Tiny Towns

Close-to-home stops with a small-town feel and big appeal

click to enlarge A resident goat at Yellow Spring's Young's Jersey Dairy
A resident goat at Yellow Spring's Young's Jersey Dairy

Forego the stress of big cities, busy streets and cramped hotel rooms. Tiny destinations a quick road trip away offer quirky attractions, unique adventures and eclectic eats while maintaining cozy, close-knit atmospheres. From cycle-savvy pugs and award-winning wines to national natural landmarks and a few peculiar ghost stories, we’ve honed in on three little towns that are characters all of their own. Whether you’re an adventure-seeker, ghost-hunter, nature-lover, art-enthusiast or something in between, these road trip-worthy locales have something for your itinerary.

YELLOW SPRINGS, OHIO

Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Glen Helen's Raptor Center admits between 150 and 200 injured birds of prey every year. - Photo: Provided

Take a hike, ride a bike, eat some ice cream and meet a cow: Yellow Springs is home to Young’s Jersey Dairy — a working farm with ice cream, cheese aplenty and resident brown cows — and sits right on the outskirts of a sprawling park and nature preserve. Measuring in at 2.02 square miles, the town served as a center for civil rights and anti-war movements in the early 1970s; in 1979, it became the smallest municipality to pass an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Today, Yellow Springs is artsy, hip and quirky, featuring colorful buildings, public art and lots of family-friendly attractions. Get to know some wildlife at Glen Helen Nature Preserve, a 1,000-acre nonprofit donated to Antioch College in 1929. The preserve admits between 150 and 200 injured birds of prey every year and is able to release nearly half of them; those requiring ongoing care, including owls, eagles and hawks, are on exhibit at the on-site Raptor Center, which also serves as an education hub. Paranormal tales surrounding the grounds abound: The most frequently reported sighting is that of Helen Birch Bartlett, for whom the preserve was named; visitors describe an apparition in period-appropriate clothing, often seen sitting on a rock or branch in the woods.

John Bryan State Park , a 752-acre utopia just outside of town, has 10 pet-friendly nature trails and 7.5 miles of challenging mountain bike paths to explore. It also contains a limestone gorge cut by the Little Miami River, a portion of which is designated as a national natural landmark. Load up on carbs before your excursion at Clifton Mill , the largest water-powered grist mill still standing along the river, which today serves home-cooked comfort food, including all-day breakfast and delectable pies. Its 1940s Gas Station Museum, a tiny red building plastered with authentic vintage signs, is stocked with nickel candy bars and old-fashioned sodas.

For a less intense aerobic experience, plan a jaunt on the Little Miami Scenic Trail, part of the country’s largest network of paved, off-street bike routes. Black Pug Bike Repair can ensure your bike is in tip-top shape (with some help from capable canines Thelonious and Nellie). Young’s Jersey Dairy is located just off of the trail — it’s one of the most popular refreshment stops among cyclists, and for good reason. Their ice cream — made on-site with milk provided by their own cows — is crafted with a 15 percent butterfat mix, giving it a characteristically rich (and addicting) flavor. Swing by at 4:30 p.m. daily to watch the cows being milked. Young’s is also known for its gooey cheddar cheese curds, available in regular, buffalo and sweet-chili styles. Eat your fill and head into town, where you can scout out antique furniture and home goods at Atomic Fox, which specializes in Mid-Century Modern wares. Afterward, stop by Dark Star Books for novels, comics and a rather interesting character: Mr. Eko, a black cat named for the African warlord/priest/castaway from Lost.

On June 11, the biannual Yellow Springs Street Fair — the area’s claim to fame — takes over town with 200 arts, crafts and food vendors, a beer garden, street performers and live music on two stages. Browse clothing, jewelry, body-care products and homegoods; you’ll find unique items from the likes of Dayton’s New World Alpaca Textiles, which creates products with wool from their own fluffy livestock. This year’s entertainment lineup includes The Almighty Get Down, Soul River Symphony and the Drew Allan Duo. The fest returns in October, when the town and John Bryan State Park become doused in stunning autumn colors.

