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Visiting Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve in Mentor Ohio

Lake County may be Ohio’s smallest county, but it boasts the largest natural sand beach in the state. 

Located in Northeast Ohio along the shores of Lake Erie, Headlands Beach State Park lines the great lake with a mile-long natural sand beach and should be on everyone’s list of places to visit in Ohio.

The trailhead at Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve has a sign with rules and information about the formation and preservation of the dunes.

You may have heard of the beach, but have you heard of the adjoining Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve? We’re sharing all about a recent visit to this amazing outdoor space along Lake Erie.

About Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve

A woman walking along a boardwalk surrounded by tall grasses on a sunny day with fluffy white clouds in the sky.

Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve is one of the last places in Ohio to find dunes of this kind.

In addition to the sandy appearance, you’ll find flora that has adapted to living in this unique ecosystem and is only found in the Great Lakes Coastal Region.

Some of the dune plants you’ll see include switchgrass or beach grass, Canada wild-rye and sand bar willow which are important to establishing sand dunes.

Other plants you’ll see include cocklebur, sea rocket and seaside spurge and other rare plants that protect the sand dunes community from disappearing from the state of Ohio. 

It’s important that when you visit the dunes, you don’t remove any of the plants or grasses that you find.

How to reach this Northeastern Ohio Nature Preserve

The boardwalk ends and a sandy trail begins leading to a stand of trees adorned in fall colors.

From the state park, take a walk or drive over to the parking lot at the far eastern end of the park to explore what I consider the true hidden gem, Headlands Beach State Nature Preserve.

Once parked, look for the trailhead. You’ll see a sign for the nature preserve as well as another sign that states the rules as per the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The rules are simple, straightforward and meant to protect the nature preserve so it can be enjoyed by future generations.

  • Dogs are prohibited
  • No picnicking (though you’ll find a picnic area and plenty of picnic tables in the adjacent state park public beach area)
  • You must stay on the trails
  • The trail is open to foot traffic only
  • No fishing
  • Do not remove any driftwood from the property
  • The preserve is open a ½ hour before sunrise and sunset

Stepping onto the natural beach with the wind in my hair and the spray of Lake Erie’s waves on my face, I had a hard time believing that I hadn’t left northern Ohio for the Atlantic Coast.

Part of the beach within the preserve is in its natural state with an accumulation of driftwood to walk over and around. The other half of the beach in the state park, where swimmers and sunbathers converge, is groomed.

The Lighthouse at Headlands Dunes

A lighthouse is visible past a field of flowing tall grasses. The water can barely be seen where the sky and waterline meet.

The Fairport Harbor West Breakwater lighthouse situated near the break wall was built in 1925.

This lighthouse was built at the mouth of the Grand River to replace the original (Grand RIver) Fairport Harbor Lighthouse, which serves as a maritime museum and sits on a hill in Fairport overlooking the lake.

The Fairport Harbor West light has been uninhabited since 1948.

The lighthouse is undergoing top to bottom renovations to turn it into a vacation retreat that would offer amazing views of Lake Erie.

I’ll keep my eye on this property, as it’s definitely on my growing list of weekend getaways in Ohio.

I just need to remember to pack light, as the only way to access the lighthouse, other than by water, is to walk from the parking lot at Headlands Beach and follow the sandy trail through Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve and across the beach.

Tips for Visiting Headland Dunes State Nature Preserve

A man is walking along a driftwood strewn beach towards a white lighthouse with a red roof as waves crash upon the sandy shore.
  1. During the summer season, the dunes, are best crossed in the early morning or evening during warm weather, as the temperature seems to rise when you step away from the breeze at the beach.
  2. Sunscreen and a sunhat are helpful during the summer.
  3. During the early mornings or cooler months, you’ll want to dress in layers and remember that the temperature along the shore is much cooler than it is inland.
  4. Take plenty of water.
  5. Don’t forget your camera.
  6. The Lake Erie Shoreline of Ohio is a great place to look for small migratory shorebirds so binoculars may be helpful.
  7. The nearby beach is the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
A person walks along a wooden boardwalk across a field of tall grasses.

While in the area, you may wish to visit Fairport Harbor Beach, another popular Lake Erie beach.

Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve, a dedicated nature preserve that is recognized as a national natural landmark and protects one of the largest wetlands in the state is also in the area.

Plan your Visit to Headlands Dunes State Preserve

Looking down a mile-long natural beach with grassy dunes on one side and Lake Erie on the other.

Due to the proximity of the preserve to the highway, this makes a great stop on a road trip through the city of Mentor to stretch your legs and for little ones (or big ones) to run off some energy. 

You’ll find plenty of free parking and restrooms (open in season).

The restroom at Headlands Beach State Park is brightly painted.
Restrooms at Headlands Beach State Park

Those visiting the adjacent beach will find more restrooms, a concession stand (during the summer months), and changing areas for swimmers or sunbathers.

The lake water is tested daily and a sign at the entrance at the park alerts visitors to the water quality.

Three large mounds remain on this sandy beach as remnants of a sand castle contest.
Headlands Beach State Park

Address: 9601 Headlands Road Mentor, Ohio 44060

Phone: 440-466-8400

Website: Headlands Dunes State Nature Preserve

Cost: Free

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A white lighthouse with a red roof is visible while white-tipped waves crash against a sandy shore littered with driftwood. Protection Status
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