Ohio Route 26 - The Covered Bridge Byway
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
Plus, Traveling Ohio's "Little Boot"
Ohio Route 26 is known as the National Forest Covered Bridge Scenic Byway. Until recently, it passed five covered bridges on a rural 67-mile route that meanders through Wayne National Forest between Woodsfield and Marietta in southeast Ohio. It’s one of the most secluded parts of the state and a beautiful drive any time of year, as well as a recreational paradise that offers hundreds of miles of hiking trails, backcountry campsites located next to lakes, streams and a covered bridge, and some of the best mountain biking trails in the Midwest.
In 2019, the byway’s most notable bridge (in many peoples’ opinions), Knowlton Covered Bridge, collapsed. It was captured on YouTube (HERE). It had been the second longest covered bridge remaining in Ohio. Now, only a small section of it remains intact. It’s a strange sight to see.
The sad thing is that officials in Monroe County, where the bridge is located, were in the process of raising funds to restore the 133-year-old structure. They had received a half-million dollar grant toward the project, but weather and time finally took their toll on the bridge and it collapsed before they could raise the rest of the money. It is apparently unlikely that the bridge will be rebuilt.
This is just one more reason to travel Route 26. Many covered bridges in Ohio and throughout the United States, whether through neglect, storm damage or vandalism, are disappearing. The bridges featured along Route 26 are great examples of this lost art form and the rural scenery, which includes historic barns, abandoned gas and oil wells and little white churches, adds to this peaceful and intriguing drive.
A full day, or longer, can be had by combining a tour of Route 26 with visits to Marietta and then a drive along “Ohio’s Little Boot,” which uses Ohio Route 124 (pictured above at top) to trace the shape of a boot and heel along the Ohio River. At times, the river heads almost due north as it carves this fun pattern.
The road also travels through the Appalachian foothills that dominate the region and surround the river’s corridor. Travelers can stop at vistas overlooking the river to watch tug boats push coal barges up and down the stream or to see farmers working huge tracks of land near the water. Other than this, there’s usually not another living soul in sight. Along the way there are also awesome bridges, river locks and dams, and massive gravel operations and power stations to see, as well as a few colorful “river towns” filled with boat repair and boat storage businesses.
Route 124 also passes Buffington Island Battlefield, which was the site of the only Civil War battle fought in Ohio. The site contains several historical markers, signage explaining the battle and a monument, as well as, by chance, an Adena Indian mound.
In Marietta, a visit to Mound Cemetery provides access to another Adena mound, this time one that was once part of one of the largest Adena earthworks ever known, although only this small section remains. To get back home, travelers can either take U.S. Route 33, which passes Hocking Hills State Park, or take a more southerly route on U.S. Route 35, which passes the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, among many other interesting attractions found along both routes.
For hikers, campers and mountain bikers, Route 26 and Wayne National Forest is like having a giant backyard that never ends. The entire area, made up of public land, is filled with backcountry campsites that are connected to trails that travel through deep forests and rolling hills between the Ohio River and Route 26. They are open to hikers and mountain bikers and cover a variety of different terrain. There is so much room, and so many different backcountry camping options and trail loops, that it is rare to see another human being.
One of the camping highlights is a unique—if not the only one of its kind—opportunity to camp right next to a covered bridge—the Hune Covered Bridge on Route 26. A designated primitive campground next to this bridge provides access to hiking and biking trails that fan out in all directions.
There are also a few backcountry sites at the nearby Lamping Homestead Recreation Area— also located directly off of Route 26. They are remarkable because each site is located on the soft floor of a pine forest that sits directly next to a large pond and contains a fire pit and picnic table (rare for backcountry sites). Each of the sites, as well as numerous other campsites found along the route, is $10 per night. None of them offer modern restrooms or running water. Many other camping and recreational opportunities exist along the route. Look for signs pointing to these attractions, as well as historical markers along Route 26 that explore the region’s history.
