Thanks to COVID, 2020 is the summer we’ve been required to re-imagine our travel plans. Thankfully, however, there’s a whole host of activities waiting right here in the Buckeye State that offer minimal risk, great adventure at a reasonable price, and the opportunity to support Ohio businesses. Kelleys Island is one such destination.
Kelleys Island: Getting There
Kelleys Island is a two mile by four mile strip of land in Lake Erie. Sitting 4.5 miles from the mainland, it is accessible only by private boat, small aircraft, or by a 20 minute ferry boat ride from either Marblehead or Sandusky. If you depart from Marblehead, you are able to take your passenger car over to the island. However, you can leave your vehicle behind and rent bicycles or golf carts on the island. We’ve actually done both.
When we camped on the Island at Kelleys Island State Park, we took our vehicle across. Our girls were small and with our camping gear and their bicycles it was just easier. However, when we’ve gone for just a day visit we usually leave the car behind.
Kelley’s Island History
Kelley’s Island history begins with the last ice age, when a sheet of ice slid over a large block of limestone. This then became Kelleys Island. However, this large slab of ice left its mark on the island, in the form of glacial grooves still present in the limestone on the north side of the island.
Like the ice, native Ohioans left their mark on the island. Though there were no year round villages on the island, there were permanent sites that they visited in the spring and fall. They used these permanent sites to take advantage of the extraordinary fishing in the area. Their markings still remain on Inscription Rock on the south shore.
Initially called Sandusky Island by the British, the Island was eventually purchased in parcels by brothers Datus and Irad Kelley in the early 1800s. The Kelleys improved the docks and exported limestone and red cedar lumber.
By 1840 the Kelleys owned the entire island and changed the name to Kelley’s Island (the apostrophe was eventually dropped from the name). In 1942, Datus’ son-in-law Charles Carpenter began growing and harvesting grapes on the island. Eventually the island produced over 500,000 gallons of wine annually.
If you’re further interested in the history of the island, there’s a museum on Division Street. The entrance fee is very reasonable. Normally open on weekends, call before you go for adjusted hours of operation due to COVID.
Kelleys Island: Summer Destination
Today Kelleys Island exists as a summer tourist destination, with few year round residents. Island business is dominated by restaurants, gift boutiques, and bicycle and cart rental vendors. Additionally, the island plays host not only to the state park, but to a 4H camp and Christian retreat camp.
Over the years we have visited Kelley’s Island a number of times. It always seemed a bit quieter, a bit slower paced than nearby Put-In-Bay, which was suitable for when our kids were younger.
Kelleys Island Ferry Service
Our adventure started at the ferry dock. If we weren’t camping, we would walk on to the ferry and take our place at the rail, anxious to shove off.
Then as we crossed, over the sound of the wind, we’d banter about. “Do you think you could swim from here?” “Do you think anyone ever swam to the island?” “Are there any ship wrecks on the way to the island?” “How deep is the water?” No one every offered answers, but it didn’t stop the girls from wondering the questions aloud.
Golf Cart or Bicycle to Explore Kelleys Island
If you’ve come across without your car, you’ll need to decide how you’ll spend your day. If you will be spending your day in town, you may choose to walk. However, you will need either a cart or bicycle if you’d like to explore the entire island.
Traffic is not bad and our girls safely biked the island when they were younger. However even an island this small can seem quite large for little ones pedaling all day. If you are worried about little legs giving out, you may want to rent a cart. The kids love the novelty of riding around in a golf cart all day. There are several rental companies available on the island from which to choose.
Things You Must See on the Island
You’ll want to be sure to visit Inscription Rock. This is the large slab of limestone where native Ohioans carved petroglyphs. There are over 100 carvings made by native peoples and the rock is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The rock is covered for protection from the elements. Visitors are able to view the carvings via a viewing platform and nearby signage depicts a graphic interpretation of the rock.
Another must-see stop on the island is the Glacial Grooves State Memorial on Division Street. Though much of the evidence of the glaciers scars across the land were removed over years of quarrying activities, one tract was preserved.
