RealImaginarySmokies Day 1 – The Scioto Valley & Eastern Kentucky

We followed Riverside Drive along the Scioto River into Downtown Columbus, where we headed south on US-23. We then took US-23 through Chillicothe and followed scenic SR-104 out of Waverly and into Portsmouth. After dinner in Portsmouth, we took US-52 along the Ohio River, crossing into Eastern Kentucky at Ashland to follow US-23 south to the Eastern Heights Motel in Ivel.

Starting Off Around Columbus

So there’s a twist for our last road trip this year! Rather than starting out from home, we start out today from Delaware, Ohio, where our friends Justin and Jennifer live. Jennifer organized a Star Wars-themed costume party in nearby Columbus last night. Besides not wanting to miss hanging out with one of her best friends, Becky is an avid cosplayer and a rabid Star Wars fan. Some fans wear costumes to celebrate their favorite sports franchise, while Becky loves getting everyone in costume to celebrate her favorite movie franchise. I always liked Star Wars too…and will say that it is more fun this way!

Anyway, we spent the night at Justin and Jennifer’s house last night, putting us about an hour or so closer to our destination for the night, which will be some as yet undetermined motel. Rather than taking freeways, we’ll mostly take US-23 the entire way, which will take us through parts of Ohio and Kentucky that neither of us has ever seen. I’m not sure where exactly we’ll stop, because I honestly have no idea how long we’ll spend at stops along the way. And we’re getting a motel because tonight will be the first freeze of the season in much of the Midwest and Appalachia. The weather warms up over the course of the week, and should be just fine for camping.

Following the Scioto River

We started out by following US-42 to SR-257/Riverside Drive, which eventually becomes US-33 and Dublin Road. Along the way we passed two dams and the Columbus Zoo. The drive was very pleasant, with a park between the road and the river almost all the way down. It reminded me of the Valley Parkway in the Cleveland Metroparks or Riverview Road in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, except much busier and with a lot more development.

The plan was to take Dublin Road until it becomes Long Street downtown, where we’d turn south on High Street towards the south side of Columbus. Unbeknownst to us, the Columbus Marathon was being held today, so it was impossible to get to High Street north of I-70. We lost some time trying to figure this out, but we eventually got back on track.

Now US-23 follows High Street at this point, and runs all the way down along the Scioto River from Downtown Columbus to Downtown Portsmouth, which is where the highway crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky. Along the way you pass through or around the towns of Circleville, Chillicothe, and Waverly, which along with Cleveland and Akron were on the route of the old Ohio & Erie Canal. The Ohio & Erie Canal revolutionized travel and shipping across the state in 1832, reducing the trip from Cleveland to Cincinnati from a few weeks to just 80 hours. Railroads came along two decades later, causing most of the canal to become abandoned early in the 20th Century.

There are three things I’m especially interested in seeing along our route this afternoon: the Scioto River for one, the city of Portsmouth since it’s on the Ohio River, and the city of Chillicothe, as it was Ohio’s original state capital. Had it not been for so much politicking in the state’s early history, perhaps Ohio’s “Three C’s” would have been Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chillicothe! I suppose we’ll never know, but maybe that’s how things unfolded in a parallel universe…so maybe one day we will find out…


Since US-23 now bypasses Chillicothe, we exited to follow Business-23 (which quite honestly is the only Business Route I’ve ever seen in all of Ohio) to go through town. The actually center of Chillicothe is a few blocks off of the old US highway, so we took a detour to check it out. While there were lots of old buildings in good repair, Chillicothe didn’t seem to be all that big of a place and was certainly not bustling this Sunday afternoon.

So we continued south back to the bypass and continued to Waverly. On the south side of Waverly, we followed SR-104, which follows the Scioto’s west bank all the way to Portsmouth. This road was marked scenic on my Rand McNally atlas, and it did not disappoint. There were sweeping views of the river all along, passing through small farms and unincorporated hamlets. The land along this part of the river seems vastly untouched.

Portsmouth, Ohio

The Ulysses S. Grant Bridge connects Portsmouth, Ohio across the Ohio River to Kentucky.

The road joins up with SR-73 just before West Portsmouth, and at the interchange with US-52 we stayed on SR-73/104 to go through Portsmouth. At this point, you can see two prominent bridges…a steel cantilever bridge directly ahead, and a newer cable-stayed bridge towering to the east. After we crossed the Scioto River right next to its mouth, we noticed a huge floodwall a block away. Besides its height, the 21-foot floodwall attracted our attention because it was covered in murals across the entire western section of the city.

