If you’re planning an island getaway, you don’t have to fly to the Caribbean. You can find one right in the heart of the Great Lakes.
Surprisingly, Lake Erie is chockful of islands, and there are more than thirty in the western half–and that’s only on the United States side.
One of those islands, the largest American island in Lake Erie, is Kelleys Island.
At only about four and a half square miles, it’s still petit. From 200-300 people live on the island year-round, and much of the landscape is heavily forested.
The only way to get to the island is by ferry, private boat, or small plane (there’s a miniscule airport). The preferred forms of transportation around its 2,819 acres are bicycles and golf carts, which should give you some idea of what life is like.
It definitely offers a quieter pace than Cedar Point, its neighbor across the bay and the roller coaster capital of the world.
Still, there are several things to do on Kelleys Island. Those include a day on the beach, of course, but there’s a lot more to a summer getaway in this beautiful island.
For one, the entire island is on the National Register of Historic Places. For another, there’s a National Natural Landmark featuring a formation you can see nowhere else in the world.
There’s also a life-saving artist, wine, hiking, fishing, and ice cream that’ll turn your tongue blue.
Whether you’re looking for a day trip from Sandusky or a more extended vacation, you’ll love these things to do on Kelleys Island.
Are you ready for a “groovy” getaway? Let’s check out Kelleys Island.
Disclaimer: my visit to Kelleys Island was hosted by Lake Erie Shores and Islands Ohio (website), but, as always, all opinions are my own and not influenced in the slightest by fossils or blue tongues.
Best Things to do on Kelleys Island
- Glacial Grooves Geological Preserve
- Explore an Abandoned Quarry
- North Shore Alvar State Nature Preserve
- Kelleys Island State Park
- Kayaking in Lake Erie
- Kelleys Island Historical Museum
- Old Stone Church
- Parsonage Resale Shop
- Herndon Sculpture Garden
- Inscription Rock
- Kelleys Island Wine Company
- Shop Downtown Kelleys Island
- Caddy Shack Square
- Dockers Waterfront Restaurant
Glacial Grooves Geological Preserve
Glacial Grooves are exactly what they sound like (unless you’re thinking of really, really slow music). They’re grooves carved out of the earth by glaciers.
Glacial Grooves Geological Preserve, located on the north side of the island, is a National Natural Landmark which protects the largest easily accessible formation of this type in the world.
Ice gouged these grooves into limestone bedrock during the Pleistocene Epoch. At 400-feet long, 35-feet wide, and up to 10-feet deep, they’re immense. Marine fossils, which are 350 to 400 million years old, are plainly evident.
You can’t walk on the grooves themselves, but there is a walkway along much of the length of the formation.
Explore an Abandoned Quarry
One of the coolest things to do on Kelleys Island is explore an abandoned quarry.
At one point, the largest producer of limestone in the world sat on tiny Kelleys Island. Kelley Island Lime and Transport Company (KIL&T) operated from 1886 well into the mid-1900s. They excavated the island’s extensive limestone reserves and transported them to docks via train.
Evidence of their history exists in the quarry lakes on the island, as well as a few abandoned buildings.
Not far from the glacial grooves is a stone building open to the elements and an eerie tunnel that’s screaming for a horror movie. The abandoned site is part of the former North Side quarry crusher. Trains would back up into the building and crushed stone would drop into the cars.
The abandoned buildings are located within Kelleys Island State Park. They cleared the trees and overgrowth in 2018 and there are plans to post descriptive signs.
North Shore Alvar State Nature Preserve
The North Shore Alvar State Nature Preserve protects another one of Kelleys Island’s rare formations.
If you’ve never heard of an alvar before, you’re not alone. I had no idea what it was until I stepped on it.
This natural wonder is essentially a limestone plain that either has no soil or very little. Alvars with some soil typically support prairie grasses and other hardy plants that can seemingly grow anywhere.
This preserve is the only undisturbed alvar community in Ohio. The waves and ice of Lake Erie maintain its barren surface.
You can get to the North Shore Alvar State Nature Preserve by the North Shore Loop Trail within Kelleys Island State Park.
While you’re there, look for iron loops embedded in the limestone. They’re remnants of the old docks used by KIL&T.
Kelleys Island State Park
At 677 acres, Kelleys Island State Park covers a quarter of the island. The park encompasses both the North Shore Alvar and North Pond.
There are hiking and mountain biking trails within the park. There are picnic areas with grills and tables, and campers will love the lakeside sites. Camping options include non-electric, electric, and full-hookups. You can also rent a Sherman Cabin or a Yurt.
One of Kelleys Island’s beaches is within this park. It’s 150 feet long and sandy. You can also rent kayaks from a hut right on the beach.
Kayaking in Lake Erie
Are you an experienced kayaker? Then you’ll enjoy kayaking all the way around the island. The Lake Erie Islands Water Trails maps out paths to circumnavigate several of Ohio’s islands. Begin and end at Kelleys Island State Park, with stops at:
- North Pond State Nature Preserve
- Scheele Preserve
- Woodford Road Access
- Inscription Rock Petroglyphs
Kelleys Island Historical Museum
Get a glimpse into the island’s past at the Kelleys Island Historical Association Museum. Exhibits change frequently and cover everything from medical care to how the remote town got electricity.
