Simple Pleasures in Ohio’s Amish Country

Ohio hosts the world’s largest Amish population, and Holmes County lies at the heart of it — a picture postcard sprung to life.

It’s a place where country roads amble through rolling farmland, past quaint quilt shops, antique stores, and enough Amish bakeries and cheese stands to feed you, body and soul. But beyond the farms and buggies, you’ll find a lush, hilly heartland hemmed in by terrific camping, hiking and fishing opportunities — all easily accessible in your RV.

At first, watching a horse-drawn buggy from the window of your motorhome feels a little incongruous – a bizarre meeting of two very different worlds.

There you sit in climate-controlled comfort surrounded by modern conveniences. And there goes the Amish buggy, an iconic symbol of people who’ve turned their back on much of the modern world in favor of a simpler, less complicated life.

After all, around here it’s said that a traffic jam consists of two buggies and a hay wagon.

Amish buggyBut waiting on a state highway for that sleek little buggy to turn down a country lane has its advantages. It invites you to slow down and consider the spectacle that surrounds you — soft, rolling hills, densely wooded valleys, rustic roads that sprint off in random directions, simple, tidy farmsteads and the muscled draft horses that are still used to cleave the earth each spring.

A trip to east central Ohio — home to some 40,000 Amish residents — is a trip back in time, to be sure.

It’s an education in the spiritual journey of religious refugees . . . a chance to reflect on work that is still done by hand. Here, you’ll find a family-friendly setting where the seasons of farm life dictate the daily rhythms.

But it is also much more. For folded into this Appalachian plateau is a landscape as rich and intriguing as the Amish culture that settled here, with dramatic hills, covered bridges, forested horizons, and sparkling lakes. Little wonder that every major road in Holmes County has been designated a scenic byway.

Within an easy drive of Millersburg and Berlin — the cultural and commercial centers of Ohio’s eastern Amish country — RVers will find state parks, state forests and a generous array of private campgrounds with plenty of amenities.

In fact, for a place so widely known for residents who shun modern conveniences, Holmes County is surprisingly inviting, even to the largest motorcoach.

Family Fun at the Farm

Much of Ohio’s tourism literature promotes the state as a prime family destination, and a trek into Amish Country supports the claim.

From the wholesome country setting to miles of hiking/biking trails and clean family campgrounds, there is plenty to appeal to everyone, from avid antique hunters to road-weary parents looking for a place to let the kids burn off a little steam while having some fun along the way.

So while you’re in quintessential farm country, consider experiencing a hands-on day at the farm.

If you approach Holmes County from the west, it’s worth it to schedule a stop at Malabar Farm State Park, Ohio’s only state park that is actually a 900-acre working farm.

Located west of Loudonville off Ohio Highway 95, the park is the legacy of Louis Bromfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, agriculturalist and visionary conservationist. Using pioneering conservation techniques, Bromfield restored the farm and built a 32-room country home, where family and friends could share the pleasures of farm life. And lots of celebrity friends stopped by, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who were said to have honeymooned here.

In 1976, the site became one of Ohio’s state parks, and continues today as an educational center with a full slate of informational programs, hands-on events ranging from evening owl walks along 12 miles of hiking trails to a maple syrup festival, barn dances and bee-keeping workshops. And RV parking is no problem.

Best of all, much of the farm experience is free—a welcome break for cost-conscious families. On a recent visit with a 7 year-old in tow, we were lucky enough to arrive late in the afternoon: chow time at the farm. Peggy Eilenfeld, a conservation aide who has worked at the park for 25 years, began recruiting volunteers that afternoon to help feed a calf, sheep, goats, chickens and an incubator full of turkey hatchlings. Our young traveler couldn’t have been more thrilled to help.

Summer, not surprisingly, is the farm’s busiest season. Horse-drawn wagon tours are offered May through October for a nominal fee. You can also snag bluegill and catfish from on-site ponds.

During warm weather, the farm sells fresh seasonal produce and maple syrup at the popular Malabar Farm Market located on nearby Pleasant Valley Road. The spring-cooled produce stand sits in the shadow of the Malabar Farm Restaurant, a restored stagecoach inn built in 1820. Today, the restaurant offers home-cooked meals Tuesday through Sunday and features many products straight off the farm.

