Imagine yourself surrounded by a forest of towering pines with wild undergrowth, or spotting birds among the green grass that peppers the blue waters of a marsh. Known better, perhaps, for its cornfields and suburban developments, Northwest Ohio is actually home to rare and diverse landscapes left behind by glaciers and swamps of days gone by.
And if you live in the area, you are likely within walking distance of one of these preserved landscapes; in 2020, Metroparks Toledo achieved their goal of ensuring that there was a Metropark within 5 miles of every Lucas County resident. Now, the county is home to 19 Metroparks, and even more trails, wildlife refuges and nature preserves.
Spending time in nature, and even listening to natural sounds, is known to provide a wealth of cognitive improvements and health benefits. These benefits can come from not only green spaces such as forests and parks, but also blue spaces like lakes and rivers.
“From the Lake Erie marshes … to Oak Openings, [they] are kind of bookends to our county, two very special places that are loaded with wildlife,” Scott Carpenter, director of public relations at Metroparks Toledo, said.
Carpenter is an advocate for the region’s natural areas and the role they play for humans and wildlife alike. From the lake to the oak savannas, he talked us through some of the must-see diverse nature spots in Northwest Ohio.
Wildwood Preserve Metropark (Toledo, OH)
Wildwood Preserve is a fascinating place where history and nature meet. It sits at the crossroads of three towns and is located on the former estate of the Stranahan family, the founders of Champion Spark Plug Company in Toledo.
Metroparks Toledo acquired the Stranahan estate in 1975 and created the Wildwood Preserve. The historic Manor House is now open for visitors, and the grounds and wildlife are nurtured daily.
In the prairie, visitors can spot ground-nesting birds such as field sparrows during the spring, or admire tall Indian grasses and wildflowers such as the rough blazing star in the summer. They can also hike along a trail system that crosses various environmental features characteristic of the region, including rolling hills of sand, oak woods and the Ottawa River.
The park is nestled right in the city which, according to Carpenter, “grew up around it.” Wildwood has therefore become a favorite for many Toledo residents, as it provides a green escape accessible within minutes.
Oak Openings Preserve Metropark (Swanton, OH)
Located in the vast Oak Openings region between Swanton and Whitehouse, Oak Openings Preserve is the largest Metropark at 5,000 acres. Acquired by Metroparks Toledo in 1931, this natural space is known as one of the most biodiverse places in Ohio and for its various terrains, including the globally rare oak savannas and wet prairies.
“There are sand dunes with prickly pear cactus growing on it, and in between the sand dunes and the swales are wetlands with orchids and wet-loving plants,” Carpenter said. “And you could throw a baseball from one to the other. That’s how interesting it is. It’s like this tapestry of different habitats.”
The park’s diverse environments make it a vibrant home for salamanders, turtles, badgers and other animals ready to be spotted. Oak Openings is also a great bird watching spot, with bluebirds and lark sparrows visiting during the spring.
More than 70 miles of trails stretch across the park, including the 15-mile Oak Openings Hiking Trail, which is popular among local scouts. One iconic location on the trails is called “The Spot,” and features hundreds of nonnative red pines planted in the mid-20th century (as they aren’t native and are reaching the end of their lifespan, however, they will eventually be taken down).
The Oak Openings region also includes Wildwood Preserve Metropark, Secor Metropark, Wiregrass Lake Metropark, Westwinds Metropark and other natural areas such as Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve.
Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve (Holland, OH)
Located between Secor Metropark and Wiregrass Lake Metropark in the Oak Openings Corridor, Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve is known for its wet sedge meadow that lacks trees but is abundant with wetland grasses and sedges.
Visitors can walk along the 1.3-mile boardwalk that traverses Irwin Prairie to see environments ranging from grass meadow to swamp forest. The preserve is known as a hub for diverse and rare plant life to thrive, including red baneberry, grass-leaf arrowhead and fringed gentian.
In spring a variety of birds migrate overhead, and in summer hosts of colorful wildflowers bloom across the park, making July and August the best time to visit this preserve.
Pearson Metropark (Oregon, OH)
Across the river in East Toledo you will find Pearson Park. Carpenter credits this park as one of the most historic in the region due to it being “one of the last remaining pieces of the Great Black Swamp.”