LITTLE NASHVILLE, INDIANA

Approximate Drive Time: 2 Hours

Tragedy struck the Little Nashville community in 2009 when The Little Nashville Opry, the popular concert hall for which the town was named, was destroyed by arson, precipitating a trial and subsequent not-guilty verdict against the opry’s 77-year-old manager. Since opening its doors in 1975, the hall hosted the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Blake Shelton and Toby Keith, and plans to rebuild the venue are currently in the works.

In the meantime, Little Nashville — comprising just over 1 square mile — has much more to offer, exuding an atmosphere reminiscent of Gatlinburg with dozens of eclectic shops and craveable restaurants. Nearby Brown County State Park is even nicknamed the “Little Smokies” for its resemblance to the Great Smoky Mountains. Encompassing almost 16,000 acres, it includes 12 miles of tree-lined hiking paths and 70 miles of horse trails. Walk Trail 5 to view a rare, state-endangered Yellowwood tree.

Back in town, family-owned Brown County Winery offers daily free tastings of its award-winning dry, semi-sweet and dessert wines. Their newest creation is a black raspberry wine with grape brandy. Order a second glass at Chateau Thomas Winery and sip your selection on a spacious patio that includes a cozy outdoor fireplace.

As the buzz begins to wear off, take a stroll through the Ferguson House. Constructed in 1873 and originally used as a boarding house for artists visiting the area, it helped the town gain a reputation as “the artist colony of the Midwest.” Not quite on par with the likes of Yaddo, the Brown County Art Colony was home to early 20th-century painters like impressionist T.C. Steele and German printmaker Gustave Baumann. More of the town’s thriving arts community can be seen at nearby Brown County Art Gallery, where approximately 400 paintings and artifacts are permanently on display in addition to historical displays and rotating exhibitions. Wind down at Sweetea’s Tea Shop, a cabin-esque café with an overwhelming drink menu of traditional hot and iced tea flavors and eclectic bubble teas, like German chocolate cake.

The ivy-draped Story Inn is a cozy place to spend the night, depending on which room you book. If you’re feeling rather brave, request the Blue Lady Room: You can purportedly summon a female ghost by switching on the blue table lamp next to the bed.

German Village - Photo: Ed Elberfeld


GERMAN VILLAGE, OHIO

Approximate Drive Time: 2 hours

With colorful buildings, brick-paver streets and timeless 19th-century architecture, Columbus’ German Village looks like it came straight from the pages of a fairytale — perhaps one of the hundreds dotting the shelves at The Book Loft, the town’s colossal 32-room bookstore with frequent bargains, signings and release parties. Encompassing 230 acres, the village was settled by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, and — thanks in part to preservation group the German Village Society — little since has changed aesthetically. Leave your car at a meter and meander through town on foot: Buildings are located just inches apart and are home to an array of distinctive shops and restaurants. If the weather is nice, grab a seat on the patio at Gresso’s Pub and Grill, a former mayor’s mansion that today fosters a small-town feel with live music, sporting events, wine tastings and more. Adventurous visitors can try out unique eats at Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace — the Hot Bollywood Dog is served with spicy mango chutney, and the Soul Dog is topped with mayo, kimchi and Sriracha drizzle.

Wander into Frank Fetch Memorial Park, named for the man dubbed “The Father of German Village.” Inspired by 19th-century bier gartens, the grounds include decorative gaslights, brick walkways, hanging flower baskets and a wrought-iron fence. The tiny space (which takes up only 0.2 acres) is dog-friendly and contains multiple picnic tables. Grace Highfield Memorial Garden is a shady escape with 77 varieties of hostas and flowering bulbs, featuring an umbrella girl fountain paying homage to late German Village resident Grace Highfield. At 23 acres, Huntington Gardens is a more spacious option, featuring a 450-foot-long brick walkway that contains granite stones inscribed with quotes from German poet, philosopher, historian and playwright Friedrich von Schiller. A statue of Schiller, cast in Munich, was bestowed to the park in 1891.

Get a more in-depth look at the area’s gardens and homes the final Sunday in June; the 47th-annual Haus und Garten Tour will showcase the village’s preservation efforts as well as innovative landscaping and interior design. ©

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