Southern Ohio offers many new sights and experiences within easy driving range range of Washington, DC. I framed a long-weekend road trip around visiting several Moundbuilder archaeological sites in Ohio. Moundbuilder civilization collectively refers to the Hopewell, Adena, and Fort Ancient civilizations that populated the region for several thousand years. These civilizations left behind massive networks of ceremonial earthworks and mounds that mark their existence on these lands. Over 70 Moundbuilder sites are situated across southern Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, outlining the footprint of an advanced society that long pre-dated the arrival of Europeans.
Getting there is easy on the interstates, but leisurely parallel routes, like US 40, make for a more interesting and scenic drive west. For this trip, however, I wanted to maximize time in Ohio, so I used the interstate system to get there in a day. From the Beltway, I-270 runs through Frederick, connecting to I-70. I-68 branches west from I-70 in Hagerstown and runs the length of western Maryland, including a stunning illustration of geological history at the Sideling Hill cut, west of Hancock, MD. I-68 ends at Morgantown, WV, and I-79 North connects to the last leg of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-70, which is the main corridor traversing southern Ohio from east to west.
The Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve, a serene and sprawling ceremonial site perched atop a plateau, overlooks the Little Miami River. Although its name implies a defensive military purpose, archaeologists believe that this tranquil site was a ceremonial gathering place. The earthworks also may have served an astronomical function, as gaps in the walls align with stone calendar marking mounds during certain lunar and solar events. For a deeper understanding of the site and the people who built it, a 9,000 square foot museum is located on the site with interpretive displays, maps, and artifacts. The museum was also a great resource to identify other Moundbuilder sites to visit later in my trip.
The Serpent Mound, a large effigy mound in the shape of a winding snake near Chillicothe, Ohio, is perhaps the most famous Moundbuilder site. The age of the Serpent Mound remains a mystery, but its purpose was likely ceremonial and astronomical. The mound site is very well maintained and the tall, metal observation tower is well worth the climb to get a birds-eye view of this earthwork. Please respect the signs and do not climb or walk on the mounds!
Many other Moundbuilder sites in Ohio are accessible to visitors, whether hidden at the end of a remote hiking trail or standing in plain view. The massive central mound of the Seip Earthworks is located outside Chillicothe, Ohio and was an unexpected roadside find. Take advantage of the flexibility of campervan travel: start at one of the larger sites with a visitor center to learn about other sites and then branch out from there to the locations that appeal to you!
Ohio offers many other natural wonders, like Hocking Hills State Park, a can't-miss stop not far south of Columbus, Ohio. Miles of trails wind through this park with incredible views of steep gorges, recess caves, waterfalls, and rock formations. Most of the trails are one-way only loops, so trail right-of-way issues are rare. Don't miss Whispering Cave and Ash Cave!
For aviation enthusiasts, Dayton is home of the Wright Brothers National Museum, which displays the first "practical" airplane, the 1905 Wright Flyer III. Also near Dayton is the massive Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Anyone who enjoys the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in downtown DC or the Udvar-Hazy Center museum annex in Dulles, will not want to miss this amazing collection of military aviation history.
Do not overlook Ohio as a travel destination, there are many hidden gems tucked away in relatively close proximity to the Washington, DC area. When you have the option to travel at a slower pace in a compact campervan, you can discover these unexpected treasures on your own terms!