Whether you enjoy tent camping or drive the largest motorhome on the road, there’s a campsite awaiting you on the Ohio islands of Lake Erie. Accessible by ferry, South Bass, Middle Bass, and Kelleys Island state parks offer a unique camping experience close to home.
No one knows the Lake Erie islands better than Steve Riddle. Raised on Middle Bass, Riddle spent a 30-year career managing the three island parks for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Today, he is the police chief of Put-In-Bay, the small village on South Bass Island.
“Of the three islands, South Bass appeals more to adults — people who enjoy nightlife, live music, gift shops, those sorts of things,” Riddle says, “but there is also a part of the island that is alcohol-free and kid friendly.”
As for Middle Bass Island, Riddle described it as having a much more remote feel. “There are far fewer people, and the island is not nearly as commercialized,” he says. “In fact, there are only a couple of places to get something to eat and only one general store. Middle Bass draws people who simply want to kick back, relax, and enjoy the natural beauty of a Lake Erie island.”
As for natural beauty, Kelleys Island is Riddle’s favorite. “The island maintains a large natural area,” he says. “There is no way to drive to that particular part of the island — you have to walk. A nearly mile-long boardwalk crosses various habitats and stretches from the middle of the island all the way to the shoreline.”
Access to South Bass (Put-In-Bay) and Middle Bass islands is by passenger and vehicle ferry from the northern tip of the Catawba Peninsula. To access Kelleys Island, board the ferry from the Marblehead Peninsula. From either location, it’s only a quick, 20-minute boat ride to the islands — the start of the fun!
All three islands are birding hot spots, attracting not only water birds but also many migrants, as various species use the islands as stepping stones across the lake during spring and fall.
Not to be forgotten is the world-class walleye fishing that surrounds the islands. Last summer’s fishing was the best in years, and with walleye populations in the lake currently high, this summer promises to be just as good — so plan to take your boat along or hire a charter for the day.
There are Lake Erie sunsets aplenty waiting for you in 2019, and now is the time to make plans.
The largest of Ohio’s Lake Erie islands, Kelleys is the most family-oriented. Its landscape is dominated by pristine rocky shorelines and pebbly beaches, and deep glacial grooves cut into the bedrock are evidence of massive, mile-thick glaciers that scoured the Great Lakes thousands of years ago. Hike miles of trails at the state park or, as on South Bass, tour the entire island by rented golf cart or bicycle.
South Bass Island
The most tourist-oriented of the three islands, South Bass hosts some 1.5 million visitors annually. Beginning your vacation with a visit to the top of the 352-foot Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial gives a spectacular view of all the Lake Erie islands, including those in Canada. Other family activities include museums, a butterfly house, mini-golf, cave tours, wineries, arcades, and of course, shopping. Nightlife at Put-In-Bay offers dozens of restaurants and pubs. Most visitors tour the island on rented golf carts or bicycles.
Middle Bass Island
A smaller island than South Bass, Middle Bass is less frequented by summer visitors, therefore less developed and quieter. The shoreline state campground is not as large as on South Bass, but offers the same beautiful lake and shoreline views. Historic Lonz Winery is part of the state park and worth a visit. If you’d like to bring along a boat, a large, modern, state-owned marina is located near the campground.
W. H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor and a member of Consolidated Cooperative.