Before industrialization, large areas of Toledo and northwestern Ohio were covered by a vast wetland called the Great Black Swamp. Over time, the swamp was drained to make way for agricultural and travel advancements. The wet, dense woods that remain at Pearson Park are one of the few sites where visitors can catch a glimpse of the city’s environmental history.
You can also experience more recent local history through building, bridges, ponds and a garden constructed by workers involved in the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
Pearson Metropark was acquired by Metroparks Toledo in 1934, and now serves its community as a destination for its visitors to picnic, fish, skate, sled and play sports.
Maumee Bay State Park (Oregon, OH)
Sitting on the shore of Lake Erie is Maumee Bay State Park. It is the largest state park in the area, and is an ideal place in Toledo to access one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. Maumee Bay’s lakeside marshes, woods and meadows are a unique meeting point of land and water, and have drawn visitors since it was established in 1975.
As wetlands support more wildlife than any other type of habitat, Maumee Bay’s natural attraction thrives. The lakeside environment is a particular draw for birds, with more than 300 species recorded on site, making the region one of the best for birding in the United States.
Maumee Bay State Park is also a hub for outdoor recreation, from land activities like camping, golfing and archery to water activities like boating, fishing and swimming.
Howard Marsh Metropark (Curtice, OH)
In 2018, Metroparks Toledo opened their restoration of Howard Marsh, a 1,000-acre coastal wetland. Once a farm situated close to Lake Erie in Curtice, Ohio, Howard Marsh is reminiscent of the Great Black Swamp. Now, the marsh has a 6-mile water trail perfect for water sports as well as 5 miles of dike-top trail ideal for biking and hiking.
According to Carpenter, Howard Marsh is a national hub for birding, with birdwatchers flocking to the wetland to spot birds during the spring and fall migrations. The water makes it attractive to shorebirds and waterfowl alike, and more than 230 bird species have been observed there.
Howard Marsh is part of a group of green coastal spaces bordering Lake Erie that include the nearby Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (Ohio’s only National Wildlife Refuge) and Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. This amalgamation of local, state and federal natural lands is renowned as a birdwatching hotspot, evidenced by a 10-day birdwatching festival known as “The Biggest Week in American Birding” where thousands of birdwatchers travel to Northwest Ohio to witness the spring songbird migration.
Glass City Metropark (Toledo, OH)
One of Toledo’s newest parks, the Glass City Metropark, opened in 2020 on the banks of the Maumee River. As a downtown attraction, the park includes the Glass City Pavilion, whose rooftop has the best view of Toledo’s skyline and a sledding hill, which is a popular destination during snow days.
Glass City Metropark is part of the Glass City Riverwalk, an ongoing multi-year project led by Metroparks Toledo to build a 5-mile loop of trails and bike paths that connects establishments on both sides of the Maumee River through reinforcing natural habitats in the city.
“We never develop more than 20%,” Carpenter said. “That’s buildings, parking lots, trails. 80% of it is just nature habitat.”
Carpenter estimated that the entire Riverwalk development project will be completed in five to six years. The most recent phase of the development was completed and opened in May 2023, and featured three miles of trails, including a roller and ice skating ribbon.
“The idea was to build a year-round park,” Carpenter said. “We do have four seasons here. We don’t have to hibernate for half of the year; we can go out and enjoy the winter.”
In addition to Glass City Metropark, there are five other Metroparks located along the Maumee River: Middlegrounds Metropark, Side Cut Metropark, Farnsworth Metropark, Bend View Metropark and Providence Metropark. Northwest Ohio is also home to a host of other natural areas, including marshes and preserves you can visit: Sylvan Prairie, Black Swamp Preserve, W. W. Knight Preserve, Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, Great Egret Marsh Preserve, Toussaint Creek Wildlife Area, Kitty Todd Nature Preserve, Sandhill Crane Wetlands, Audubon Islands State Nature Preserve, Stange Prairie, Van Tassel Wildlife Area, Walbridge Park, Riverside Park and more.
“I don’t know what people think when they think of Ohio, but probably beautiful natural areas [are] not first in their mind,” Carpenter said. “We truly do have remarkable natural areas that draw people from all over the world. But to most people, we’re kind of a best-kept secret.”