The setting is cozy and fun — check out photos of the many celebrities who’ve eaten there before you — prices are reasonable and the food is simple and filling. Be warned, however: Cooking throughout Amish County tends to be hearty and heavy, and often served family style. Plan on leaving the low-carb diet at home, or grab plenty of fresh foods from the local produce stands and have it your way. In the summer, Malabar Farm even sells fresh herbs.

While you’re checking out the farm scene, consider catching one of the weekly farmers’ auctions held throughout Amish country. You’ll find animals and produce, flea markets, baked goods and an authentic taste of daily life. You can attend an auction in Sugarcreek on Monday and Friday, in Farmerstown on Tuesday, at Mt. Hope on Wednesday and Kidron on Thursday.

The Heart of Amish Country

While much of Holmes County is cut from pastoral farmland, you are always a short drive away from a more urban encounter.

covered bridgeWell, maybe the word urban is stretching it. But the intriguing little communities that ring Holmes County like an add-a-pearl necklace are never far away, and each offers its own distinctive personality and attractions.

There is no border marking the official beginning of Amish Country, yet you’ll start to find plenty of visual clues: yellow road signs that warn drivers to watch for buggies; roadside farm stands; random bakeries; impossibly tidy farmsteads with nary a car or tractor in sight.

The telltale signs of the Amish begin to appear around Loudonville, so follow Ohio Route 39/60 east toward Millersburg, noted as a bustling center for Amish crafts. Quaint shops and inviting storefront windows line the downtown streets with its turn-of-the-century architecture — perfect for a leisurely stroll or rabid bargain hunting.

Millersburg is also the county seat, a bit bigger and busier than other communities out here. But don’t be surprised to find hitching posts outside the county courthouse. You are in Amish Country, after all.

From the bakeries to restaurant menus, the town names and the architecture, area Amish and Mennonite families have brought an old-world feel to the region.

You may overhear people chatting in German, find wiener schnitzel and Swiss fondue on menus, and visit a cheese factory that looks like an alpine chalet — reminders of the region’s solid European roots.

In America, Amish people are considered to be descendants of European Anabaptist’s believers.

Anabaptist Christians challenged the reforms espoused by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation.

The Amish generally believe the Bible teaches a life of simplicity and supports the separation of church and the outside world. As a result, they reject many modern technologies and conveniences.

Seeking religious freedom, Amish people began immigrating from Germany and Switzerland to America around 1730. Today, about 80 percent of the nation’s Amish followers live in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

In Holmes County, public fascination with the Amish — their crafts, food and unique culture — has spawned a thriving tourism industry. It’s an accepted fact of life so don’t worry. Just follow basic rules of courtesy and don’t act like paparazzi. There’s even an Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center, in Berlin, to help with questions and fill in the historic gaps.

You’ll find the heaviest traffic and longest waits in summer months. But off-season has its own charms — watching spring plantings and fall color, for example.

Consider the strategy of John and Bonnie Curry.

The Curry’s are huge fans of Ohio’s Amish Country, typically making the two and a half hour drive to Holmes County from their West Virginia home a couple of times a year. But never during peak season.

“We usually try to come up early and then later in the fall,” explained John Curry, as he readied his 30-foot motorhome for the trip home on a chilly spring day.

On this trip, the Curry’s stayed at Scenic Hills RV Park, a tidy, no-frills park located about a mile east of Berlin. They appreciate the sweeping view of surrounding hills, the close proximity to Berlin, full hook-ups and pull-through’s and generous elbowroom for larger coaches, with no tree limbs to worry about. And while the region’s rib sticking cooking, shopping and little country stores are appealing, there’s really one thing here in Amish Country that always brings them back.

“It’s the horses,” Bonnie Curry explained with a smile. “Those big teams.

“We love to go out and see what the farmers are doing — planting in the spring, harvesting in the fall.”

“Our dads and grandpas worked with teams and workhorses,” John added. “We have all these family pictures at home of workhorses. For us, this is a wonderful place to take pictures. We find that Amish people usually don’t mind you taking pictures of their buggies, horses or farms.”

