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Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Underrated and Understated
With 160 miles of scenic trails, a rich and well-preserved plethora of historic locales, and a graceful (but grumpy) population of lanky blue herons, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a beautiful swath of lush Ohio land. Unfortunately, if you don’t live in Ohio or know anyone who does, you’ll probably never see it.
It’s one of the lesser-known national parks, and unless you’re visiting Great Aunt Ira for Thanksgiving dinner or driving across state lines to see one of your favorite bands perform at Blossom, you probably have no business being in the Ohio. But if you’re looking for another natural wonderland to investigate, here are a few reasons to bust out the travel credit card and take a day or five to hike the trails and ride the rails of Ohio’s only national park.
A Mild Temperament
The West is spoiled with an enviable abundance of national parks. California alone has seven (more if you factor in NRAs, monuments, and the like). It’s really not fair. The Cuyahoga Valley is one of the few national park units in the Midwest, and if we’re being honest, it can’t compete with the grand sublimity of Yellowstone or Yosemite. It’s not the kind of place you go to experience the overwhelming immensity of nature. To put it in nerd speak, exploring the Cuyahoga Valley is a bit like strolling through Hobbiton—as opposed to visiting Denali National Park, which is a bit like traversing the Misty Mountains.
If you’re thinking about going to the Cuyahoga Valley, know what to expect. It is not an area tailored for adventurers or thrill seekers—though it’s certainly not impossible to sneak off the beaten path and invent your own exhilarating escapades. The Cuyahoga Valley is best suited for those looking for relaxation and rejuvenation through the quiet beauty of nature. It’s the kind of place you go to watch birds, read a book, go on a picnic, or sit by a river to skip stones with your pant legs rolled up. If you’re looking for serenity, choose a trail and get traipsing.
Where To Begin
With a wide variety and huge number of hiking trails, it can be tough to pick a place to start. It helps to know how the trails are organized. The park stretches from Akron to Cleveland with the Cuyahoga River acting as its spine. Various smaller parks comprise the natinal park, and they’re all clustered around that winding string of water.
Along the river runs the 20-mile Towpath Trail. During the 19th century, the 300-mile Ohio and Erie Canal was built along the Cuyahoga River to facilitate transportation. The canal has been defunct for nearly a century, and the path on which mules once walked to tow canal boats has been converted to a hike and bike trail. The towpath connects dozens of parks and sites and is an excellent place to start exploring the valley. A train for hikers and bikers also runs along the river and is an excellent way to become acquainted with the area.
Beyond the towpath, a cursory glance of the map presents a huge number of options to pick from. But how do you choose between such alluring names as Lost Meadows and Crow Foot Gully? Read up on a few parks and visit whichever sound most appealing. There are a few you should make sure not to miss:
Virginia Kendall: This park offers trails that will take you above, below, and around magnificent geological formations. The trails are full of ledges and overlooks, bridges and creeks. There is also a large open field near the parking lot, popular for picnics and cookouts. There are a couple different trails to choose from, and I recommend the Ledges Trail. It contains a scenic overlook (which are difficult to come by in the thick hilly forests of the valley), stunning rock formations carved by glaciers, and the small but intriguing Icebox Cave. The trail is as easy or as difficult as you choose to make it. Staying on the path will make for a calm, gentle trek, but clambering over rock piles and through steep stone passages along the way exponentially intensifies the experience.
Brandywine Falls: While it there isn’t much of a path leading up to it, this beautiful natural waterfall is the site of countless weddings and wedding photos. You’re not supposed to deviate from the boardwalk, but if you hop off the platform (carefully), your experience will gain another dimension entirely. The waterfall is just off Stanford Road, as is the Brandywine Gorge Trail, which you needn’t traverse to get to the falls but will make a nice addition to your visit. It’s a fairly easy walk that takes you down to the creek where the water has gradually exposed strata of sandstone and shale.
Blue Hen Falls: While smaller than Brandywine, Blue Hen Falls is just as beautiful. It also has its own trail, which calls for a little improvisation at parts and makes for a rather adventurous trek. The trail is just off of Boston Mills Road and is about moderate in difficulty. The waterfall is toward the beginning, and the trail doesn’t really have a definitive conclusion. It disappears into the creek near the Boston Mills ski resort, leaving you to decide whether to wander on aimlessly or head back up the path.
