10 ideas for free summer trips near Cleveland, from the Dayton Air Force Museum to Airstream factory tours

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Think you can’t afford a vacation this summer? Maybe you can’t afford not to.

Yes, it has become quite expensive to travel these days, with the high cost of gas, hotels, and other vacation expenses. Longwoods International, a Columbus-based research firm, recently surveyed American travelers and found that 70% of them are rethinking their vacation plans due to rising costs.

Rethinking is one thing, canceling is another. After the two tough years we’ve had, who couldn’t enjoy a few days off?

Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about the high fuel prices. But we can offer plenty of destinations near you that cost nothing (or a lot) to visit, other than that tank of gas.

The state is full of inexpensive attractions that offer priceless experiences, from the National Museum of the US Air Force in southwest Ohio to Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the northeast.

So here are 10 suggestions for having fun for free in Ohio.

WWII re-enactors view the restored Memphis Belle at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton in 2018. (Marvin Fong/The Plain Dealer)The ordinary merchant

National Museum of the USAF, Dayton

Spread over 19 acres east of downtown Dayton, this museum is one of the state’s top attractions. And it costs absolutely nothing to visit.

The museum is home to more than 360 aerospace vehicles, missiles, and other artifacts, from the Wright Brothers’ early airplanes to 21st century rockets. It’s a military aircraft museum, yes, but also an American history museum, with galleries dedicated to WWI, the Cold War, presidential planes, and the space race.

Among the most notable exhibits here: Air Force One where President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in after the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, a B-2 stealth bomber, and the B-29 Bockscar, which dropped the bomb atomic over Nagasaki. The museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Information: www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/

Dayton Aerospace Sites

While in Dayton, visit Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park, a collection of sites related to the Wright Brothers’ early years of aeronautical exploration.

Among the free places to visit: the Wright Cycle Co., where brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made bicycles and ran a printing press; and Huffman Prairie Flying Field, where the Wrights experimented with their first aircraft.

And don’t miss the home of African-American poet and author Paul Laurence Dunbar, a friend of Orville Wright, which is also part of the National Park Service site. The park celebrates the 150th anniversary of Dunbar’s birth this year. Information: nps.gov/daav

Rediscover CLE

Hike the Ledges Trail at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.The ordinary merchant

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Most state parks are fee-based, but not our Cuyahoga Valley, on 33,000 acres between Akron and Cleveland. Favorite summer activities include hiking the 1.8 mile Ledges Trail, biking along any part of the Towpath Trail, and taking in the beauty of Brandywine Falls.

Or hope to board the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway for a leisurely ride through the landscape (tickets cost between $11 and $16). CVNP is an easy day trip, but can also be converted into an overnight stay, with a stay at the charming Brandywine Falls Inn in a northern Summit County park. Information: nps.gov/cuva

Ash Cave Falls

Ash Cave Falls (File photo: John Pana, cleveland.com)

Ohio State Parks

Speaking of parks, we Ohioans often take this for granted, but the majority of US states charge residents to use their parks. In Ohio, 75 state parks are free for anyone who wants to hike, mountain bike, bird watch, kayak and more. Among the options:

* Experience the fantastic rock formations of Hocking Hills State Park, the state’s flagship park in southeast Ohio. Favorite trails include Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave and Rock House.

* Pitch a tent at Findley State Park in Lorain County, one of more than 50 parks with campgrounds. Nightly rates range from $19 to $45 a night, depending on amenities.

* Learn to mountain bike (West Branch), take a kayaking trip (Wingfoot Lake), or enjoy a birdwatching hike (East Harbor), among many programs scheduled at the parks. For a list of upcoming events: ohiodnr.gov/go-and-do/plan-a-visit/events-calendar

There’s also fishing, swimming, disc golf, archery, and other activities available for free or for a small fee. For all Ohio Parks locations and activities: parks.ohiodnr.gov

2021 Lake Erie Islands Guide

The Perry International Victory and Peace Memorial is one of the best sites in Put-in-Bay. (File photo: Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer)The ordinary merchant

An island getaway

Put-in-Bay is Ohio’s summer playground, surrounded by water. Granted, it’s not free to get there, but Miller Boat Line offers a pretty cheap rate for a full day of island fun ($17 round trip, $3 for ages 6-11).

