DAYTON, Ohio. Ohio’s sixth largest city, Dayton is best known for its historic connection to aviation. Home of the Wright brothers, the area boasts over a dozen museums and memorials honoring flight. They are definitely worth a look if you’re in town.
But if you focus on the ground instead of the clouds, you’ll find just as much to explore. Surprisingly for such a cosmopolitan city, Dayton boasts an expansive park system of trails, gardens, streams and meadows, all free and open to the public.
The other Dayton: A day out in nature
Whether your idea of fun is horseback riding or fishing, there’s a place for it in one of the 19 parks spread over thousands of acres across the city. In summer, the area’s gardens are looking their best. They’re the perfect backdrop for picnics and selfies. In winter, skating and holiday events take over. Check the Five Rivers MetroParks’ calendar of activities to see what’s happening during your visit. They offer everything from night hikes and kayak tours to photography classes and farming demonstrations.
The Cox Arboretum
If you’re traveling as a family, the Cox Arboretum is a must-see. It boasts an on-site center where kids can learn about conservation and biodiversity, plus a seasonal butterfly house opening in July. Outdoors, a children’s maze winds through 1,175 boxwoods. Further out, an impressive Douglas Fir tree tower leads to an observation deck 45 feet up. It’s worth the climb for sweeping views of the surrounding landscape.
MetroParks: More greenspace opportunities
For a more grown-up greenspace, try the Aullwood Garden MetroPark. It has a pleasant mile-long path through woodland gardens listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But don’t expect topiaries or artificial grottoes. It’s a natural setting with hills and a prairie, accented by wildflowers and the meandering Wiles Creek. Some of the sycamore trees on this former estate are more than 600 years old. In season, the daffodils, lilies and roses add a splash of color.
When you’re hungry, stop by the 2nd Street Market. It’s a park that operates as a farmers market year-round, selling local produce, baked goods and more. You can buy a ready-to-eat meal from one of the many vendors serving up farm-to-table food or get the ingredients for your own creation. They have live music on Saturdays and non-food items, too, if you’re looking to pick up a handmade souvenir.
Also downtown, the RiverScape MetroPark is perfect for a longer walk or bike ride along the river. Don’t miss the several invention stations along the route. They showcase what Dayton residents have made in a three-dimensional, artistic fashion. The replica of the Wright plane might not surprise you. But the pop-tops, cash register and ice cube tray are pretty fascinating.
Metered parking is free on the weekends and after 6 p.m. during the week, so plan to stay awhile. Better yet, if you’re lucky enough to visit in the summer, don’t miss the Five River Fountain of Lights show each hour. It’s one of the largest fountains in the world — enhanced with colored lights at night — shooting streams of water 400 feet across the Great Miami River.
End your day at Wegerzyn Gardens. The formal gardens include water features, a trellis and statuary, popular with brides and prom couples but often less crowded toward sunset. Once there, take a stroll on the Swamp Forest Boardwalk, eerily tranquil just before dusk, though there’s plenty of life below the water.
Most noteworthy for theater lovers, this park has another gem that sets it apart from the others: the Dayton Playhouse. The playhouse closed out their last season with a rousing production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, showcasing their skill for singing and choreography set against creative props and costuming.
This year, their upcoming diamond anniversary season will lead off with another musical, the classic My Fair Lady opening Sept. 14. There’s a reason the theater has been performing to packed audiences for 60 years. The actors are talented, and every seat in the house is a good one. Better still, you get to hobnob with the cast at the end of the show.
Where to stay
Finally, just 10 minutes from the Cox Arboretum, you’ll find the English Manor Bed & Breakfast in Miamisburg seems to have a garden setting of its own. You’ll feel like you’re coming home to a Cotswolds cottage in the English countryside.
The historic home was built in 1924 with its original structure and many of its fixtures still intact. The rooms are decorated with period furniture and touches of art to remind you of yesteryear. Like most B&Bs, each room is different, and you feel like you’re a guest in someone’s home. Regency novels by the bed, potpourri and lacy rosebud curtains lend a touch of romance.
The breakfast is served by the proprietor anytime between 6 and 10 a.m. You just indicate your preferred time the night below and arrive in the dining room to enjoy a hearty meal to start your day. It’s chef’s choice. That may be French toast, eggs Benedict, quiche, or something else, with plenty of fresh coffee always available.
One of the perks of staying here is that your host knows the area well. Feel free to ask for tips on what to see and do, especially if your stay will be a bit longer. There are waterfalls, covered bridges and scenic bridges in the greater Dayton area worth exploring if you have the time.
Note: The English Manor hosted my stay, but all opinions are my own.