MOUNT STERLING, Ohio - A word of caution about Deer Creek State Park: They didn't just pull that name out of a hat. There really are deer in this park - lots of them - and if you're not careful driving in the park at dusk, you just might find one of them bouncing off your front bumper.
On a recent visit, we counted 13 deer alongside or crossing the three-mile road that winds from the park entrance to the two-story resort and conference center in the middle of the park.
Wildflowers are plentiful along the miles of hiking trails in the park.
Deer Creek is located just 30 minutes southwest of Columbus in Pickaway and Fayette counties, but it's worlds away from the noise and congestion of the state's capital city. Most of the 3,600-acre park was carved out of farmland in the early '70s, and the trees and vegetation that have grown up since then don't yet approach the mature growth seen in other state parks, such as Salt Fork or Hueston Woods.
Still, the secluded park is a good spot to settle in for a day or two of relaxation, whether your tastes in accommodations run to campsites, rustic cabins, or a woodlands resort that borders on luxurious.
At the heart of the park is Deer Creek Lake, a 1,200-acre manmade reservoir formed when the creek was dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-1960s to control flooding and create recreational areas. Fishing and unlimited-horsepower boating is permitted on the lake, with all types of boat and jet ski rentals available at a marina on the lake's southwest shore.
Besides all the deer, other wildlife in the park include fox, wild turkeys, hawks, pheasants, eagles, and more. There are plenty of raccoons, too, and one in particular has caught the attention of park visitors, according to Bill Brown, general manager of the park's resort lodge.
“This one little guy apparently got a Coke can stuck on his paw, and he's been spotted several times by guests,” Mr. Brown said. “We've tried to trap him to get the can off, but haven't had much luck.”
The animal has become something of an unofficial park mascot, complete with a corny nickname: Can-Coon.
The park's campground has 232 sites, all with electricity, and most are filled on weekends from spring through late fall.
The most popular rental property in the park, though, is the rustic Harding Cabin, a 11/2 -story building that rests on a secluded ridge overlooking the lake. Built in 1918, it was owned by U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, and used by President Harding and his “Ohio Gang” as a country hideout - sort of an early version of a Camp David presidential retreat.
The cabin, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, has been restored and upgraded for public rental - its stone fireplace converted to gas, heating and air conditioning installed, and a satellite dish placed on the roof for tenants who can't bear the idea of a few days in the woods without seeing their favorite TV shows. The cabin has three bedrooms, and its kitchen is equipped with a stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, and microwave.
The resort lodge at Deer Creek State Park has 110 guest rooms, many wiht private balconies that overlook 1,200-acre Deer Creek Lake. The lodge is one of eight such facilities in Ohio state parks.
A long screened porch on the back side of the cabin overlooks the lake, and there's a private dock.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of Ohio State football fans was in the cabin's living room watching a Buckeyes game on television. Al Bell, from the Columbus suburb of Westerville, said the same group of friends had been renting the Harding Cabin for a weekend getaway every year for decades. That's no easy task, he added.
“Reservations are pretty hard to come by,” Mr. Bell said. “A year and a day ahead of time, you sit there by the phone and start calling. By hook or by crook, we always get in.”
Twenty-five smaller, two-bedroom cabins are nestled among wooded areas of the park. Each is fully furnished and has a kitchen, and some are equipped with gas fireplaces.
For those who like their accommodations a little less rugged, there's the park's resort and conference center, one of eight such facilities in the Ohio state park system. The two-story stone and wood lodge has 110 guest rooms, many with private balconies that overlook Deer Creek Lake.
A restaurant in the park's resort lodge provides diners with a good view of the eastern half of Deer Creek Lake.
In the large, open lobby, big, comfortable sofas and chairs and heavy tables are arranged to form cozy conversation areas, and one wall is taken up by a big stone fireplace. A row of rocking chairs lines another wall, and through the tall windows at the back of the lobby, more rockers sit on a deck facing the lake.
There's also a lounge and a full-service restaurant, whose big picture windows afford a nice view of the eastern half of the lake. Executive chef Chad Lavely - who formerly worked at such well-known Columbus-area restaurants as The Refectory and Handke's - has developed a menu that attracts a good number of locals as well as resort guests. Specialties include Ohio Amish chicken, Creole-style filets, and ham loaf with pineapple glaze, a dish that's more interesting than it sounds.
There are plenty of activities around the lodge to keep guests occupied: indoor and outdoor pools, an exercise room, video-game area, outdoor basketball, tennis, and volleyball courts, a beach, playground, putting greens, miniature golf, and, a short drive away, a regulation 7,100-yard golf course.
Winding through the woods and rolling meadows outside the lodge and along the lake are miles of hiking trails, a mountain-bike trail, and a bridle trail for riders - but they have to provide their own horses.
During the summer and other peak seasons, children's activities such as nature walks, jewelry making, and face painting are organized by park staff members.
For all its amenities and attractions, however, Deer Creek's resort is not as well known as some of the others in the Ohio park system, such as Maumee Bay near Oregon, Salt Fork near Cambridge, and Hueston Woods near Oxford.
“There are people even in Columbus who don't know we're down here,” said Mr. Brown.
Deer Creek is the only one of the eight resorts in Ohio state parks no longer operated by Amfac Parks and Resorts, a Denver company that also manages hotels and restaurants in many national parks, including Yellowstone, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and the Everglades.
Until last year, Amfac operated all of Ohio's resorts, but in February, 2000, a new 10-year Deer Creek contract was awarded to a different management firm, Delaware North Park Services. The Buffalo, N.Y.-based company runs facilities in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in California, Florida's Kennedy Space Center, and the U.S. Mints in Denver and Philadelphia.
The effects of the switch have been mixed. On the plus side, the new operator has spent considerable money upgrading the park's resort facilities and cabins. At the resort, guest room fixtures have been replaced, along with the lobby furniture and carpeting. A business center was added, and the heating and air-conditioning system was revamped.
“It was kind of tough at first,” said Bill Brown, Deer Creek's general manager. “When Amfac pulled out, they took all their assets, from sheets to salt shakers. The nice thing, though, was that we got all new stuff. This was a 20-year-old property, with a lot of 20-year-old stuff in it.”
On the negative side, another consequence of the management change - this one more significant than missing salt shakers - was that Deer Creek was cut off from a central toll-free park reservations number (1-800-AT-A-PARK) that's run by Amfac.
Because the state already provides one toll-free number to promote tourism (1-800-BUCKEYE), it can't justify the expense of another one for park reservations, according to Jean Backs, a spokeswoman for the state's Division of Parks & Recreation. That means it's up to the resort operators to provide toll-free reservations.
Ms. Backs concedes there has been some confusion since Delaware North took over management at Deer Creek. “We don't want people to think Deer Creek fell off the face of the Earth,” she said.
Delaware North has established a separate toll-free number for Deer Creek (1-877-678-DEER), and Mr. Brown says he's confident that with the recent improvements, the park will eventually attract more visitors than during its Amfac days.
“Sure, it was convenient when you could call one number to reserve rooms or cabins at any of the parks,” he said, “but Amfac marketed all the parks as a whole. They didn't emphasize the individual identity of any of the parks. Now we're able to stress our own identity.”