Consider bringing your bike ($5 extra), then head out to explore. Among Put-in-Bay’s free attractions: the Aquatic Visitors Center, part of Ohio State University, where visitors can learn about Lake Erie and kids can fish for free ; South Bass Island State Park; and the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial Visitor Center (for $10 you can take in the view from atop the 352-foot-tall Doric Column; kids 15 and under are free). Information: visitputinbay.com

Free in Ohio (and Pennsylvania)

– A day at the beach: Pennsylvania’s Près Isle State Park, 100 miles east of Cleveland, offers the best stretches of sand on Lake Erie. Susan Glaser, cleveland.comSusan Glaser, cleveland.com

go to the beach

It’s not the ocean, but the south shore of Lake Erie makes a pretty good substitute – and will cost you a lot less to get there. There are several stretches of sand near Cleveland worth visiting, including Edgewater, Huntington, and Mentor Headlands.

But for the closest beach experience to a vacation, head 100 miles east to Almost Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. The park, on an 11 km long peninsula, has 13 separate beaches, some calm and shallow and ideal for small children, others with waves big enough for kite surfers. There are kayak and bike rentals here (or bring your own), food concessions, beach volleyball courts and more. And Pennsylvania state parks, like those in Ohio, are free. Information: dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/PresqueIsleStatePark

Before or after the beach, stop at Waldameer Park, a small amusement park with no entrance fee. You can pay for a single ride or buy an all-day ride wristband. Information: www.waldameer.com

Free in Ohio

The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of many art museums in Ohio that does not charge admission.Lisa DeJong / The Ordinary Merchant

Free World Class Art

You probably know that the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the finest in the country, is free. You might not know that Ohio is home to several other great art museums that are also free.

Among them: the Toledo Museum of Art, with its elegant glass pavilion; the Cincinnati Museum of Art; and the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, the nation’s first museum dedicated to American art. The Columbus Museum of Art, with $18 admission Tuesday through Saturday, is free on Sundays. Discover them all on an artistic road trip.

Statehouse of the Ohio in Capitol Square in Columbus

Free tours of the Ohio Statehouse are offered daily in Columbus.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Cartoons and the Capitol in Columbus

For more free museum fun, head to the state capitol, where the Billy Ireland Comic Library and Museum is free to visitors, open 1-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. The museum, on the campus of The Ohio State University, houses the world’s largest collection of cartoon and comic-related materials, including original artwork, books, magazines, comics and pages of newspaper comics.

The museum is currently hosting two special exhibits: “Celebrating Sparky: Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts” and “STILL…Racism in America: A Retrospective in Cartoons.” Information: library.osu.edu/biclm

Also free in Columbus:

* Take a tour of the Ohio Statehouse, the Greek Revival beauty that is the centerpiece of state government. Tours are offered daily. Information: ohiostatehouse.org/visit/public-tours

* Thurber House is the Victorian home of humorist and author James Thurber, who lived here with his family in the 1910s. Self-guided tours of the house are free; guided tours are offered for a small fee. For hours and more information: thurberhouse.org

* Topiary Park, just east of the city center, features a living recreation of Georges Seurat’s famous Post-Impressionist painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of LaGrande Jatte.” The 7-acre park is open daily. Information: columbus.gov/recreationandparks/parks/topiary-garden-(deaf-school-park)/

End of summer festivals

After two years of postponements and cancellations, Ohio festival season is in full swing this summer. Most events are free, but you’ll need to pay for any food, plus additional rides on the Ferris wheel. Upcoming options include the Greater Youngstown Italian Fest, August 5-7; Bucyrus Bratwurst Festival, August 18-20; and Lexington Blueberry Festival, August 18-21. For more information: ohiofestivals.net

Free in Ohio

Airstream campers on the company’s factory grounds in Jackson Center, Ohio. (File photo: Susan Glaser, cleveland.com)

Factory visits

Spend an afternoon seeing how something is made – from premium chocolate and cheese campers. Airstream offers weekday tours of its factory in Jackson Center, near Bellefontaine, where the company has been headquartered for 70 years (see airstream.com/company/factory-tours/).

Other Ohio facilities that offer insight into the manufacturing process include Harry London Chocolates in North Canton, American Whistle Corp. in Columbus and Guggisberg Cheese in Sharm. Most tours are free or charge a nominal fee. For more factory tours in Ohio: factorytoursusa.com.

Leave a Reply