Cuyahoga Valley Is One of America’s Great Underrated National Parks
Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio turned a canalway into a 90-mile trail perfect for hiking and biking, and our 63 Parks columnist highly recommends a ride
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63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing COVID-19 best safety protocols along the way. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late. Cuyahoga Valley is her 48th park visit.
I wanted to begin my trip to Cuyahoga Valley with a classic hike to Brandywine Falls, a 60-foot cascade of roiling white water that ripples down a series of terraced rock faces, creating a bridal veil pattern, soft as gossamer. As I stepped onto the main viewing platform, tourists jostled about trying to take a family photo while the surrounding rust-colored trees fluttered in the wind.
In autumn, when I visited, Cuyahoga’s latticework of hiking trails is transformed into a picture-perfect postcard of fall colors. In late spring, wild geranium, golden ragwort, and bright yellow daffodils adorn the forested paths. It’s a surprisingly colorful and untamed park, given its semi-urban location, straddling a river basin between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.
The park is an important outdoor access hub for more than two million city dwellers. After the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River made national headlines in 1969 for literally catching on fire, the area has since made an impressive comeback, with anglers, hikers, and kayakers flocking to its lush, riparian hollows and craggy ledges of sandstone.
Hoping to escape the throngs of waterfall chasers, I meandered around the 1.5-mile Brandywine Gorge Trail, communing with the quiet forest as a rainbow of leaves fell all around me. A nearby creek burbled as I traced my hands along dark grooves in the smooth stone walls. I was so close to civilization, and yet, something felt wild about the place.
Like many eastern parks, Cuyahoga Valley has a long history of human use. Once a hub for the Hopewell and Whittlesey Cultures and the site of Ottowa and Ojibwa camps, the area is perhaps best known for the historic Ohio & Erie Canal, which once linked Lake Erie with the mighty Ohio River. This allowed for the state’s remote farmers to trade with the rest of the developed U.S. by using a series of locks and narrow canal boats to transport goods and people across the 308-mile stretch.
More recently, the canalway has been turned into a multi-use path for hikers, bikers, and runners. Named the Towpath Trail, it stretches for 90 uninterrupted miles between Cleveland and Bolivar. Ready for a change of pace from my world-worn hiking boots, I rented a hybrid bike on my second day in Cuyahoga and soared along the gravel track, whooshing past centuries-old railroad trestles and through forests alive with the fire of fall foliage.
For 15 miles, I flew across the park and felt as though I were riding backwards in time, past wooden storefronts and horse-drawn carriages, past the stone ruins of canal locks and bronze-hued maples with leaves the size of my head. It was breathtaking.
The entire experience left me feeling like I’d been an unapologetic western parks snob, and highlighted the importance of our more urban national parks as invaluable places of refuge. With Cuyahoga Valley making its debut on the top ten most visited parks in 2020, it sounds like the rest of the country agrees.
63 Parks Traveler Cuyahoga Valley Info
Size: 32,950 acres
Location: Northeastern Ohio, between Cleveland and Akron
Created in: 1974 (national recreation area), 2000 (national park)
Best For: Biking, hiking, waterfall viewing, history, scenic drives, fall colors
When to Go: Spring (29 to 69 degrees), summer (58 to 81 degrees), and fall (35 to 72 degrees) are all wonderful times to explore, but the park is at its most scenic when the leaves begin to change, usually in October. Winter (19 to 37 degrees) is brisk and may bring ice and snow on popular trails; microspikes are recommended.
Where to Stay: No campgrounds exist within the park, but the NPS does recommend a number of nearby places to pitch a tent. For those who’d like to step back in time and stay in one of the park’s historic buildings, The Inn at Brandywine Falls (from $175) offers lovely rooms filled with antiques and serves a complimentary breakfast.
Mini Adventure: Hike the family-friendly Brandywine Gorge Trail. This 1.5-mile loop takes visitors right up to the park’s most popular waterfall, then descends through a dense forest to Brandywine Creek, where you’ll find a deep gorge of shale and sandstone. Like most of the park, this trail is pet-friendly.
Mega Adventure: Bike the Towpath Trail. Learn about the unique history of the Ohio & Erie Canal on the 20 miles of paved and gravel path that bisects the national park. I rented my bike at Century Cycles, in Peninsula, and was able to hop easily onto the multi-use path where it parallels the serpentine Cuyahoga River. Looking to bike the route one-way? The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers one-way tickets specifically for Towpath bikers. Nearly all of the trail is accessible and level, making it perfect for families and groups of all ages (pets can join too).