Best Free Camping in Ohio

Free Camping in Ohio

By Jonathan Clemmer

Ohio has very few free campsites that don’t involve a parking lot; however, where it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Mostly situated on the eastern and southern sides of the state, these campsites get you into the great outdoors within 2-4 hours of Cleveland, Toledo, Dayton, and Cincinnati.

Free Camping on AEP ReCreation Land

The starting point is a cluster of campgrounds near the Wilds, just 90 minutes east of Columbus. Situated on American Electric Power “AEP” ReCreation Land, this is the largest single outdoor recreation facility in Ohio and one of the most diverse. It offers hunting, fishing, camping, boating, hiking, biking, and horseback trails, all at no charge. All camping is primitive, but vault toilets and hand water pumps are usually present. Two of the 6 campgrounds lie within Jesse Owens State Park. All are free but require a permit to be completed and displayed during your stay.

Heading south from the town of Cumberland, Renrock Road (Hwy 83) winds through the heart of ReCreation Land. Bicentennial Campground “K” is the first one you come to. Down a gravel road on the left, the campground is situated on a long loop next to a small fishing lake. There are campsites next to the lake as well as further back in the woods.

Continuing on Hwy 83 to the Windy Hill Park “E” on the right (which is worth a stop to take in views), Woodgrove Road on the left leads to the Woodgrove Campground “H.” A loop road goes around a big grassy area and also extends back to an area with longer-term campers.

Continuing on Hwy 83 less than a mile on the left is Sawmill Road, which leads to Sawmill Campground “D.” This campground has a caretaker, covered bridge, and an assortment of sites on a combination of grass, gravel, and dirt on the edge of the woods.

Another 2 miles on Hwy 83 takes you to Hook Lake Campground “A." It has a large day-use area surrounding a small fishing lake with a playground, pavilion, and picnic tables. There are several camping areas here - one winds through the woods above and behind the pavilion. The other is past the lake and down a gravel drive, which seems popular with bow hunters and other sportsmen. The third area is next to the day-use area backed up to a second lake of the entry road.

Continuing on Hwy 83 for just over 2 miles to the intersection of Hwy 284, hang a sharp right to Jesse Owens State Park and its two camping areas. Maple Grove Campground “G” is immediately on the right. Two miles further on Hwy 284 is the turnoff for Sand Hollow Campground “C.” The road through this campground continues and eventually meets Hwy 78. There are several campsites both along the lake and set up higher in the woods. These two campgrounds do not require the AEP permit but rather self-registration at the information kiosk.

Before leaving this area, there is one must-see sight. Just 0.5 miles further from Hwy 83 & 284 on Hwy 78 is Miners’ Memorial Park with an icon of America’s industrial Age, Big Muskie. While the engine is gone, the shovel, which can hold two diesel pushers, is on display with interpretive signs and stairs to get up close and personal with this behemoth.

Free Camping in Ohio State Forests

Moving to the east-central side of the state in the Harrison State Forest and Fernwood State Forest are a trio of campsites sites worthy of a visit. Hidden Hollow Campground in Fernwood SF gets consistent 4-5 star ratings due to its peaceful setting, and with over 20 free paved sites, something is almost always available.

There are two campgrounds in Harrison State Forest, both in very picturesque settings. Ronsheim Campground with 7 sites is set near a small dam and pond. Trailriders Campground has 20 sites that are set up for families or horse campers. All sites are first-come, first-served, and set up for self-registration. Sites are paved but in a hilly area. Both campgrounds have access to 20 miles of hiking/bridle trails.

Free Camping in Ohio State Parks

State Parks are not usually a place you think of finding free camping, but In the very south of the state, just over an hour east of Cincinnati, is Adams Lake State Park. With a total of 10 primitive sites, 5 grass sites for tent camping, and 5 pull-thru campsites for RVs, it is first-come, first-served with fire rings, picnic tables, vault toilets, and water available.

One of the nation's most unique state parks is Muskingum River State Park. It is a linear park stretching over 100 miles through southern Ohio before emptying into the Ohio River at Marietta. Along the river are 11 locks and dams, the only remaining hand-operated locks of their kind in the country. While in transit, boaters can camp at most of the locks. RVs can use the campground at lock #11, which is reservable and has a fee. The Luke Chute Lock & Dam #5 allows free primitive camping. Check-in with the lock operator and pick a spot either in the parking area or on the grass.

Free Camping in Wayne National Forest

At almost 250,000 acres, Wayne National Forest has 9 developed campgrounds and 300 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers, horses, and OHVs. Spread across the 3 units (Marietta, Athens & Ironton), free camping is found at the trailhead of many of these trails during the riding season, usually April - December.

There are over a dozen of these “dispersed” camping areas throughout the Forest, even more if you are one of those hardy backpacking types. Backcountry camping is allowed along most of the trails, including the North Country Trail, that wind through the Forest.

Here are the highlights of the trailhead camping areas:

Marietta Unit

The Kinderhook Trail System is the newest trail in Wayne National forest just north of Newport. With a 12 mile scenic multi-use trail, there is ample parking at the trailhead where trailers and RVs can set up.

Athens Unit

The Monday Creek OHV Trail System is a collection of 8 trails, each with its own trailhead where camping is allowed. Be sure to consult the helpful forest service map of this system.

The Wildcat Hollow Trail is a dedicated hiking trail comprising two loops, the longer 17 miles and the shorter 5 miles for day use. Free camping is allowed at the trailhead. This map provides a good lay of the land. This trail connects to the Monroe Overlook trial, where one can enjoy panoramic views of the countryside.

Old Stone Church Trailhead is an area just down the road from the more developed Old Stone Church Campground. The campground is oriented towards horse trail riders on the 20+ miles Stone Church Trail System. RVs can visit both areas, but the trailhead section is free when open during the riding season.

Ironton Unit

In the southern section of this unit, the Hanging Rock Trail System has 26 miles of multi-use trails. Primitive camping is allowed at the trailhead.

15 miles north of the Hanging Rock system is the Pine Creek Trail System, with 20 miles of multi-use trails. There are 3 trailheads where camping is allowed - Lyra, Telegraph, and Wolcott. This forest service map provides details of these two systems.

Our final stop is Timbre Ridge Lake, not a trail system but a small picturesque lake. The parking area is open to free overnight camping. Equipped with a boat ramp and vault toilets, the 100-acre lake and surrounding area is great for fishing (small electric-motors only), wildlife viewing, and hiking.

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