It was definitely time for us to refuel, and the cheapest gas I found was just over the river in Kentucky. So before we got dinner and explored some more, we drove across the cable-stayed bridge on US-23. After gassing up, we went back over to Portsmouth to a restaurant I’d found on Google Maps that had a menu that worked for both of us.

Scioto Ribber

On the eastern outskirts of Downtown Portsmouth, we stopped at a barbecue place called Scioto Ribber (lol). As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw lines of huge slow-smokers outside that got me excited…this was an authentic Southern Ohio barbecue! I kept things simple and ordered the barbecue sandwich with baked beans, and Becky got the chicken dinner. The service was super fast, with my sandwich having a good portion of pulled pork. Becky’s chicken had obviously been barbecued outside too, as the meat fell right off the bones! It was a hearty meal that cost under $15 before the tip, so their prices are as extraordinary as their food.

Exploring Downtown

After dinner, we drove around to check out the central business district. There were several mid-rise buildings including banks and newer hotels, and the main north-south streets were well-kept. It was dead because it was Sunday, but it looked like it had life during business hours. Traveling east of downtown though, revealed that Portsmouth was struggling like most industrial cities across Ohio, as we saw many empty storefronts and a few people picking through dumpsters and trash. It’s sad to see, because this little town still has lots of character that is just waiting to be brought back to life!

U.S. Grant Bridge

Historic displays of the original U.S. Grant Bridge in Riverfront Park in Portsmouth, Ohio

Before continuing south, we stopped at Riverfront Park, to check out the huge Ulysses S. Grant Bridge that I mentioned earlier. This new cable-stayed bridge across the Ohio River opened in 2006, replacing the original suspension bridge that stood here from 1927 to 2001. The park had components from the old bridge and signs detailing its engineering.

It took a bit of convincing, but I got Becky to walk out across the bridge with me, where I wanted to shoot a high-resolution panorama. There are no sidewalks on the span, but it was built four lanes wide with a spacious median, and the two outer lanes were mostly painted off so that cars wouldn’t drive on them. I felt like this was a pretty safe bridge for pedestrians, especially considering traffic was light today too. There were several clouds moving through at the time, so I’m not sure if anything will turn out.

The view of Portsmouth’s western waterfront from the U.S. Grant Bridge includes Riverfront Park and the flood wall that protects this part of the city.

East Along the Ohio & South Into Eastern Kentucky

With the hour getting progressively later and the sun soon to set, we got back on the road. We drove US-52 along the Ohio side of the river until we got to the last crossing into Kentucky. We passed through several small industrial communities along with the eastern extremity of Portsmouth and the outskirts of Ironton. There were neighborhoods full of old houses, some of which could use some TLC. No doubt a poor economy has led many of these places further from their heyday.

We crossed the Ohio River into Ashland, Kentucky, where two mismatched steel cantilever bridges connect US-52 to US-23. Outside the city, the highway follows the Big Sandy River, which forms the border between Kentucky and West Virginia. We couldn’t see much of the river here, but it looked like you probably could from US-52, which follows it at the bottom of huge cliffs on the West Virginia side.

From Ashland, US-23 is a four-lane divided highway bypassing all of the villages and cities along the way. The hills and occasional valleys and cliffs of the Eastern Kentucky countryside were pretty, but most were brown, as fall had set in deeply and most trees had already shed their leaves.

Eastern Heights Motel

Becky takes a selfie with me and her partly-melted Chewbacca chocolate in our lovely wood-paneled room in the Eastern Heights Motel in Ivel, Kentucky.

As darkness began to set in, Becky googled and found us a warm place to spend the night in the hamlet of Ivel. Our room at the Eastern Heights Motel felt like a time machine stuck in the 1960s and wreaked of a strong air freshener smell, but it was very clean and well-maintained. The decor was of no concern to us, and we opened the door and ran the vent to air out the smell. We really appreciated that all the plumbing was modernized and clean, including the shower, toilet, and vanity. The beds were in good shape with comfortable sheets, and a modern heat and air conditioning unit kept us warm through the coldest night of the week. Considering the price was only $45 for the night, we were very happy with the room.

After a good night’s sleep here, we’ll get started at first light tomorrow morning and head deeper into the mountains. We’ll make a stop at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in the afternoon, and then we’ll move on to make camp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park before nightfall.

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