Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores and Islands region is a great area for beach lovers and a great place to do some beachcombing. If you’re looking for a beach getaway in Ohio, you might want to include a few days to check out this fun area. Ferries to the islands are about 45 minutes from downtown Toledo. Beachcombers Christine Crawford and Megan Mortimer, who have been visiting these islands for years, share their tips on planning a beachcombing trip in this area on the western end of Lake Erie.
“I was raised boating in this area and moved here 20 years ago,” says Christine Crawford from Huron, Ohio. “The area is midway between the Cleveland and Toledo airports. Ferry service to the islands is frequent, and you really don’t need a car on any of the islands. Bicycles and golf carts are readily available.” Megan Mortimer is a beachcomber who grew up in Toledo, Ohio. “I genuinely cannot count how many times I have visited Put-In-Bay and Kelleys Island as a child. And now, as an adult, I visit multiple times a year with family and friends.”
Megan says the islands have a special vibe. “The laid-back, fresh-air, rich-history, beach vibe is strong and irresistible. There is something for everyone,” Megan says. “It is an obvious home run for beachcombers, history buffs will savor every square inch, and beach lovers can just chill. The expansive views of Lake Erie from beaches and limestone cliffs are gorgeous, and a Great Lakes breeze cannot be beat!”
Plan for a few days in the area. “There is so much to see and do, that a weekend will never cover it,” says Megan. In addition to the beach towns on the mainland, there are five main islands.
In 1864, Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island became a visitor destination, and today more than one million people visit each year. This is the most well-known of the Lake Erie Islands, and visitors enjoy the beaches, restaurants, nightlife, Victorian-era homes, and marina. Megan’s “must-visit experiences” on South Bass Island include Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, where you can see all of the Lake Erie Islands on a clear day; Heineman’s Winery, including the Crystal Cave and winery tour; Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center; South Bass Island State Park; South Bass Island Lighthouse; Gibraltar Island/Ohio State Stone Lab; and Alfred Parker Park to view the Benson Ford Shiphouse.
Kelleys Island is the largest of Ohio’s Lake Erie islands and is great for nature and bird lovers looking for a relaxing, quiet getaway. Kelleys Island has beautiful beaches, forests, vineyards, and historical homes. You can view the grooves carved by glaciers passing through the area, see Native American pictographs, or head to the beach or downtown. “After a busy Saturday on South Bass Island, a Sunday on Kelleys Island is just what the family ordered!” says Megan. Her recommendations for things to do on Kelleys Island include Kelleys Island State Park, Inscription Rock, Glacial Grooves Geological Preserve, East Quarry Trails-Horseshoe Lake, North Pond Boardwalk/North Pond State Nature Preserve, and Monagan Road.
Middle Bass Island was originally named Isle de Fleurs, or Island of Flowers. It is more residential than Kelleys Island, and visitors to Middle Bass Island can check out the beaches, wildlife refuge, and the historic Lonz Winery.
North Bass Island is quiet and secluded, known for its beautiful state park, camping, hiking, fishing, and birding. There are no ferries to North Bass Island—it is only accessible by plane or personal watercraft.
Pelee Island is the northernmost island in the area, and the southernmost territory in Canada. The island has hiking, birding, canoeing, historical sights, a winery, and a brewery. Americans will need a passport to visit Pelee Island, and plan an overnight visit since there’s only one ferry a day from Sandusky.
When you are ready to head to the islands, plan on renting a golf cart, as it is the best way to get around. Call ahead and reserve your cart on busy holiday weekends and book your ferry tickets. “For South Bass Island, I highly recommend taking the Miller Ferry,” says Megan. “It is less expensive than the Jet Express and you can take your vehicle with you for a fee. However, if you’re just there for the evening, the Jet Express is the way to go, as the dock is in the downtown area and has the latest return ferry.” Megan recommends checking the social media pages of the ferry companies to get the most up-to-date information on weather delays and cancellations. “Visitors need to be mindful of weather forecasts for the dates they travel,” says Megan. “If there is a chance of poor weather conditions while they are visiting, they need to be prepared to possibly spend the night on any of the islands.”
Beachcombing on the islands
A fun thing to pick up on Lake Erie beaches are lucky stones. “Lucky stones are the ear bones of a freshwater drum, also known as the sheephead fish,” says Christine. “They look like smooth, flat, white stones with an ‘L’ or ‘J’ indent on them. Native American tribes thought they brought good fortune. I still have my first lucky stone and a jar of small shells from the 1970s.”