To reach Route 26 from the Miami Valley, simply take Interstate 70 east to Ohio Route 800 and then head south. This is about 175 miles, or about 2-and-a-half hours from most of the Miami Valley.
Using Route 800, which is a rugged and beautiful stretch of road that passes through part of Ohio’s Amish Country, the start of Route 26 is located about 30 miles south of the highway.
If you get the chance, an amazing sight to see on Route 800 is the morning fog that often settles on top of the foothills and trees located on either side of the road, creating an eerie effect. Leaving early in the morning to arrive on Route 800 by 7 or 8 o’clock to see the fog also eliminates any traffic concerns in Columbus, which is the only major city passed through on this road trip. Other than that, it’s a quiet, relaxing drive with lots to see and do. Winter, spring, summer or fall, the following road trip is an interesting way to spend a day or two, and an experience that once again demonstrates just how diverse and unique Ohio is.
Enjoy and drive safely!
1. A Victorian Mansion on Route 800
The Belmont County Victorian Mansion Museum, also known as “The Gay 90s Mansion” is located along Route 800 in Barnesville. The 26-room mansion is currently home to the Belmont County Historical Society and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is popular around the holidays when it is decorated for the season. A historical marker is located outside of the property. To set up a tour of the museum and home, call (740) 425-1457.
2. Three Full Floors of Antiques & Collectibles
Before reaching Marietta, where a number of antique stores are located, travelers can stop by this popular mall to explore three full floors of antiques and collectibles. It’s located at 202 N. Chestnut St. (Route 800) in Barnesville and open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and closed on Monday. For more information, call (740) 425-2435.
3 & 4. A Blanket of Fog on Ohio 800
If the conditions are right, a morning drive along Route 800 just south of Interstate 70 can be quite breathtaking. When blankets of fog settle on the Appalachian foothills in the region, travelers on the elevated road can see islands of treetops and grassy hills popping up through the whiteness. These pictures were taken just south of Somerton at around 8 in the morning.
5. A Local Amish Population
There is a large Amish population that lives along and near most of Route 800, as well as parts of Route 26. They share the road with travelers, so be aware of their presence.
6. Woodsfield - The County Seat
This small town of 2,384 is the county seat of Monroe County. The Monroe County Courthouse is a visual highlight of the 19th century era town. This is also the last chance to grab a bite to eat or to gas-up before reaching Marietta. There are no options on Route 26.
7. The Foreaker Covered Bridge
One of the more secluded (and challenging to reach) covered bridges on this tour is the Foreaker Covered Bridge. It’s also one of the best maintained in the state and the only covered bridge on this tour that’s still open to traffic. Built in 1886, the bridge receives a new paint job every year and, besides its green sheet metal roof, which was added in 1971, is completely original. As with all of the covered bridges on this tour, the Foreaker Covered Bridge was built over the Little Muskingum River. Here, the river meanders through farmland and horse farms on its way to the nearby Ohio River. Drivers will follow the river all the way to Marietta on Route 26. There is no parking lot at the bridge, but an area on the side of the road is mowed to allow drivers to pull over, park, and get out for a closer look. Be warned that the roads off of Route 26 are often a mix of concrete and gravel. They’re not terribly bad, but they’re not terribly good either.
Directions: South of Woodsfield, after Route 26 splits from Route 800, drive for 7.2 miles on Route 26 to the tiny village of Graysville. In Graysville, turn left on Greenbrier Rd and follow it for 3.5 miles. Take a sharp left on Plain- view Rd (the fourth available left) and the covered bridge is located one mile down the road.
8. A Quiet Campsite on the Buckeye Trail
The Lamping Homestead Recreation Area is located a few miles off of Route 26 via Ohio Route 537. The detour is worth the trip. Along with camping and fishing sites located in a pine forest next to a large pond, the park provides access to the Buckeye Trail and the North Country Trail, which are, respectively, the longest trail system in Ohio and the longest trail system in the United States. Also look for historical markers that discuss the hard lives of early settlers in the area.
