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Ice Age Revisited: Glacial Grooves at Kelleys Island

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Glacial Grooves, Kelleys IslandSometimes great history is in your own backyard. And sometimes it’s easy to overlook it in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Such is the case with the Glacial Grooves – the largest and most famous in the world – located on Kelleys Island on western Lake Erie, near Sandusky, Ohio and only a few miles from the Canadian border. A section of the Glacial Grooves was cut and sent to the Smithsonian. It’s a geological wonder.

Take the ferry from the Sandusky area to Kelleys Island (or take a small plane, or your own boat – there are several marinas). Kelleys Island is a vacation haven for many families. It’s the largest American island in Lake Erie, settled by the Erie Indians a thousand years ago as a refuge from the Iroquois. Now there are 367 full-time residents and 3,000 seasonal ones (plus over 8,000 visitors on summer weekends). Glacial Grooves, Kelleys IslandThere are important archaeological and historic sites on the island, as well. You can drive your car (if you take it over on the car ferry), or you can rent a golf cart to cruise around the island. Bring a picnic, or dine at one of the island’s many restaurants.

The Glacial Grooves are located next to the Kelleys Island State Park campground and beach (on the north side of the island). Although most of the grooves have been quarried, there are still many left to see. In these Glacial Grooves, you can see 18 different kinds of fossils, including horn coral, gastropods, and other marine invertebrates. You can walk around the perimeter of the hundreds-of-feet-long fenced-in area, and see just how those glaciers carved the rock.

Glacial Grooves, Kelleys IslandBut I digress. First, a bit of history. Let’s step back 280 million years, to the Pleistocene Epoch, a period during which glaciers formed in Canada and pushed their way down to the northern US, including Ohio. The ice may have been up to a mile thick! About 20,000 years ago, a much more recent glacial movement occurred, with the Wisconsinan glacier moving through most of the Midwest. The movement of that ice sheet again caused great changes in the landscape. As the glacier moved through Ohio, it carved out deep grooves in the limestone rock on Kelleys Island.

The island’s more recent history includes the US military using it as a post during the War of 1812, and the creation of quarries, logging, and wineries by the Kelley brothers, for which the island was renamed in 1840. The Glacial Grooves have been protected since 1923 by the state, and it is a State Memorial Site. There is parking available, and it is free to walk around and learn about the Glacial Grooves.

As you walk around you’ll see plaques with additional information about the sights before you. Start at the north side, where companies mined the limestone. The area is about 400 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 10 feet deep. There is a walkway around it, stairs, and even a bridge over the grooves, so you can get a sense of the power and scale of the glacier. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in northern Ohio and want an outdoor adventure.

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About Dr. Jessie Voigts