There have been wineries on the islands since the mid 1800s, and the warm lake waters extend the fall grape growing season, now mostly on North Bass Island. “There are lots of dark green, heavy pieces of beach glass, as well as china pieces, probably from the historical wineries and old hotels that were on the islands,” explains Christine.
Christine likes to collect beach glass, lucky stones, and driftwood, along with photos. “Whatever the sea gods offer, I accept,” she says. Her favorite beaches to explore are any of the little outcroppings on Middle Bass Island.
When asked what she likes to collect, Megan says, “Any and everything! If it has taken a tumble through this area, it has an incredible story to tell.” She loves looking for beach glass, fossils, rocks, worry stones, and historical artifacts such as Native American arrowheads. Numerous glass and bottling works, municipal trash dumps, and wineries in the area mean there is a lot of beach glass to be found. “The sedimentary rocks tell a story of when this area was in a tropical climate under a massive, ancient ocean,” says Megan. “The metamorphic and igneous rocks tell of a time when huge glaciers spread over thousands of miles.” Megan also likes looking for lucky stones. “Anyone who has been on a hunt for Ls and Js needs to visit this area, as the freshwater drum fish thrive in the western basin.”
Megan has some favorite beaches she recommends on the islands. On South Bass Island, she likes Scheeff East Point Nature Preserve. “Walk to the trail to get to the productive parts of the beach,” she says. Stony beaches at Massie Cliffside Preserve and South Bass Island State Park require digging to find beachcombing treasures. Megan warns that Lake Erie water levels have reached record-high levels over the past few years and some beaches may be underwater, depending on rainfall and wind. On Kelleys Island, Megan recommends checking out Pebble Beach/Rocky Beach, North Shore Alvar State Nature Preserve, Seaway Marina/Kelleys Island Ferry dock, and the many small, sand strips along Lakeshore Drive. “Check for ‘Private property’ and/or ‘No Trespassing’ signs and respect them when posted,” warns Megan.
Christine recommends being ready for changes in the weather. “Pack for the current weather with a 15 degree swing,” Christine recommends. “Even on the warmest summer days, it can be 80 degrees a block from the lake and 65 on the shore/ferry/island. The beaches are easily accessed by walking. Megan adds, “Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, a camera, and a SunSport Canvas beachcombing bag!”
You can visit Ohio’s North Shore and check out the towns of Huron, Vermilion, Marblehead, Port Clinton, and Catawba Island, and the fun shops, restaurants, and wineries in the area. “There are many easily accessible public beaches connected by Route 2, without the run to the islands,” adds Christine. Each small town has its own personality. “Marblehead has shopping, a winery, and one of the longest operating lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Huron has the mile-long pier to the lighthouse, Old Woman’s Creek estuary, Sheldon’s Marsh Nature Preserve, paddle rental from Lake Erie Adventure Co, three public beaches, and a revitalized Main Street.” For the more adventurous, don’t miss a visit to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky.
One of Christine’s favorite beachcombing spots is Old Woman’s Creek in Huron. “Visitors on the beaches are mostly looking for beach glass, but Old Woman’s Creek is a birder’s haven. Many people are just enjoying nature and the changing land.”
It is often more expensive to stay on the islands, so many people stay in the Port Clinton area on the mainland and take day trips to the islands. “What I like most about the area is the variety in our small towns,” says Christine. “Each has a different feel and its own personality. There are lighthouses, nature preserves, wineries, shopping, restaurants, fishing, sailing, and art. Truly something for everyone in a span of 40 miles.”
Looking for a place to fill up in between beachcombing sessions? In Put-In-Bay, Megan recommends breakfast at The Forge, lunch at The Keys, and dinner at The Boardwalk/The Upper Deck. On Kelleys Island, Megan’s picks are breakfast at The Kelleys Island House, lunch at West Bay Inn, and dinner at The Casino. Megan adds, “I love tasting all the wine, eating all the fresh fish, and enjoying some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen.” Christine calls Huron her home and she recommends eating at The Old Fish House in Huron. She loves the rooftop deck with view of the river, lake, and lighthouse, and recommends ordering the perch or hitting the Bloody Mary bar on Sunday featuring their signature drink mix.
“Visiting here is one of my most cherished childhood memories,” Megan says. “Riding the ferry, the breeze from the lake while scooting along in the golf cart, the unique beachcombing in this area, the history, the nature, the island lifestyle.” Her early trips inspired her to major in geology in college. “Despite having traveled to many places, when I want to truly relax and enjoy life, my first thought is the shores and islands area.”
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2023 issue.
How could you miss the pier, concerts, the marketplace (great when it’s raining) and the many lake front parks all free of Sandusky! Not to mention some of the finest dining and unique bars in the area?