Cuyahoga Valley National Park: Underrated and Understated

Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers a sprawling, picturesque landscape to lose yourself in. NPS photo of Everette Road Bridge with a dusting of snow.

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.

Adventurous Alternatives

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.

Chippewa Creek

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.

Scobie Road

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.

O’Neil Woods

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.

Comments

True, [CUVA] is a gem for all of us to enjoy. But, just a heads up, I wouldn't venture into the Cuyahoga River especially after rain and possible sewer overflows. Enjoy the trails on foot, rent a bike at Century Cycles Peninsula for the towpath, ride the rails (check schedule), kayak the waters, picnic in the meadow, and don't feed the animals :)

JP, back in the olden days the Cuyahoga ran with pure sludge almost its entire length. When some high school friends and I finished canoeing the entire 101 miles from above Burton to Cleveland's harbor, we had to scrape crud off the canoes. Took a lot of hours and effort. And of course, there are the legendary times when the river caught fire.

But that was all before the Clean Water Act.

And if the Tea Party Republicans have their way, we'll need to scrape crud again.

My favorite aspect of the park are those areas where you can see the process of nature reclaiming an earlier industrial era. Can't remember if this is one of the missions of the park, but it was pretty charming--like coming across an old cemetery in the woods of Shenandoah or Great Smoky Mountains.

Sorry, but no.
Cuyahoga's resource base would make a nice addition to the existing and very competent MetroPark systems.
But a National Park experience?
It is not and never will be.

Kudos for preserving this land from certain urban sprawl. But, it is not worthy of National Park status, especially when signature parks are scraping with insufficent budgets. The federal government should phase control over the park to the MetroParks and devote the funding to other parks in the system. And CVNP isn't the only park that should be reevaluated. Many were formed for political expediency, and dilute the mission of the NPS in more worthy areas. I live near CVNP, and visit there regularly, but disagree with the NP designation.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is OUTSTANDING. CUVA may not be as big as Yosemite but that's part of its charm - you can be hiking above the ski line at Boston Mills one moment, enjoying lunch at Szaley's and buying apples and corn within the hour, then watching goat herds chew their way through fields or exploring waterfalls or climbing rocks in the afternoon - all within very do-able distances. Or bird-watch at Beaver Marsh, pick up a bottle of cider at Szaleys and then hike past Indigo Lake and go over to Hale Farm and Village to spend an afternoon in the middle of the Civil War. At CVNRA you spend less time GETTING to where u want to be...and more time ENJOYING where u are! And along the way you're likely to see blue herons, green herons, wood ducks, and all kinds of turtles, along with coyote and deer. If u want a challenging hike, you forgot to mention the Buckeye Trail - which will take u thru the Valley and can go on and on and on. And one of the BEST features is the Towpath - it's not only good for walking and biking but it ALSO provides 26 miles of wheelchair-accessible pathway - great for training for races etc. or just getting out and actually seeing great scenery. And the HISTORY involved in the valley is FANTASTIC for any history or ghost or crime buffs! The tales about the stolen safe and Red Lock; the disappearing Moravian settlement and the cemetary at Tinkers Creek; the history of the Ohio-Erie Canal...all makes the area a lot like walking through a story book! And don't forget to bike the towpath then pick up the train to go back...or to ride the train for one of it's special events!

I canNOT believe the people saying Cuyahoga Valley National Park [CUVA] is not worthy of NP status! The whole purpose of the National Parks is to
"conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

CUVA does EXACTLY that! The history it contains is phenomonal - from sites of ancient peoples to the history of the Connecticut Western Reserve to the history of the Ohio Erie Canal (which even had a PRESIDENT working on it, as a teenager), to the geological history frozen in the Ledges. It preserves old old (first growth??) trees, the integrity of the the Cuyahoga River and various river runs, the beauty of Brandywine, Blue Hen and Buttermilk Falls, and natural flora. I know of few other places in the area where I can get hit on the head by an abundance of falling black walnuts.

And it does ALL THIS while being within easy access of three major cities - definitely providing for the "enjoyment of the same" by thousands of people.
The National Parks were not meant to be untouchable, difficult to visit, or accessible to just a few. They were not meant to be stockpile of nature kept aside just for the pure act of keeping them. They were meant to be preserved...and ENJOYED. By all. CUVA nicely accomplishes this.

We could argue designations, but I believe CUVA is worthy of inclusion in the NP system. As with many other parks, e.g. Blue Ridge, CUVA preserves an important story of this nation's development and facilitates protection of a rural landscape on the edge of encroaching development.

As a lifelong Clevelander and NP traveler, I have to agree CUVA is no where near NP worthy. It was fine as a National Recreation Area. Clinton made it a National Park on his way out the door. The best things mentioned above (last three) are not even part of the NP. There are better, more beautiful state parks in Ohio than CUVA. Sorry, but it doesn't cut it. If it does qualify, it's the worst NP in the country. What is worse, Congaree?

No, Congaree is amzaing.

The Tea Party isn't against clean water, grow up!

Actually an Ohio congressman added the designation change to an appropriations bill. But don't let facts get in the way of your seditious partisanship.

Oops, I got so riled up by tea party propoganda I aimed my editorial in the wrong direction. But it is true the name change came from an omnibus Congressional bill.

It's true that the Tea Party doesn't seem to be against clean water; but they sure don't seem to be for protecting it. Easy come easy go I guess. The Tea Party Congressionals have brought up over 90 bills so far in their current term to try to weaken the EPA and/or the Clean Air/Water Act. Say what you want, but actions do speak louder than words.

David R:
We could argue designations, but I believe CUVA is worthy of inclusion in the NP system. As with many other parks, e.g. Blue Ridge, CUVA preserves an important story of this nation's development and facilitates protection of a rural landscape on the edge of encroaching development.
From what I gather, a National Recreation Area designation is more in line with what the park provides. It probably doesn't need to be taken off the NPS inventory of units, but I look at the National Park status and start scratching my head.

http://www.nps.gov/legacy/nomenclature.html

National Park: These are generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities are not authorized.

National Recreation Area: Twelve NRAs in the system are centered on large reservoirs and emphasize water-based recreation. Five other NRAs are located near major population centers. Such urban parks combine scarce open spaces with the preservation of significant historic resources and important natural areas in location that can provide outdoor recreation for large numbers of people.

Some of my local politicians are trying to get National Park status for the current Golden Gate National Recreation Area. I enjoy the area and find it worthy of NPS administration. I don't agree it's National Park worthy. I feel that CUVA is probably less worthy than GGNRA.

Cuyahoga Valley ISN'T worthing of being a National Park. In fact, designating it as a National Park denigrates the other parks which are worthy. CV is not a bad place, has some nice places, but overall doesn't meet the grandeur, majestic or uniqueness criteria for being a National Park (think Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier, Arcadia, Crater Lake, Denali, etc). CV should be protected as a park, but only as a Cleveland Metropark. As a federal taxpayer, I'm disgusted that my tax dollars are being wasted here.