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Water trails in Ohio created by cooperation

Ohio agencies worked with local interests to create a system of water trails and river access.
Also see First Ohio Water Trail opened along the Kokosing River

By Paul Labovitz, Program Leader

Map of Ohio

Imagination is the key to developing a system of water trails that offers paddlers and fishermen access to rivers and streams. Ohio has a well-developed network of designated scenic rivers, and with a large population and large number of watercraft owners, a statewide water trail system seemed like a vision ready to become reality.

photo: Canoeing on the Kokosing River
Canoeing on the Kokosing River

The spark for the project came out of road and bridge projects reviewed by the state Division of Wildlife. Comments frequently suggested that better public stream access could be incorporated into Department of Transportation projects. But without much success in this area the Ohio Department of Natural Resources decided to develop a plan that would be a reference point for future road and bridge work.

So ODNR Division of Wildlife started talking about the idea of a state water trail program to other state agencies including Watercraft, State Parks, Scenic Rivers Program, and Real Estate and Land Management.

Outside partners invited to the table were Ohio Greenways, the National Park Service Rivers & Trails Program, the League of Ohio Sportsmen, and the Ohio Smallmouth Bass Alliance. With Wildlife at the lead, sportsmen support was considered essential. The water trail program would improve access for all recreation, and would include fishing, hunting, and trapping where possible.

"The first lesson is to involve a broad base of support early on."

This team met for almost two years, developed an inventory strategy and tried to educate folks about the benefits of such a statewide system. The thought process evolved. The group begged, borrowed, and stole ideas from existing water trail programs in surrounding states. We especially liked the approach used in Pennsylvania. Discussions about criteria and guidelines evolved.

photo: The Kokosing River became the first state water trail in Ohio
The Kokosing River became the first state water trail in Ohio

The team wanted the first officially designated water trail to be a winner. It was decided that along with designation, ODNR would assist in producing a water trail map and guide to promote the project and raise awareness of the statewide water trails idea. On National Trails Day, June 4, 2005, the Kokosing River became the first state water trail. Since 28 miles parallel the Kokosing Gap rail trail, the water trail offers a chance to both paddle and ride. Proximity to Kenyon College and the quaint towns of Gambier and Mt. Vernon make Knox County a popular destination.

The ultimate goal is still to convince the ODOT to integrate water trail and stream access into their transportation infrastructure plans, much the same as with bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Funds will be sought from existing watercraft programs that focus on education and promotion.

We want to involve the state travel and tourism department and industry. The future map development will be partially underwritten with public funds and require some local match. We do not think funding will be a limiting factor as the program grows. Several rivers are working to become designated after seeing the success enjoyed by the Kokosing.

The first lesson is to involve a broad base of support early on. The addition of the sportsmen was a terrific asset to the program. There were concerns about private property rights and the hunting and fishing insight into this issue was invaluable.

The other lesson is to keep pushing: new ideas do not have an easy path to implementation. Some among the state agencies were reluctant to develop and institute a new program during tough fiscal times. The team persevered and made it happen without requiring new money initially. Public support for the program will help ODNR continue to dedicate staff and funding to the program as it delivers what the public wants.

We now have a program that encourages stream access while it articulates safe boating practices and educates river users about respecting private lands. Ultimately we will have a statewide system of well-signed and promoted water trails so we can facilitate safe use of these great recreational resources. And, we have taken a step towards uniting sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists to coalesce and be a stronger voice for conservation.

For more information on the Kokosing River Water Trail see

First Ohio Water Trail opened along the Kokosing River

"Discover Ohio Water Trails" promotes conservation along with local tourism.

From Knox County Convention & Visitors Bureau

Water Trails

On June 4, 2005 the nation celebrated National Trails Day. Ohio celebrated State Trails Day with a different twist. The "Discover Ohio Water Trails" program was announced with the designation of the first Ohio Water Trail along the Kokosing River.

Imagine a system of water trails that offers paddlers and fishermen access to rivers and streams all across Ohio. This new Water Trails program seeks to piece together such a system.

Water trails already exist and just need access improvements at put-ins and take-outs. The "Discover Ohio Water Trails" project started as an idea by a Division of Wildlife planner who evaluates ODOT road and bridge projects for impacts to natural resources. Most highway infrastructure projects along rivers offer potential access through the design stage. A statewide plan for a system of water trails gives ODOT a better idea of where access is sought.

The Kokosing River drains almost 500 square miles of central Ohio. About 47-miles are designated as part of the State Scenic River System. The Kokosing joins the Mohican River to form the Walhonding River in Coshocton County. Waters eventually drain to the Ohio River then to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

Dozens of fish species are native in the Kokosing. Sportsmen enjoy exceptional smallmouth bass fishing in most of the Kokosing. The river ecosystem represents one of the most biologically diverse and healthy systems in the state.

ODNR has produced a map and guide showing canoe access along the Kokosing. The guide contains specific information about safely canoeing Ohio's streams and other interesting facts about fishing and paddling. Links for more detailed information available via the Internet are included.

The Kokosing Gap Bike Trail parallels much of the river and offers the option to bike back to your car, one of the state's only bike and paddle opportunities.

Project partners that worked to build this new program included several divisions with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources; Wildlife, Watercraft, State Parks, Natural Areas and Preserves and Real Estate and Land Management. Statewide assistance came from the Ohio Parks & Recreation Association's Ohio Greenways Program, National Park Service Rivers & Trails Program, League of Ohio Sportsmen and the Ohio Smallmouth Alliance.

The Knox County Park District and Knox County Commissioners are the local partners who made the Kokosing River designation possible. The statewide system has a great start with the high standards of this first entry.

The lessons learned through this innovative partnership will help the conservation community for years to come. Recreationists, sportsmen and conservationists need to continue to work together to achieve tangible conservation success as development pressures continue to grow.

ODNR Director Sam Speck commented at the dedication about the statewide system of trails that "the whole is greater than the sum of it parts." The Discover Ohio Water Trails system will continue to grow and develop into a statewide network of canoe routes. These passages follow the travel lanes of Ohio's first citizens. Canoe and kayak highways are the recreation infrastructure for Ohio's future.

Great water recreation is available much closer to home. The Tuscarawas River provides wonderful canoeing and fishing opportunities in our backyard. Local tackle and bait stores will happily talk about what is biting and what they are biting on. A canoe helps, but bank fishing works fine, and access along the Towpath Trail is plentiful.

For more information about the Kokosing Gap Trail and Kokosing River Water Trail contact:

Knox County Convention & Visitors Bureau:
800-837-5282 or 740-392-6102
107 South Main Street, Mount Vernon, Ohio 43050

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