Deer Creek State Park Review

MT. STERLING, Ohio _ Like all Southern Californians, I vacation in Ohio. I could go to traditional West Coast vacation spots such as Las Vegas or Mexico or Hawaii, but none of those places has what I look for most in a relaxing getaway destination: the fear that I will be carried away by horsefly. (Approximate size: small kite.) Horseflies are part of the experience at Deer Creek State Park, where I have vacationed for almost three decades without losing any (important) family members to horsefly attack yet.

Deer Creek is located between Columbus and Cincinnati in a part of the state where the only government institution recognized by the locals is the Ohio State Athletic Department. The nearest town is Mt. Sterling, which has a few businesses that include a gas station, an IGA and the outstanding Larry’s Pizza and Wings. The IGA does not sell liquor on Sundays. I know. I tried to buy two bottles of flavored rum on a Sunday.

I walked up to the checkout counter with a bottle of Captain Morgan Parrot Bay coconut rum and a bottle of Captain Morgan Parrot Bay mango rum. The cashier looked at me, and after quickly surmising the type of lifestyle choices I make when I am not at the IGA, kindly told me that I would have to come back Monday for the rum. She then informed me that I could buy beer. So, according to Madison County, Ohio, it is OK to purchase intoxicating beverages on Sunday as long as those intoxicating beverages take longer to get you drunk. This is like making a law that says, “It is legal to have sex with a prostitute, but only if it takes you a really long time.”

That’s awful. For the prostitutes.

Coincidentally, I started the prohibition history book Last Call by Daniel Okrent on the plane ride to Ohio. In this excellent book I learned that (not surprisingly) central Ohio was the birthplace of the prohibition movement. I also learned that a Puritan boat that arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 with settler John Winthrop contained more than 10,000 gallons of wine in its hold and carried three times as much beer as water. Know why? Because even Puritans like to party, that’s why. I am typing this sentence while looking sternly in your direction, Madison County, Ohio.

From Mt. Sterling you follow the signs to Deer Creek, past miles of cornfields and into a 3,100-acre park whose long entry road winds past wilderness, an 18-hole golf course and a lake. The beautifully-designed lodge is the center of the park. It has 110 guest rooms, outdoor and indoor swimming pools, conference rooms, a restaurant, a gift shop, a fitness center, tennis courts, a wedding gazebo and, most importantly, functioning ice machines. Twenty-five cabins are located within walking distance of the lodge. The cabins have two bedrooms (one master and one with two bunk beds), one full bathroom, a kitchen with modern amenities, a living room with TV and DVD player, a porch facing the lake, a fire pit, a grill, and, most importantly, air conditioning. The cabins are clustered, but if you walk 200 feet from your cabin at night, and if you’re not trampled by deer, raccoons, skunks or groundhogs, you can see a sky full of stars. Note: There is probably something living under your cabin. It is furry and likes human food. No, it is not Zach Galifianakis.

Your days are what you make of them. My family has a few traditions. My parents get up around 6 am so they can quietly wait three-and-a-half hours for their sons to wake. After breakfast we walk to the pool and swim and lay in the sun until lunch. After lunch we play a board game or cards inside to avoid the peak heat from the afternoon sun. Donatellis are, after all, half-Irish. In the middle of the afternoon we return to the pool where we swim until dinnertime. By swim I mean throw the football back and forth across the water and toss little cousins around the pool. Any swimming strokes that are done are purely accidental, and more likely than not, satirical. Other things my friends and family have done at Deer Creek:

  • Put a catfish in the hot tub (not recommended)
  • Play home run derby in the indoor pool
  • Put soap in the hot tub
  • Paddle a full-size inflatable raft across the outdoor pool
  • Dive off the lifeguard chair
  • Swim all the way across the lake

In case any Deer Creek management types are reading this, most of these shenanigans took place during the 1980s and 1990s, back when the Donatelli family routinely rented five or six cabins and completely dominated the park. It was that one week every summer when everything smelled like homemade pizza and cavatelli. That was us.

Now we’re a little more laid-back. In the early evening we walk back to the cabin, shower and have dinner, which my parents have wisely prepared the week before and frozen for transport. (They begin planning vacation 51 weeks in advance.) As the sun sets we play cornhole or Trivial Pursuit or Cranium. Mom’s cookies are eaten throughout the day. When our friends and cousins come down from Columbus and Cleveland, we drink beer. We pretty much party like Puritans. Around 11 we knock off and then we do it again the next day.


Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • dan


  • Megan Davis

    We visited Deer Creek when I was about 10. GTs. My parents took us to various state parks when I was growing up, and these visits became our vacations. Did you ever stay in the lodge with the fold-down bunk beds?

  • Joe Donatelli

    We are a cabin family? Fold down bunk beds? Kind of makes me want to stay at the lodge!

  • Joe,
    Thanks for the funny story about vacationing at Deer Creek. I’m the executive director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, and, yes, I’m a Puritan. Just kidding! Let us know next time you are in town. We’d love to have lunch with a fellow Bobcat.

  • Joe, do you find it odd that any article you write, someone professionally associated with the subject almost immediately finds it and comments?
    Also, more pictures. And more information on the weather. Average daily highs? Daily lows?

  • Also, Sean Hughes, have you considered an on-site speakeasy?

  • Nicole Armstrong

    I loved jumping from the life guard chairs but you forgot about the infamous ER incident with my Dad!

  • Samantha Caspio-Belfiore

    Ahh, the memories!

  • Joe Donatelli

    Brian – I think it means a lot of people Google News Alert themselves or their businesses. Or that my blog is more popular than I think. (Probably the first one.)

  • Brian – We use Google News Alerts. An on-site speakeasy wouldn’t be very Puritan, would it? Ha! We’ll take any suggestions on adding businesses to Mt. Sterling that would make for a great experience at Deer Creek. We also like entrepreneurs, so if any of you Californians want to come out to sunny Ohio, let us know and we’ll help you get up and running!

  • Travis Fling

    Great story. I’m always in for a good laugh and enjoyed the piece. Nice stuff Joe. Always up for a beer with a bobcat, so shoot us an email when you’re in town!!! Green and white runs thick here in Madison County!
    Take care,
    Travis S. Fling

  • Your sentiments are so touchingly American it brings a soft tear to my eye. Damn, I miss that sh*t. But wasn’t Deer Creek where all those kids got killed in the 80s? Was that the Donatellis?

  • Tina

    Don’t for get tping the cul-de-sac!!!

  • Joe Donatelli

    LOL, Dave. No, I believe you have Deer Creek confused with Camp Crystal Lake.

    Tina — good call! Forgot about that one.

  • Al Scaglione

    Joe; Great story.You bring out pleasant memories of our family gathering in New Jersey every Christmas. The food, the fun, the laughs, sometimes tears. It’s how we Italians and some Irish party and show love. We don’t have to live there, but if we get a phone call to help, we’re on the next plane. Ciao, Al Glad you had a blast. Famiglia style.

  • Danielle

    Didn’t realize liquor laws could vary by County – for Pete’s sake! Odd that I’ve never been there – much closer to my homeland than yours. Since I’m an honorary Donatelli, I should probably drop in one year.

  • Hannah Cash

    Much like not being invited to be a guest on Second Column- I was not invited to attend this family vacation… to which I say…… Harrrrumph. You are dead to me.

  • Smoose

    I think you’re confusing your family vacation with the back story for “Grown Ups.”

  • Sue Donatelli

    Great column Joe. Vacationing at Deer Creek is a Donatelli Family Traditon: the 1980’s (Danny was just a year old in 1982), 1990’s (you were all young adults and your friends came and we rented more than one cabin), in the 2000’s (adults and coming in from DC and California) and when this new decade starts it will be our fourth decade to vacation at Deer Creek. So many family and friends joined us over the years. I would love to list them all but afraid I would leave someone out, so I am just going to mention Grandma and Grandpa Donatelli, Grandpa Squires and Grandma Luci. There has also been four generations of Donatelli’s vacation at Deer Creek.

    Thank you Joe for writing this vacation column. Love you.

  • Bob Squires

    I imagine, some who have read the artical walked away saying, I could realy enjoy a week like the donatelli family. It’s not just a week folks, It’s everytime we get together.

    Uncle Bob

  • Joe Donatelli

    Wow. Exactly!

  • Loved your blog!

    The management type at Deer Creek Lodge :)

  • Sharon

    Loved this story! Being from central Ohio, as a kid I remember when Deer Creek Lake was put in. As an adult I watched as the lodge was built and completed in 1981…the year we got married. (Really? Can I be that old?) We love the place and often just take a drive to have dinner there. I’m glad to see that your family has enjoyed a place that we love so much….as much as we do. =o)


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