Other tips? The Curry’s try to use Sunday as a travel day, since so many Amish-run businesses will be closed on that day.

They also try to take advantage of the abundance of roadside stands to stock up on farm-fresh eggs and produce for your week’s meals. And whatever you do, make it a point to visit a cheese factory, at least once. Just be mindful of the Amish in traffic.

“It’s really no big deal to share the road with the buggies,” John said. “I mean this is Amish Country. You know they’re there. We don’t mind getting behind them.”

From Berlin, continue your driving tour either by heading north on Ohio 241 toward Mt. Hope, swinging east on County Road 160 to Winesburg, then south to Walnut Creek or follow Ohio 39 east through Walnut Creek to Sugarcreek, then swing south to pick up a southern loop that includes Farmerstown and Charm.

The RV Scene

There is no shortage of campgrounds in Amish Country.

Chances are, if you have a whim or preference, there’s a campground to fit the bill.

Camp Toodik, located on a hilltop just north of Ohio 60/39, offers a wooded setting, heated swimming pool, softball field, wagon rides and canoes/kayaks. It’s also open year-round.

Don't Forget

Interested in riverside camping? Check out Smith’s Pleasant Valley Campground, along the scenic Mohican River. It’s a campground that specifically promotes itself as “Big Rig Friendly.” Or you might consider Whispering Hills RV Park, a massive 300-site campground in an idyllic country setting. There’s plenty of room for kids to romp, with an Olympic-size pool, 8-acre fishing lake, and an on-site restaurant where you can find Ruth’s Famous Apple Dumplings. How about an on-site music festival? Pedal boats? From no-frills campgrounds to verdant state parks, canoe liveries to country scenery with spectacular sunset views, it’s all here.

Whether you actively pursue an interest in Amish culture — consider taking in the Amish Wedding Feast dinner theater or sign up for an Amish Backcountry tour — or ignore it in favor of the hiking, fishing, and natural world, this is a destination that knows how to accommodate visitors.

RVers will definitely want to swing south of Malabar State Park, pick up Ohio Route 97 and check out Mohican State Park and the adjacent Mohican Memorial State Forest, 5,000 wooded acres sliced by the Clear Fork-Mohican River. If you want to stay the night, plan on making a reservation in advance, especially during popular summer months.

Mohican State Park is a real find — clean, attractive and chock-full of RV-friendly campsites. The park boasts 120-site family campground, complete with electricity, fire rings and picnic tables. The main campground offers an Olympic-size pool, showers, and flush toilets, dump station and camp commissary. They offer full hook-up campsites from April through October.

The park is also popular with hikers, with over 13 miles of trails that lead past waterfalls, lakeshore, a scenic wooden bridge, and 300-foot deep Clearfork Gorge, worth a trip to the scenic turnout.

An 8.5-mile bike trail also passes through nearby Mohican State Forest, which creates expansive hiking opportunities. Visitors are welcome to explore 22 miles of hiking trails and logging roads that wind through the Mohican Memorial State Forest from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. But several key attractions can be reached in your car or RV; just follow the park road.

Nearby, the Mohican River is known for small-mouth bass fishing, while skilled anglers can also find large-mouth bass, carp, crappie, perch and bluegill at Pleasant Hill Reservoir.

From Millersburg to Berlin, Walnut Creek to Winesburg, the region invites exploration and slow discovery. In Walnut Creek, you may stumble across the area’s largest flea market or tour a one-room Amish schoolhouse. In Mt. Hope, you may find yourself in a hardware store offering only nonelectric appliances and kitchenware. In Berlin, you might choose to take a buggy ride at Schrock’s Amish Farm. Along the way, stop to pick up a hand-woven basket and fill it with homemade jellies.

It’s all part of the Holmes County experience.

Planning an extended visit? Vacation ideas for long-term visits are offered in Amish Lanes & City Lights, a circle tour guide to the region. For a free copy, contact Holmes County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau at (330) 674-3975. For more information also check out www.visitamishcountry.com.

Tips on visiting Amish country

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