Surprised by the existence of a national park in Northeast Ohio, I headed out with Maggie Dog to play. Known as one of only nine dog friendly national parks, it seemingly beckoned me once I was aware of its existence. Just 20 miles south of Cleveland, Google Maps brings you through some back roads and lands you in the middle of the park. I was literally driving down a country road and passed a sign that welcomed me to the park with no real change in environment. Houses were still around me, and there was a routine neighborhood traffic stop ahead, as well as some railroad tracks. I was confused by the fact that there was no guardhouse collecting a fee, and that not only were there residences around me, but also townships, and even state highways running closely, or sometimes through, what I was trying to understand was a national park. Also, the center of the park is probably the least scenic area, adding to my confusion as to where I was. Finally getting my hands on a park map, as well as park info, I figured some stuff out.
The park preserves an historic area of the country, which is a portion of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath system that once connected industry efforts in Cleveland to Akron. The area was first acquired as a national recreation area in 1974, as locals had become increasingly concerned that “commercial and residential development was threatening the scenic Cuyahoga River Valley, with its villages, quiet byways, and forests.” This agreement helped locals work out “cooperative agreements with developments already in place, such as Cleveland and Summit County metropolitan park districts and Blossom Music Center, the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra. Eventually, confusion about the meaning of ‘recreation area’ led supporters to call for a change in the park’s name.” The area transitioned into a national park in 2000. This progression in the acquisition of the land is why there is no distinct entrance or exit, and therefore why there is no official fee. This might also be one of the reasons it is dog friendly.
With its late induction into our park system, and developments being present in and around the canal, the park is a series of many separated areas, connected by nearly 20 miles of two bike paths and a scenic railroad. It weaves itself in and out of the established housing subdivisions and commercial areas, causing me to sometimes even drive on established highways to get from one trailhead to the next. It just quite simply has an urban feel. But once you accept this fact, and realize that you could possibly hear the not too far away highway on your hike, it becomes a place of calmness and serenity amongst natural scenery that has now been saved and preserved. I commend the park service for acquiring the land, cleaning up the once polluted Cuyahoga River, and preserving historical heritage while also providing outdoor engagement for the community. Open 24 hours a day, the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is a paved bike and hike path that stretches along the old canal lock system, dipping in and out of lush forest. The park has beautiful hikes with several waterfalls, the most notable being Brandywine Falls, of which the second bike & hike path on the far East side of the park passes by. The different areas present trails that wind themselves in and around the river and creeks, providing great entertainment for Maggie Dog and myself, with overlooks and ledges carved into the rocks. Sometimes there was such a deep forest around me that I could forget my near proximity to the city. Peninsula and Boston are little villages in the park where several restaurants and shops reside among some sweet cottages, and provided for an unexpected post-hike happy hour. Peninsula is also a main stop on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, of which is a three hour ride from one end of the park and back, Wednesdays through Sundays. For a nominal fee, folks riding bikes can peddle as long as they can take it and flag down the train at a stop to hitch a ride back to their cars. Winter doesn’t slow this park down, either. The Towpath Trail hours is never plowed, making for great snowshoe and cross-country skiing, and the train changes form into a family fun Polar Express experience.
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is an interesting one indeed, and once I got past that urban quality, I very much appreciated and enjoyed the closeness that I had to nature and all that it has to offer.
Start at the northern end of the park and drive south into the different areas. (This means ignoring google maps and following the signs off of I-77 or I-80. This is also where you can get some information at the Canal Visitor Center, pick up the Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail, or jump onto the train at Rockside Station, the starting point of its journey.
Trails to Hike:
Drive East and check out the Tinkers Creek Gorge area, with overlooks and a beautiful trail near Bridal Veil Falls.
Head south to the Brandywine Falls trailhead and parking area. The falls are very easily accessible. Continue onto trails that lead you down to the creek valley, where Maggie Dog and I played in the creek amongst the river rocks. Blue Hen Falls is also near this area.
Save the best for last, though, with the area near Happy Days Lodge called The Ledges. It is a gorgeous path through boulders, caverns, tall trees, ferns, and mosses, and it is one to be taken in slowly. Plus, that happy hour is very nearby.
Things to Do:
Rent a bike at in Peninsula and hit the Towpath Trail.
Ride the Cuyahoga Scenic Railroad, especially during the leaf change in the Fall.
Happy Days Lodge hosts multiple concerts and lectures year-round.
In the summer, catch a performance of the nationally renowned Cleveland Orchestra at the Blossom Music Center or a theatrical performance at the Porthouse Theatre.
Hang out in the sweet villages and shops of Boston and Peninsula.
Hale Farm & Village, open May-October, is a living history museum, with a short drive north delivers the Everett Road Covered Bridge, a re-creation of an 1870s structure.
*There are horse trails in the park, but there is not a horse rental stable.
National Geographic’s Guide to National Parks, Seventh Edition
Cuyahoga Valley National Park provided informational materials and maps