With its pretty, shop-friendly downtown, chummy pubs and art pieces popping up around every corner, Lancaster, Ohio is all small-town sass and charm — the quintessential Midwest town tucked away in Fairfield County in the south-central part of the state. It is quite possibly the region’s best-kept secret.
Here is the home of the most original covered bridges in Ohio — 17, with nine right in Lancaster and each one a different type; the largest all-wood water wheel in the country; and the world’s largest outdoor art gallery … all surrounding a town with a population hovering at just over 40,000.
BRIDGES OF FAIRFIELD COUNTY
Follow the Fairfield County Covered Bridge Trail into the history and style of mid- to late-19th century architecture. From the 1883 McCleery Bridge, the first bridge built by Ohio civil engineer Jacob "Blue Jeans" Brandt, to the 1906 Zeller-Smith Bridge, which ushers visitors into the Sycamore Park Arboretum, to the 1871 R.F. Baker "kissing bridge" — a nod to yesteryear’s courting couples — each presents a slice of Americana in all its rural and romantic glory.
Some covered bridges span creeks; others, country roads. Some perch on private property; others sit on their original abutments. Only one, the 1888 Stemen House Bridge, is open to vehicular traffic. All show off historically significant engineering design: a rare reverse bow string truss system on the postcard-pretty 1881 John Bright 2 Bridge; double canopies on the Johnston Bridge, its year of construction lost to time; multiple Kingpost construction (the oldest truss design used in bridge construction) in the scenically sited 1865 George Hutchins Bridge.
The showpiece of the county’s covered bridges is the 1901 Rock Mill Bridge, the "it" bridge of the turn-of-the-20th century — so famous its photo once graced the walls of every U.S. embassy in the world. Built by "Blue Jeans" Brandt and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it sits in Rock Mill Park, dozens of feet above the Hocking River gorge and next to a restored 1824 grist mill — the record-setting water wheel.
The Ohio Art Corridor, which encompasses the colorful murals, creative sculptures and arresting architecture of Lancaster’s Open Air Art Trail and the Fairfield County Public Art Trail, is the largest outdoor art gallery anywhere.
While crisscrossing the county in search of covered bridges and strolling the streets of historic districts, visitors can’t help but bump into the Flight of the Hawk sculpture, shaped with thousands of individual torch-cut pieces of steel and rising 42 feet above the park that bears its name or the pastel Honey Bees & Flowers mural splashed across the bricks of a Lithopolis building. Cross the street and treat your taste buds to chicken tortilla soup and enchiladas with green sauce named for owner Efrain "E" Torres at El Pedregal, Fairfield County’s go-to restaurant for authentic Mexican food — not to mention generously sized margaritas.
In downtown Lancaster, one of the county’s six National Register of Historic Districts, a whimsical garden grows up the side of a building with the City Blooms sculpture and the Break the Mold: Seasons of Change sprouts from a grassy park. Idling nearby is the mural Car in the Alley.
MORE ‘EST’ ATTRACTIONS
Besides claiming the most original covered bridges and largest outdoor art gallery among its lures, Fairfield County is home to Ohio’s only bog island. Cranberry Bog on Buckeye Lake floats on a former swamp, stretching over some 50 acres. So fragile and rare is the bog’s ecosystem that it can be seen only by boat.
Find the highest concentration in Ohio of the native great rhododendrons, June bloomers with large showy flowers, at the Rhododendron Cove Nature Preserve. Within the Sugar Grove region of Hocking Hills, it is a refuge with chestnut oaks, Virginia pines, mountain laurel, eastern hemlock and more. A short hike to the top gives a sweeping view of the Hocking River Valley.
The sweetest trail pairing for foodies is the Java Trail and Sweet Tooth Trail. The former has eight stops, including the newest hot spot, L-City Coffee, with beans sourced locally and sustainably from Koffee Geeks. The latter includes Porter’s Coffee House and Bakery in Pickerington where a crunchy-delicious mega cookie called the compost cookie is baked.
SETTLING IN, DINING OUT
One of the loveliest places in Lancaster to stay is Pearl Cottage. A true charmer with two bedrooms, darling sitting loft and equipped kitchen and laundry room, the two-story hideaway has exposed brick walls, wood floors and tiny garden patio. The cottage was built in the mid-19th century in another part of Lancaster and at some point relocated by wagon. It sits on a one-way street in the historic district and offers off-street parking.
The cottage puts guests in walking distance of lots of dining options, including O’Huids Gaelic Pub, where the nightly special might be a heavenly dish of bangers and mash drenched in rich brown gravy or a meaty filet served with mashed potatoes and smothered in peppercorn sauce.
Nearby, the Ale House is the place for a perfect old-fashioned, featuring Maker’s Mark bourbon and muddled with wild cherries. Sip it with an order of warm and salty pretzel bites that look like little buckeyes (echoing Ohio’s nickname, the Buckeye State) and served with housemade beer cheese.
PLAN YOUR TRAVELS
Lancaster and Fairfield County, Ohio, are close — within a day’s driving distance of 50% of the U.S. population — but travelers can keep their distance with plenty of superlative outdoor adventures and activities. Pick up trail brochures at the Visitor Center, 158 W. Wheeling St. in Lancaster, or download the "Fairfield County" app from the Google Play or App Store; or visit visitfairfieldcounty.org.
Author and travel and lifestyle writer Kathy Witt feels you should never get to the end of your bucket list. Contact her at KathyWitt24@gmail.com.