Climbing, hiking, biking and more: Ecotourism is a big draw to Clark County

Leann Castillo was driving past Mad River Gorge and Nature Preserve in the middle of July and took a look at the parking lot. Not a spot was available, and only two of the vehicles had Ohio license plates.

Why was it so busy at 2 p.m. on a Thursday? Rock climbing at Mad River Gorge is a popular draw for Clark County, saysCastillo, director of the National Trail Parks and Recreation District.

But climbing is just one outdoor adventure that attracts tourists from both inside and outside the state. The area’s hiking, paddling, fishing, biking and other fresh-air activities are ideal for enthusiasts of all skill levels, say local outdoor devotees.

Ohio residents often “loosely know” about the outdoor opportunities in the vicinity, says Tom Helbig, owner of Tomfoolery Outdoors.

They know about the bike trails but don’t know there are more than 300 miles of them, he says. They have heard of the Buckeye Trail but don’t know that it circles the state. Or they know about the Mad River but never thought about camping along it.

“I think my business and my personal adventures have opened people’s eyes to those things,” he says.

Tomfoolery Outdoors plans outdoor events and leads guided outdoor experiences for individuals and groups in southwest Ohio and elsewhere. While much of Helbig’s work is in Ohio – his signature event is Canoegrass, a bluegrass festival held near Sidney – his adventures also regularly take him outside the state to places like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. Helbig lives and travels in his van, following his activities and events.

A recent event was the Pickin Adventurous Series, which combined live music with short hiking, biking and paddling adventures in Clark County on three separate days in August and September. Each event attracted about 30 participants, he says, and many had not previously been to the park or trail where the adventure was held.

Ecotourism to Helbig means using recreation to draw locals and travelers to spend time outdoors. That can lead not only to improved health and wellness, but it also can lead to success for local businesses, he says.

The region is slowly starting to embrace outdoor recreation as a tool for economic development, he says. When people travel for outdoor activities, they often spend money at other locations within the community, like restaurants and breweries.

“People who recreate in the outdoors tend to have disposable income, and they’re willing to spend it on fun things,” like art, music and food in the place where they are visiting, he says.

For example, Pickin Adventurous activities ended at Mother Stewart’s Brewing Company, where participants supported the brewery and food trucks, Helbig says.

“I try to make that happen with Tomfoolery Outdoors events, where we make those connections for people,” Helbig says.

Springfield and Clark County are home to many nature-based attractions that beckon visitors.

Climbing is just one outdoor activity that attracts adventure-seekers from out-of-state. Castillo’s experience this summer of seeing the full parking lot is a “regular occurrence,” says Carol Kennard, executive director of the Clark County Park District.

Mad River Gorge and Nature Preserve, 2710 Dayton-Springfield Road, is a destination climbing location throughout the Midwest because it has routes of varying difficulty for both beginners and those who are more advanced, Kennard says. Climbers also like the proximity of the parking lot.

It regularly lures climbers from throughout Ohio and surrounding states. Logs show that within the past year, climbers have come from as far away as Illinois, Iowa, Maryland and Missouri, as well as from California and Texas in recent years, she says.

Even as the popularity of climbing at the park has continued to build, visitors also come to birdwatch, see the wildflowers and hike the even terrain.

“It’s really a beautiful nature park, too,” Kennard says.

It is the variety of outdoor activities that makes the community so special for local nature-lovers and tourists, Kennard and Castillo agree.

Castillo points to the whitewater access, multi-use trails, and the area’s bouldering, kayaking and canoeing locations as a few of the places that the community is fortunate to offer.

Ecotourism isn’t just adventure sports or a visit to a rainforest, Castillo says, and it isn’t limited to those visiting from far away.

“It can just be a park with some walking paths,” she says.

When people are outdoors in the fresh air enjoying nature, they not only experience new things but also learn more about themselves, she says. They are able to relax, to pause for a moment.

“In our day-to-day lives, that’s not always something we can do, or think to do,” Castillo says.

Helbig says that many people don’t realize the adventures that are available within the region. He showcases the diversity of experiences that are available here to help locals realize what they have in their own backyard and to spread the word to people from outside of the state.

“I want to make sure people know what the real Ohio is like versus what they see from the interstate,” Helbig says.

Read more articles by Diane Erwin.