There are also exhibits about Native Americans, as well as stories about two early settlers for whom the island is named, Datus and Irad Kelley. The Cleveland brothers began purchasing pieces of land as an investment, and before long they owned the whole darn thing. By 1840, the Kelley Brothers had an island named for them.
Why isn’t it Kelley’s Island instead of Kelleys Island? Or even Kelleys’ Island? Who knows? Makes me wonder if it’s a clerical error, like Devils Tower National Monument.
Old Stone Church
The German Evangelist Reform Church organized in 1865, and by 1866 they had a place to gather. Using rocks from a quarry across the street, the congregation had their limestone place of worship.
The last service, a funeral, took place in 1942. After that, the Ladies Aid Society maintained it and used it for meetings. But from the 1950s until 1980, the building, one of the many historic landmarks that put this island in the registry, was turned into a storage bin.
A small group of locals founded the Kelleys Island Historical Association. According to their site, it formed “with its main goal to purchase the Church and preserve it as an historical site.”
They completed that goal, cleared out the Old Stone Church, and opened a museum.
The Historical Society built a new museum adjacent to the church in 2010 and now the old building is open for viewing and can be rented for private events.
Parsonage Resale Shop
More than just the former parsonage, the Parsonage Resale Shop is a treasure trove of by-gone gems. If you like browsing for antiques, you’ll want to spend some time in this circa 1888 building. Every room is stuffed with finds.
Herndon Sculpture Garden
Charles Herndon Galleries and Sculpture Garden reminded me of the artist environments I’d seen in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Herndon’s property includes an indoor gallery with paintings and sculptures, but what brought me back was the outdoor sculpture garden that meandered through the expansive property.
As a child, Herndon spent summers on Kelleys Island with his grandparents. In 2000, he built a gallery on the island and began developing his sculpture garden. His work reflects and is inspired by the island and he often uses it as his literal material.
That work crosses mediums; he’s a painter, a sculptor, and a photographer.
He’s also a life saver. A framed news article in his gallery from The Columbus Dispatch tells the story of how Herndon rescued a young boy.
After witnessing a plane crash into Lake Erie while at his mother’s house on Kelleys Island, he “grabbed a rowboat and launched it into the water.”
He rowed towards where he thought the plane had gone down, and after “what seemed a long, long way out,” he heard a voice. He followed it, and a seven-year-old boy pulled himself in.
Sadly, Joel Hutchinson’s brother and father were killed in the crash, but he survived because of Herndon’s quick action.
Get a glimpse of remnants of previous civilizations at Inscription Rock. Found partially buried in 1833, the large slab displayed several Native American petroglyphs of animals and humans. It’s believed the early peoples etched them between A.D. 1200 and 1600.
The elements eroded many of the symbols, and in 1885, Addison Kelley, Datus Kelley’s son, “and others filled in the carvings on this rock so they could be photographed for posterity.”
Today Inscription Rock is protected under a roof and there’s an information marker with an image of those filled-in petroglyphs.
Kelleys Island Wine Company
Wine has long been part of Kelleys Island. Charles Carpenter began growing and harvesting the first wine grapes grown on the island in 1842 and the Kelleys Island Wine Company opened in 1872. A couple of fires during Prohibition ended their run, but the Zettler family resurrected the winery in 1982 and it’s still going strong.
Shop Downtown Kelleys Island
Downtown Kelleys Island is compact, but there are several unique shops and boutiques. Places worth a visit are Kelleys Island General Store, The Village Peddler, and Missy Magoo’s Candy and Gift Shop.
Caddy Shack Square
Play a round of putt-putt on an 18-hole mini-golf course, complete with a replica of the Marblehead Lighthouse. You can also rent a golf cart, rent a bicycle, and get a drink at the Sand Trap Tiki Bar.
Fancy a frosty treat? Get a cone of local favorite Toft’s Ice Cream from Dipping Dan’s Ice Cream Stand. Personal favorite: the Lake Erie Cookie Island Monster. It’s cake batter ice cream with cookie dough chunks and it’ll turn your tongue as blue as a famous Sesame Street cookie freak.
Dockers Waterfront Restaurant
You can practically fall out of the ferry and into Dockers Waterfront Bar and Restaurant. They’ve got a large patio, what they call their outdoor “dining room,” with views of Lake Erie that include Cedar Point and Mouse Island.
The menu favors seafood, but if you’re a landlubber, they’ve got you covered, too.
How to get to Kelleys Island
Now that you’ve found all these “groovy” things to do on Kelleys Island, how do you get there?
Kelleys Island is located in the western basin of Lake Erie about half hour north of Sandusky, Ohio, by ferry. It’s about midway between Toledo and Cleveland.
Getting to Kelleys Island by ferry
Jet Express-Sandusky offers high-speed passenger ferry from Sandusky to downtown Kelleys Island and Put-in-Bay. Cruise distance is 37 miles round trip. The service is seasonal. website
Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line provides daily auto and passenger service to Kelleys Island from Marblehead, Ohio. The ride takes about twenty minutes. Service is weather-dependent. website
Getting to Kelleys Island by plane
Griffin Flying Services offers air taxi and charter services from Port Clinton. website