The US is full of interesting places, and the US National Park system highlights and protects some of the best natural landscapes the country has to offer. Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the state of Ohio showcases a river corridor in the middle of a great comeback.
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Once an important industrial corridor, the river suffered heavy pollution and even caught on fire more than once before people finally took notice and realized something had to be done. Clean up and conservation efforts since the 1970’s have enabled this river to make its glorious comeback to the flourishing natural habitat it was before the Industrial Revolution. Come hike, bike, walk, or ski and learn about the area’s past on a scenic railroad train ride!
Most of us don’t typically think of Ohio when we think cool and interesting things to do in the US. It was never at the top of my travel bucket list when I was younger, that’s for sure.
But as I’ve traveled more I’ve come to appreciate finding ‘the awesome’ in your own backyard.
Each of the 50 states that make up the United States has its own unique scenery, and Ohio is no exception. Tucked between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has something to see in every season.
Why visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
Even those with bucket lists to see all 62 US national parks don’t expect much from the lone Ohio-based national park. But that’s a mistake! This park deserves its national park status just as much as the better known parks.
The Cuyahoga River is the lifeline of the park, but there are also several lakes, a beaver marsh, acres of deciduous forest (fall color!), and even sandstone rock cliffs. Not terrain you typically think of for Ohio.
The park stretches from Cleveland to Akron and includes:
- 20 miles of river within the park to kayak or canoe
- 125 miles of hiking trails
- Tallest waterfall in Ohio: Brandywine Falls drops 60ft
- 26 miles of biking/walking trail within the park on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail
- Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, for a throwback experience
- Riverview Road, America’s Byway, if you prefer to drive through the heart of the park
1. Start at the Boston Mills Visitor Center.
My first stop at any national park is almost always a visitor center. Pick up a free map, grab a souvenir, and ask a ranger for their favorite hike or thing to do in the park. The visitor center also explains the area’s past and what makes it unique. You won’t find a canal towpath out west. See how far Cuyahoga Valley National Park has come in the nearly 50 years since it was founded.
2. See Brandywine Falls
Who doesn’t love a good waterfall? How about the tallest waterfall in the state of Ohio? Brandywine Falls is not dependent upon rainfall or snow melt so don’t worry about finding a trickle instead of a waterfall. There will always be a respectable volume of water cascading over these 60ft cliffs!
You don’t have to hike to see this waterfall, either. The boardwalk to the lower falls view does have a few sets of stairs to get you down the hillside for those awesome views of water cascading over the rock cliff. Take your time, use the benches in between flights of stairs, and enjoy the views.
The boardwalk to the lower falls view is not ADA accessible, but the view from the top is accessible! Take the Stanford Trail bike path from the parking lot, follow it through a short tunnel under the entry road, and the top of the falls will be on your left at the bridge.
3. Hike The Ledges
Step away from the water for a bit and visit The Ledges. The rocky terrain here is not a typical Ohio landscape. Sandstone cliffs surrounded by forest make for some magical pictures, especially in the fall when all the trees change color. See trees defying gravity and growing in the most unlikely of places on a cliff side.
From the parking lot, you have 2 options:
- Go straight for the overlook, or
- Head for the loop trail.
I was not expecting an overlook, but there were some good views! Head across the field to the bottom left corner, when looking at the building at the top of the parking lot, if you want to check out the overlook first. We started with the trail, which is in the top right corner of the parking lot.
If you take this trail all the way to the natural stone staircase, take the stairs down to join the loop trail and follow signs for the Ledges Loop Trail. Doesn’t matter which direction you turn. As its name suggests, the loop trail circles the Ledges and will eventually bring you right back to this point.
The terrain is a typical forest dirt path with some large rocks thrown in for good measure. The trail makers, however, use those rocks to their advantage and turned many of them into stepping stones and stairs to get you up and down the hills. It’s not super hilly or a continuous steep incline; you won’t be huffing and puffing the whole time.
4. Get a picture at the Everett Covered Bridge
Covered bridges are especially popular with photographers, and this spot is popular for family photo sessions or engagement or senior pictures. No vehicle traffic allowed on the bridge, so take your time and enjoy it. There are several nearby hiking trails once you’ve had your fill of the bridge.
Pro tip: use the Everett Road parking lot. If your GPS is taking you to Ira Road or you see the Hale Farm and Village, you’re coming at the covered bridge from the wrong side.
The road ends and becomes private property, with an abundance of signs to warn you that even though you appear to be walking down an old county road you are, in fact, trespassing.
5. Walk, Run, or Bike along the Towpath Trail.
The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail runs the entire length of the park, and beyond, and is equally perfect for a relaxing stroll with the family or a beautiful bike ride alongside the river. The Towpath was originally for mules to help pull large boats through the canal system, so it is firmly packed and flat. Great for a quick run or a leisurely walk.
We visited the Beaver Marsh section in the late afternoon in the hopes of seeing said beavers. It was gorgeously lit up as the sun sank lower. The reflections in the marsh were perfect! We saw several ducks but weren’t lucky enough to spy a beaver or otter.
Park at the Ira trailhead and turn left onto the Towpath Trail to walk north to the Beaver Marsh. Not a long walk. Definitely worth your while, even if you’re on your way out of the park for the day.
6. Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
The canal was superseded by the invention of the railroad, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad gives you the chance to experience the park from the rails! Duration of trip and prices vary by season and ticket class. Generally, the National Park Scenic ticket runs January through October and takes 2.5-3.5 hours, round trip. See the CVSR website for more details.
The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail connects at several points to train stations for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Bike as far as you like down the Towpath Trail, and then hitch a ride back (both you and your bike!) with a $5 train ticket. Best of both worlds! (This is offered seasonally, so check their website for times and rates before you go.)
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad also holds several special events throughout the year. The Polar Express ride is very popular with families with young kids who loved the movie. For the adult crowd, try the Grape Escape or Ales on Rails events.
It’s impossible to see everything at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in one day, but this starter itinerary gives a good overview for those with limited time. There are so many things to do at this park that you’ll have to come back in every season. Visit in the summer for kayaking and in the winter for skiing!
In the meantime, I hope this one day itinerary got you excited to come back for another adventure!