suggestions on where to post that for a minimal fee to help support bikers along this route. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Jim Rahtz : Apr 2nd

    I’m not quite sure what you are asking: “downhill on the ridge.” Cincinnati is downhill from Cleveland overall, but only about 100 feet over the 300+ miles. Personally, I think Cincy to Cleveland is the easier direction due to the better chance of a tailwind going that way.

    A camp option around Columbus would be helpful. The trail’s managing organization can be reached at [email protected]. They keep a list of camping availability.

    Enjoy the ride!

    Reply
  • Ryan Morgan : Jun 4th

    I understand that some sections of the trail are gravel, is the trail doable on a road bike or do I need gravel/cross bike? My bike will not accept the larger cross tires.

    Reply
  • Jim Rahtz : Jun 5th

    The gravel sections are packed pretty well. The last time I rode it I used 700×35 touring tires without any issues whatsoever. That being said, road tires get down to 700×25 or even less. Tires that narrow might occasionally bog down, especially during/after a rain.

    You weren’t specific as to what you considered to be “larger” tires. Speaking strictly for myself, while I’ve seen others on the gravel sections with narrow road tires, I’d feel much more comfortable riding something like a 700×32.

    Reply
    • Josh Lovvorn : Jul 17th

      Thanks Jim for the great info.
      You’ve ALMOST answered my question already. I’m riding from Cincinnati to Cleveland with a group in August. I’ll be taking my road bike, and it will accommodate 700×32 tires. Where are the unpaved sections?
      If they are all near the northern end, I’ll take skinny tires for the earlier sections, and switch to 700×32’s for the last push.

      Reply
  • Jim Rahtz : Jul 21st

    As of last fall, there’s a short, under 1/2 mile, section unpaved in Battelle Darby Creek Metropark: about 10 miles before Columbus. Other than that though, my recollection is that the rest of the unpaved portions begin around 250 miles in, between Dalton and Massillon.
    The Sippo Valley Trail and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail are where the significant sections of unpaved trail occur.

    Reply
    • Josh Lovvorn : Jul 21st

      Hi Jim – thanks so much for your reply! That was what I hoped to hear, and my plans are taking shape. Looking forward to a great week on the bike. Thanks again for your site and all the info, Josh

      Reply
  • Jim Rahtz : Jul 22nd

    Glad it was helpful. Enjoy the ride!

    Reply
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    Reply
  • Josh Lovvorn : Sep 10th

    Hi Jim, sorry for the delayed feedback. Our trip on the Ohio to Erie Trail in August was a great ride! We were fortunate and had no mishaps with the weather, mechanical issues, lodging or anything else that could go wrong. And your advice about when the trail turned to gravel was spot on. My plan to change from 700×25 road tires to 700x32s with some tread in Mt Vernon worked out perfectly. Thanks again for the great resource, Josh

    Reply
  • Jim Rahtz : Sep 10th

    Glad it went well and you enjoyed the trip.

    Reply

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