News & Feature Articles Written About People & Places in Lake County, Ohio            

Sandy Escape
The charms of HEADLANDS BEACH are only a few hours away

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Copyright 2010, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Dateline: MENTOR, Ohio
Byline: Steve Stephens

The longest beach in the state seemed like the perfect place to spend a hot summer day. And Headlands Beach State Park, located on Lake Erie about 30 miles northeast of Cleveland, didn't disappoint me.
The park has most everything that a Great Lakes beachgoer could want: long, wide stretches of clean, natural sand beach; pleasant changing houses and restrooms; a picturesque lighthouse; hiking trails through rare habitats; and enough parking to seemingly hold the entire population of Lake County and then some.
There were even some sizable waves, courtesy of a brisk wind blowing across the open lake from Canada.
Headlands Beach is one of several state parks that dot the lakefront, from Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo in the west to Geneva State Park in Ashtabula County in the east. But Headlands' milelong beach sets it apart.
Headlands Beach is a day-use park with no lodge, cabins or campsites. While some of the state's smaller day-use parks seem more like roadside rest stops, this park is a destination in itself.
I had visited the park once before, on an early-spring quest to photograph the lighthouse that sits offshore between the beach and Fairport Harbor. That day, with a thick, chilly fog covering the shore, the beachfront seemed otherworldly, more like the setting for a Sherlock Holmes mystery than for Beach Blanket Bingo. And my trip to the lighthouse -- over a long, uneven, mist-enshrouded breakwater -- had seemed like a daring expedition.
Imagine my chagrin when, in the clear light of a bright summer day, I saw that the sand on the beach side of the breakwater extends to within 100 feet or so of the lighthouse. Had I known, I could have taken a shortcut and spared my ankles on that previous foggy morning. But my imagination had enjoyed the workout, so it was probably all for the best.
This time, my trip out to the lighthouse was shorter, given my newfound shortcut, but it was still a bit treacherous over the last stretch of the breakwater.
The strong wind pushed the lake water into large crashing billows on the northwest upwind side of the breakwater. The spray blew crisply onto the top of the jetty and onto anyone who happened to be walking along it -- not unpleasant on a hot day.
Along the harbor side of the breakwater, however, the water was perfectly calm -- an amazing contrast and proof that the structure is doing its job well. The breakwater provides a great spot for fishing, with parking available 24 hours a day for anglers. I passed several fishermen -- whose luck seemed mixed that day -- on my way to the lighthouse.
The walk isn't for everyone. But sure-footed lighthouse-lovers will find the effort worthwhile. The lighthouse, built in 1925, is a blocky two-story steel structure with an attached three-story tower surmounted by a large beacon light. It looks much bigger up close than it does from the beach.
On my original visit, the lighthouse reminded me of something that a mad scientist might use for a summer cottage. The bright sunlight burned away some of that romantic notion, but the structure is still a lovely addition to the lakefront scenery.
I was already damp from the lake spray, so I didn't hesitate to head down the beach for a quick dip in the sizable waves. The water seemed chilly, but the warm air made for a pleasant swim.
I'm not always a fan of lake swimming. Some Lake Erie beaches face away from the open lake onto harbors or inlets, or they have jetties or breakwaters that limit the cleansing action of the waves. I can name a few beaches where it's not unusual to see swimmers frolicking among the floating weeds or rotting carp.
But the beach at Headlands faces directly toward Canada. The constant action of waves and wind seem to help keep the sand cleaner than at some other lake beaches. And a park employee driving a forklift was clearing away some of the larger debris -- mostly logs -- that had accumulated overnight, a good sight to see in a time of state budget woes.
And unlike many lake beaches that are mostly stone (or -- ick -- mud), Headlands is nothing but soft, soft, sand.
Be aware that, because of budget problems, the lifeguard coverage at Headlands and other state park beaches can be spotty. The concession stands, too, seem to be open at unpredictable times.
But Headlands is close to several good restaurants, including Pickle Bill's, which sits right on the harbor at the nearby town of Grand River. The young and young at heart will like the wacky decorations at Pickle Bill's. And seafood lovers will appreciate the fare, especially the fresh perch and walleye. I particularly enjoyed the waterfront dining on a covered outdoor patio, especially when a brief summer shower passed through.
And don't worry about space at Headlands Beach. I saw dozens and dozens of beachgoers while I was there and yet the vast beach seemed almost empty. Although many beachgoers congregate into small clusters near the changing rooms, concession stands or lifeguard chairs, there is so much room on the beach that someone looking for a little sandy solitude is sure to find it.
For even more privacy, check out Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve, adjacent to the beach park. The small reserve preserves 25 acres of Lake Erie sand dunes in something approaching their original state. Headland Dunes is one of the last remaining natural dune environments on the lake and one of the few places to see unusual Atlantic coastal plains plants such as sea rocket, beach pea and purple sand grass.
Visitors who are up for a longer hike will find the northern terminus of the Buckeye Trail at the park. From there, hikers can set out east or west and, after a 1,400-mile state-encircling jaunt, find themselves right back where they started.
As for me, I'd rather just spend the time relaxing on Headlands Beach.

sstephens@dispatch.com



If you go

HEADLANDS BEACH
STATE PARK

This Lake Erie park near Mentor in Lake County features more than a mile of natural sand beach, the longest beach in the state. Near the beach is the Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Light, a historic lighthouse built in 1925.
Visitors will also find the Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve, the northern terminus of the Buckeye Trail, and several attractions, eateries and lodging options in Mentor and the nearby towns of Grand River and Fairport Harbor.

GETTING THERE

The park is about 170 miles northeast of Columbus.
Take I-71 north to I-271 north toward Cleveland. Exit I-271 onto I-90 east. Drive about 3 miles, then exit onto eastbound Ohio 2. Exit at Ohio 44 north and follow the signs to the park.

VISITING NEARBY

Lake County has many attractions including wineries, the minor-league Lake County Captains baseball team, the 3,500-acre Holden Arboretum, the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the Kirtland Temple and Historic Kirtland Visitors' Center and much more.
For information about the Lake County area, contact the Lake County Visitors Bureau at 1-800-368-5253 or visit www.lakevisit.com.

VISITING OTHER LAKE PARKS

Ohio has a series of state parks along Lake Erie with different amenities, lodging options and natural and historic features.

Among the parks:
* Maumee Bay: This resort park near Toledo offers a comfortable lodge and deluxe family cottages as well as camping. Highlights include a links-style golf course; swimming beaches on Lake Erie and a smaller inland lake; and a long, meandering boardwalk through Lake Erie marshland.
* East Harbor: This park on Catawba Island (accessible by car) in Ottawa County has the largest campground in the state. The beach is popular, but facilities are currently limited. The old changing houses/restrooms have been condemned, and visitors will find only portable toilets near the beach. The park has a large full-service marina.
* Marblehead Lighthouse: Near East Harbor State Park, Marblehead is a small day-use park that is home to the oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes, the scenic Marblehead Light, built in 1822. The lighthouse is open for tours on weekday afternoons and the second Saturday of the month. The lighthouse-keepers quarters, now a museum, is open when the lighthouse is open.
* Geneva State Park: This resort park in Ashtabula County has the state park system's newest lodge, which also features Horizon's Restaurant and Lounge with beautiful views, contemporary American cuisine and a large wine list, including many Ohio varieties. The park also has a large marina, a 300-foot swimming beach on the lake and 6 miles of hiking trails.
For information on these and other state parks visit www.dnr.state.oh.us/parks.

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