Located in Brecksville, between the cities of Cleveland and Akron, little known Cuyahoga Valley National Park surrounds the 100-mile-long Cuyahoga River, named by American Indians for its “crooked” shape. It famously caught on fire in 1969 for just 24 minutes because of pollution. Long cleaned and restored, the river now provides a cool place to fish, kayak and relax without the crowds that many parks attract.
The Ohio and Erie Canal also runs through the 33,000-acre park, which can be visited in four seasons. Built it in the 1820s, it provided a water route for boats from the Ohio River to Lake Erie but is now used recreationally and managed by the National Park Service. The fascinating Canal Exploration Center is the place to learn all about it.
Ride the Historic Railroad at Cuyahoga
Perhaps the most unique feature of the park is the opportunity to ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. In operation since 1880, the railway was originally used for transporting coal. Now riders can ride the length of the canal (about 3 hours) or board and disembark at multiple locations along the trail with a daypass. Interesting stops include Indigo Lake and historic Everett Village, ca. 1820, site of the only remaining covered bridge in the county. For an additional fee, bicyclists can hop on board too.
During the year, the train hosts various special events such as an ‘Edgar Allen Poe Express’ with a Poe impersonator (move over Elvis) or a “Polar Express”-themed ride. The railway is the perfect cure for hikers’ tired feet, and audio tours that detail the culture and history of the park are also available.
History of Cuyahoga Valley
The twists and turns of the Cuyahoga River offer more than a funky geometrical shape to gawk at. Hundreds of trails wind up and down the diverse park landscape, ranging from leisurely paths to challenging climbs. Towpath Trail is the major trail in the park, named for the mules and horses that walked alongside the canal pulling boats. Along this path, remnants of old locks and other canal structures can be found. From Towpath, connect to the extensive network of various smaller tracks.
You can turn to the many visitor centers in the park for help and information, but also to check out their historic exhibitions. The Canal Visitor Center focuses on past life along the canal and human history in the valley while the Boston Store Visitor Center features displays that tell the story of canal-boat building in the valley. Hunt Farm Center reveals a history of agriculture of the valley. Near Hunt Farm is Lock 27, also known as Johnnycake Lock. After several boats had run aground due to flooding, the stranded canal passengers’ low food supply forced them to eat only corn meal pancakes called ‘johnnycakes.’
Get to Know Cuyahoga’s Natural Environment
A trip to the park would not be complete without some interaction with nature. For scenic and serene waterfalls, stop by Brandywine and Buttermilk Falls. For the best wildlife viewing, Beaver Marsh, which was once an automobile junkyard, is now home to herons, turtles, falcons, amphibians, and of course, beavers.
Children can also participate in Junior Ranger programs which are available at the park’s visitor centers. Another activity called “EarthCaching,” an offshoot of geocaching, is offered at specific sites throughout the trail, and is a fun and unique way to explore the park’s interesting geological features. Both children and adults can also participate in guided hikes with park rangers, catch a glimpse of rare birds or learn about the haunted locations of the park. Hike topics vary by season but are available year round.
If your visit happens to fall in September, you might be lucky enough to witness the migration of thousands of monarch butterflies, passing through Cuyahoga on their way to Mexico.
Trip Planning Details for Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Other than winter, families can visit Cuyahoga National Park at any time of year. There is a variety of accommodation for every type of traveler. Directly in the park are backcountry campgrounds accessible to bicyclists and backpackers available by reservation only. In addition, there are several state and private campgrounds close to the park which you can peruse in this campgrounds directory.
Families looking for a little extra comfort can stay in the Inn at Brandywine Falls, a restored, six-room bed and breakfast located right in the park overlooking the Brandywine Waterfalls. Another option in the park is to rent a room (or more) at the Stanford House, a nine-bedroom remodeled home equipped with a self-service kitchen and two community restrooms, perfect for larger families or reunions. Outside of the park there are numerous lodging options such as the Marriott in Warrensville Heights or several motels. Whatever your lodging preferences, you will be sure to find something to fit your taste and budget.
Cuyahoga National Park offers the perfect escape from the relatively flat Midwestern landscape. With a rich history and various opportunities to get in touch with nature, Cuyahoga is an Ohio must-see adn the only Midwest national park.
To learn even more about the park and its current programs, visit the Cuyhago National Park Service website.
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