America’s First Urban Via Ferrata Proves Even a Cowtown Can Transform Into an Adventure Hotspot

In July 2023, Quarry Trails Metro Park in Columbus, Ohio, opened the country’s first urban Via Ferrata. Experience Columbus calls it “a thrilling ‘iron path’ with 1,040 feet of cabled climbing. With metal rungs, ladders, and fixed cables guiding climbers over intermediate rocky terrain, this route includes captivating elements such as a 90-foot treadway suspension bridge suspended 105 feet above a scenic pond, two aerial walkways, and a 54-foot steel staircase.”

The transition from Cowtown to Cowabunga didn’t happen overnight. Columbus earned its Cowtown moniker over a century ago when Samuel Hartman built a 5,000-acre farm in 1903, nestled between High Street and the Scioto River. It was a significant step towards modern large-scale farming. Central Ohio’s rolling farmland and many rivers are perfect for agriculture but are not naturally suited for high adventure. However, ask any farmer, and they’ll say one can grow anything with patience, persistence, and the right fertilizer.

Downtown Columbus Ohio at sunset
Photo Credit: Ed Coleman.

Visionaries of The Scioto Mile

In 1991, Ed Honton envisioned a 300+ mile recreation trail across Ohio connecting the major metropolitan areas. Inspired by the Sparta Trail in Wisconsin, he planned to build something 10 times larger when he founded the Ohio to Erie Trail nonprofit organization (OTET).

The 326-mile route is now open, 85% of which consists of regional trails. The rest is made up of country roads or bike lanes. Columbus is at the geographic center of the OTET with perhaps the most spectacular trail segment, the Scioto Mile.

According to Eric Oberg, Midwest Regional Director of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “The Scioto Mile is an outstanding example of how a trail can be part of a major transformation of a city’s ‘front door.’ The City of Columbus chose to transform prime riverfront land into parks and trails for the use and enjoyment of all. It is a community gathering place and a trail facility that makes long-distance trail travel through Columbus more than enjoyable but a bucket list trail experience.”

For over a century, the Scioto River was stagnant and muddy through downtown Columbus because of the Main Street Dam. The city removed the dam in 2013, creating 33 acres of greenspace from the reclaimed shoreline.

Today there are street and river-level trails along both sides of the Scioto. Paddlers venture onto the rejuvenated water under the shadows of skyscrapers, and just down the Scioto Trail is Scioto Audubon Metro Park with the country’s largest free outdoor climbing wall. These are just a few examples of the new wave of Columbus adventures these visionaries have brought to fruition.

Scioto Trail Columbus Ohio

The Tipping Point of High Adventure

Author Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” when a slowly changing system becomes irreversible and triggers dramatic and unexpected consequences. The construction of the Scioto Mile may have been the tipping point for high adventure in Columbus — a series of parks sprang up along the Scioto after its completion, including Quarry Trails Metro Park.

Kari Kauffman, Chief Destination Experience Officer at Experience Columbus, notes, “For seven decades, the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks have provided stunning greenspaces for residents and visitors of all ages and abilities to enjoy. Now, with the inclusion of Quarry Trails Metro Park, our city’s allure reaches new heights, proudly showcasing historical landscapes. Being home to the country’s first urban via ferrata, this park offers thrill-seekers a one-of-a-kind experience, embracing the site that once supplied limestone for the Ohio Statehouse, roads, and buildings in Central Ohio.”

Kayakers Paddling the Scioto River
Photo Credit: Ed Coleman.

The Future of Columbus Adventures

The new parks and greenspace have reached critical mass to inspire a new generation of visionaries. For instance, RAPID 5 was born during the pandemic when the world realized the value of interconnected greenspace to connect with nature and one another. They plan to create the country’s most extensive interconnected park system in Central Ohio by linking five waterways, over 80 municipalities, nearly 40,000 acres of parks, and hundreds of miles of trails.

When it is complete, 3 million residents will be within a mile of water or greenspace. RAPID 5 Board Chair Keith Myers says, “RAPID 5 was born from a collaboration between ULI Columbus and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. We gathered community input and tasked five local design firms to help create a vision for central Ohio’s future when it comes to our natural waterways. RAPID 5’s goal is to connect everyone to our region’s natural resources. It’s a big idea. It will take time and effort. But RAPID 5 is already on its way to helping this vision of an interconnected region become reality.” 

Columbus continues to evolve and grow. The Hartman Farm is slated to become a Google Data Center, and the Hartman Hotel has already been converted into luxury urban lofts. In June 2023, a new independent lifestyle hotel, The Junto, opened just across the river from the Hartman Lofts with an urban adventure twist. It has a Gear Garage for guests wanting to explore the city’s expanding greenspace.

They are also home to Maudine’s Coffee, named in honor of Maudine Ormsby, Ohio State University’s 1926 homecoming queen, who happened to be a cow. Guests can borrow bikes and take a short ride on the Metro Parks Bike Trails to Ohio State’s Waterman Dairy Center, where cattle are still raised within the city limits. Columbus may always remain a cowtown, but it’s a cowtown with a rising tide of outdoor adventure in Ohio’s capital.

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