9. The Remains of the Knowlton Covered Bridge
This first picture below is from 2017. The ones below that are from 2020 and show all that remains of the Knowlton Covered Bridge after it collapsed in 2019. The bridge is located at Monroe County park and is still interesting to visit. (Watch the video of the collapse HERE).
10. Little White Churches
Two of the numerous small white churches seen while driving along Route 26.
11. Remnants from the Past
All along Route 26 are a number of abandoned oil and gas wells. This one blends in with the fall colors.
12. Rinard Covered Bridge
This bridge has seen its fair share of abuse. After being built in 1871, it was destroyed by a flood. It was then replaced by a new covered bridge in 1876, which twice survived flooding, first in 1913 and then again in 1938. The piers of the bridge remained intact during both floods and were used to rebuild the bridge. However, in 2004 it was again washed away by flooding, but the structure remained intact before a second flood completely destroyed it. A brand-new bridge was then built and is the one standing today…for now.
13. A Covered Bridge Next to a Campground
The Hune Covered Bridge is an original structure that stands unusually high above the Little Muskingum River. Maybe this is why it has survived since being built in 1879. According to author Lorrie Owen in Dictionary of Ohio Historic Places, the Hune Covered Bridge is a valuable example of 19th century architecture with few examples of its complicated style surviving to the present day. It was only recently closed to traffic. Located next to the bridge, and river, is the Hune Bridge Campground, available for $10 per night and connected to miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, as well as great fishing holes.
14. Log Cabins and Historic Farms
One of the things you learn about the area at Lamping Homestead Recreation Area is that, beneath their current facades, many farms and homes seen along Route 26 are actually 19th century log cabins. This home is more straight-forward in appearance.
15. Mail Pouch Advertising Barns
There are dozens of Mail Pouch Barn advertisement paintings in Monroe County and the surrounding area, but none is more vibrant than this one on Route 26.
16. Primitive Campgrounds
The Lane Farm Campground is one of numerous primitive campgrounds that provide access to miles of hiking, biking and walking trails near and along Route 26.
17. Hills Covered Bridge & Hidden Hills Orchards
Hills Covered Bridge This covered bridge seems to be the hardest hit by vandals and it appears to be heading in the same direction as Knowlton Bridge, if the neglect continues. However, from certain angles, the bridge is still a beautiful site to see. It’s also the last covered bridge on this tour.
Just up the road from Hills Covered Bridge is Hidden Hills Orchards, open seasonally.
18. Marietta's Museums and Mounds
There are many places to eat, shop and sightsee in Marietta, including the Ohio River Museum, the Campus Martius Museum and the Children’s Toy & Doll Museum, among others. It is also home to Mound Cemetery, which contains the last remnants of what was once one of the largest Adena/Hopewell earthworks in the world.
19 & 20. Big Bridges and Beautiful Views
Along with natural beauty, it is interesting to see the numerous bridges that span the Ohio River, including this one located just south of Marietta, as well as the industries that thrive along the river corridor.
21. Forked Run State Park
Located at the top of the “little boot,” Forked Run State Park contains a lake with a swimming beach, hiking trails, fishing and more. It is located in a section of Shade River State Forest and has year-round activities.
22 & 23. Above the Ohio River on Route 124
Follow Ohio Route 124 in this hilly, Appalachian part of the state to see beautiful views of the Ohio River below, including tug boats pushing rows of coal barges up and down the river.
24. A Civil War Battlefield and an Adena Mound
The only battle to be fought between Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War in Ohio occurred next to Buffington Island on the Ohio River. It was a Union victory. Today, visitors can park, walk around the area and learn about the battle. The site also contains a preserved Adena burial mound, which once could be found by the hundreds, if not by the thousands along the Ohio River corridor.
A Local Connection
Musician, award-winning songwriter and Miami County resident, Kevin Serey features Buffington Island in his yet-to-be-released single, "Letters To Clara." Listen to the song below. Follow Kevin HERE.