"Corn. Corn. More corn," droned my 10-year-old, Rachel. "Are we going to see anything else, Mom?" I had billed this three-day expedition through Ohio as the "super-spectacular, awesomest adventure trek ever," but squished into the backseat, my three girls looked skeptical. As newcomers to the Midwest, Rachel and her older sisters, Abby, 13, and Kayla, 16, had not yet learned to look beyond the seemingly endless miles of farmland for the treasures tucked inside. So our itinerary, which would take us from Sandusky's amusement parks to the Hocking Hills wilderness, was designed to prove that in the heart of the heartland, we would find plenty of places to step outside our comfort zone and discover something new.
The excitement began in Africa -- or rather, the African-themed Kalahari Resorts and Conventions in Sandusky, where we were greeted by safari-clad attendants, the sight of waterfalls, and the sound of conga drums. The kids almost sprinted through the lobby of the sprawling indoor/outdoor water park hotel. We were able to check in early, letting us hit the park before our room was ready. Kayla, Abby, and my husband, James, raced for the thrill rides, including a water roller coaster and swirling bowl called the Tanzanian Twister. Before seeking out the kids' slides, Rachel and I made a detour to the Safari Adventures Animal Park ($5 for resort guests). There we communed with rabbits, goats, giraffes, lemurs, and kangaroos (starts at $179 a night, including park passes; 877-525-2427; kalahariresorts.com/ohio; park open seasonally).
For dinner, we headed to Danny Boys, a 1960s-style restaurant Kayla had spied on the way in. In keeping with our quest for adventure, we all ordered something new to us, in this case "woogies," a cool twist on calzones (419-621-1000; dannyboyspizza.com).
After supper we drove to Marblehead Lighthouse State Park on Lake Erie, home of the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes, and posed for silly selfies under the setting sun (419-734-4424; marbleheadlighthouseohio.org). Then it was back to Sandusky for something sweet. A life-size cow sculpture beckoned us into Toft's Ice Cream Parlor. Even Rachel downgraded her order to a kid size after learning the "small" cone came with a whopping five to six scoops (419-625-5490; toftdairy.com).
Intending to hit the road straight away, James and I lured the kids out of bed early with the promise of French toast and crispy hash browns at Berardi's Family Kitchen (419-626-4592; sanduskyberardis.com). But the girls wrangled us back to the water park after breakfast with some serious tag-team begging. On the upside, after an active morning, the corn seemed to fly by faster as we made the hour-long trip to Bucyrus, America's Bratwurst Capital. "It's like a sausage hot dog," Kayla explained as we pulled up to local favorite Carle's Bratwurst, where we sampled homemade brats and corn pudding sweet enough that my kids considered it dessert (419-562-7741; carlesbrats.com).
A half hour south, inside the Marion Historical Society, we found the Wyandot Popcorn Museum, featuring the world's largest collection of vintage poppers. Our tour included boxes of freshly made samples, which we munched on the way to our next stop ($5 ages 18 and up, $2 ages 6 to 17, free ages 5 and under; 740-387-4255; wyandotpopcornmus.com).
Another hour of driving (more cornfields) landed us in Columbus, and we made a beeline for the 582-acre Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. We felt like explorers, roaming the Heart of Africa, the Arctic, Australia, and Asia exhibits. And we all took a turn sitting in an old prop plane that extends into the lion exhibit ($14.99 ages 10 to 59, $9.99 ages 2 to 9, free age 1 and under, $10.99 ages 60 and over; $8 parking; 614-645-3400; columbuszoo.org).
Adventure followed us to dinner at Tacos Hass on Sawmill Road; its reasonable prices and unique menu encouraged risk-taking. Kayla raved over the cactus tacos, while Rachel sampled the steak, chicken, and pork varieties (614-760-0155). In neighboring Dublin, we checked into Drury Inn and Suites, thinking we were done for the day (starts at $129.99; 614-798-8802; druryhotels.com). But when the concierge mentioned nearby Hayden Falls Park, we couldn't resist checking out its waterfalls (614-645-3300; columbusrecparks.com). We wrapped up the day by strolling the quaint downtown and downing decadent Backyard Mint Chocolate Truffle ice cream sandwiches at Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams (614-792-5364; jenis.com).
If You Go: Look for the Dublin Art in Public Places installations around the city and take a family photo with Malcolm Cochran's 6-foot ears of corn. dublinarts.org
After all the cornfields, the winding roads of the Hocking Hills region, lined with thick, towering trees, seemed otherworldly. The girls were nervously excited about the morning's planned expedition. Rachel peppered us with questions all the way to Hocking Hills Canopy Tours in Rockbridge. She didn't begin to relax until we were suited up in full-body harnesses and helmets. But anxiety quickly gave way to exhilaration as we followed our energetic guide for three full hours through the treetops, maneuvering across hanging rope bridges and whizzing down zip lines ($89 canopy tour, ages 10 and up only; $29 zipline, intended for ages 5 to 12; 740-385-9477; hockinghillscanopytours.com).
Triumphant and famished, we headed next to nearby Logan for lunch at Millstone BBQ. After polishing off the free mini cornmeal muffins delivered to our table, we then wolfed down brisket sandwiches and Bacon Wrapped Burnt Ends -- brisket wrapped in bacon and resmoked (740-385-5341; millstonebbq.com).
Down the road, we found the Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center. I gathered maps and advice inside (GPS is unreliable here), while the kids looked through the tiny, free Pencil Sharpener Museum next door. We learned that our afternoon destination, Hocking Hills State Park, comprises six distinct, unconnected sites far enough apart that we'd need to drive between them. We decided to begin with the most visited one: Old Man's Cave.
An easy, 15-minute hike over suspended stairs and through rock tunnels brought us to the massive gorge and falls. After doubling back and refueling with chocolate-dipped frozen bananas from the snack bar, we drove to Conkle's Hollow, where we followed a 3/4-mile forest path through a fairy tale gorge. Next up was Rock House, a short drive down the road. As we trudged up winding steps carved into the cliff, we wondered aloud about the name -- until Rachel stepped inside the massive cave. "It's literally a house made of rock!" she exclaimed (park admission free; 1-800-hocking; explorehockinghills.com). By then it was clear the rest of the park's sites would have to wait until a future visit. So off we went in search of our cabin at Crockett's Run, one of many privately owned accommodations in the Hocking Hills area. There, we wrapped up our day with a relaxing evening soaking in the hot tub and picking out constellations in the startlingly dark sky (starts at $159 for a 2-bedroom cabin; crockettsrun.com).
On our three-hour drive home the next day, we passed through plenty more cornfields, but the kids barely seemed to notice. They were much too busy recounting their many adventures in the wild countryside of Ohio.
Originally published in the September 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.