Tinker’s Creek Gorge: A river carving a little canyon and pouring out in yet another waterfall. It can be explored from the Bedford Reservation, which is worth a gander itself. Hop on the Gorge Parkway Trail at Alexander Road for a challenging six-mile hike to the gorge scenic overlook and bridal falls.
If you’re not satisfied with traveling the beaten trails, there are opportunities to embark on riskier romps. Usually, this means wandering off the path and heading down to a river. The waterways tend to have less foot traffic and make for more challenging routes. Here are a few places to check out if you’d like to do a little river running.
The most challenging, most satisfying and most beautiful stream you’ll find is Chippewa Creek, starting at the Chippewa Road bridge in Brecksville. Take Chippewa Road to Cleveland Metro Parkway and pull into the first parking lot on the left. You’ll see a platform with a couple picnic tables overlooking the creek. Climb over the fence and make your way down to the river. Follow the water for a couple miles of precarious boulder hopping. Some parts of the river are deep and clear enough for swimming, and you’ll find great places from which to jump into the river. Chippewa Creek is for experts and risk-takers only.
Another great waterway adventure can be found just beyond the dead end at Scobie Road. Park by the guardrail and wander into the pines. After you climb down the steep stream banks, you’ll come to a slim, rocky creek crowded by fallen oaks and encroaching vegetation. The stream makes for good barefoot wading in heavy seclusion. You’ll pass a curious colony of dragonflies just before the stream pours out into a wide, open river. The trek is not easy, but its profound isolation is hard to come by anywhere else in the Valley. The beauty is wild and untamed, but the risk is far less than the slippery rocks and high drops of Chippewa Creek.
To get to this stretch of river, you’ll need to traverse the Deer Run Trail in O’Neil woods. Deer Run is a nice little trail, usually not busy and slightly overgrown. Be ready to climb a few hills. The loop is a little less than two miles in length, and about halfway through you’ll come to a river. You can hop off the trail and explore the shore below. This is by far the most accessible of the three river adventures and more tailored to hikers who want to dip their toes in the water and skip a few stones—an off-trail adventure for the whole family.
Fun Four Times A Year
No matter what time of year, you’ll find something in the Cuyahoga Valley worth a visit. During the spring, you can take advantage of the cool, temperate weather and watch the world awaken. During the summer, everything is at its highest accessibility, and you can hike and bike to your heart’s content. With autumn come the Fall Hiking Spree and all the seasonal Halloween and harvest festivities. And in the winter, you can hit up the Brandywine or Boston Mills ski resort or go sledding in the hills of Pine Hollow. Whatever the season, grab a map and go. You’ll be glad you did. Here are a few more attractions to check out while you’re there:
Blue Heron Nesting Ground
Blue Herons can be seen up and down the valley and tend to fish alone near rivers and streams. If you’d like to see them en masse, swing by one of the nesting grounds during the spring. The most notable is the Heronry on Bath Road, which hosts a cluster of over 100 nests perched high in the sycamores. If you visit in March or April, you’ll have a clear view of the nest and their occupants from the pull off across the street.
Blossom Music Center
Nestled in the southern part of the Cuyahoga Valley, Blossom Music Center is an outdoor venue that hosts events ranging from Ozzfest to Cleveland Orchestra performances. The stage consists of a pavilion at the bottom of a gently sloping lawn. Pavilion seats are generally more expensive, but half the point of visiting Blossom is to sit in the grass and enjoy the euphoric blend of music and nature.
Hale Farm & Village
A living history museum in the Southwest region of the valley, Hale Farm is an interactive educational experience for all ages. Artisans demonstrate the trades and crafts of 19th century Ohio, including blacksmithing, candle making and glass blowing. The farm also delves into the history of the Civil War with an annual battle reenactment every August.
Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens
Just south of the park, Stan Hywet was the country estate of F.A. Seiberling, the founder of The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. With an enormous Tudor-style stone façade, the mansion is crammed full of elegant original furnishings and artwork. The garden consists of 70 acres of roses, fruit trees, grape vines, wildflowers, sculptures and pools. The hall offers tours Tuesday through Sunday and special events (like Murder in the Mansion and the Halloween Spooktacular).
Stephen Vanderpool is a writer and blogger at NerdWallet.com.