This location is registered as a National Natural Landmark and it includes the largest such grooves in the world that are easily accessible. The remaining grooves are 400 feet long, 35 feet wide and as much as 10 feet deep. The grooves are easily visible from a walkway and footbridge above and there is signage to provide you with some history of area.
Kelleys Island State Park Camping and Beach
If you’re thinking of staying on the island, I can conditionally recommend Kelleys Island State Park. We’ve camped there twice, both times in a tent.
Our first trip, we booked an interior spot, largely because that was the lot available at the time. It was the hottest week of an already hot summer and the humidity was off the charts. If we had been staying in a camper with air conditioning, this would have not been a concern. As it was, the heat was stifling and made for very uncomfortable sleeping for our four day stay.
Our next trip we lucked into a lakeside lot, thanks to another camper’s cancellation. I will say, this is some of the finest camping I have ever experienced. The lake breeze was just enough and the view from our campfire was unrivaled. The lot was large and had just enough trees to provide adequate shade.
In both cases we were welcomed with friendly staff, clean facilities, and paved roads as you can expect from all of the Ohio State Parks campgrounds. Check out the website to make reservations ahead of time.
If you won’t be camping, you’ll still want to make a stop at Kelleys Island State Park. The sandy beach is kid-friendly with a very gradual slope out into Lake Erie. There is generally no life guard, but my children enjoyed swimming and playing in the sand. Just use your best judgement and keep a close eye on little ones at all times.
Eating on the Island
When you’re ready for lunch, there are a number of excellent choices in town. In fact, I’ve never had a bad meal on Kelleys.
I personally have enjoyed Dockers Waterfront. Honestly, they had me at waterfront. I enjoyed the lobster bisque and hubby had their famous crab cakes. The food was good, service was great, and the view of Lake Erie was exceptional. With the wonderful lake view you would want to sit outside anyway, but bonus points for being COVID-friendly.
Kelleys Island Wine Company has a large lawn area with picnic tables. When we last ate there, we chose to eat outside on the lawn as our girls were younger and were a bit high energy that afternoon. Now, I would choose to eat outside because of COVID concerns. And the view. And the memories.
We split a pizza that day and had excellent service. The pizza was good and hot. On a return trip, I’d choose something a little more adventurous and try the sangria that I hear so much about.
The Village Pump is just good food. I’ve enjoyed the perch basket in the past and been pleased. At that time, I chose dine-in. Now I understand that they have a pick-up window if you prefer and there are adequate picnic tables nearby. It’s located right in the heart of downtown.
Things to Do in Town
Since you’re in town, check out the island’s one and only mini-golf course, Caddy Shack. It’s an older course located in the town square with plenty of shade.
There are several small shops with the usual tourist gear within walking distance. I’m not sure if it’s still in the square, but my kids loved the Wacky Shack when they were little. It was a little kiosk that sold knick knacks for kids, everything from about 25 cents up to around two dollars. When my kids were little, this was their treasure. If I took them there today, they’d still probably blow ten dollars or so just for the memories.
At this point you’ve made it about half way through your day with plenty left to do on the island. Take a hike on one of the islands many trails and discover ruins from the island’s wine making heyday, or look for evidence of the limestone works. Explore a quarry along the trail. Rent a kayak. Or just buzz around the island on your golf cart waving to locals.
You can make your day on Kelleys Island as relaxing or active as you’d like. Either way, you’ll likely be exhausted when, at the end of the day, you climb back aboard the ferry.
As we look out at the water during our second crossing of the day, we’re all somewhat quieter, content to take in the last views of the island and the sun setting across the water. The kids, too are exhausted and their questions have stopped. Soon our car will be headed south, and they’ll be asleep in the back seat.
If you’re looking for an Ohio destination, consider Kelleys Island. Remember, because of COVID, to call or check ahead before you travel as some businesses may be affected.
For more Ohio fun, check out our Day Trips. Thank you for FindingOhio with us and as always, thanks for sharing our content on social media.