Cuyahoga Valley National Park is one of the most unlikely parks in the national system — and one of the most used, too.
It's unlikely because the park lacks a spectacle of nature — not a mountain, canyon, crater or even a natural lake. The park does have a Superfund environmental cleanup site.
What the park does have is location, location, location — and an array of easily accessible, family-friendly activities. The 33,000-acre park, tucked between Cleveland and Akron, is where the people are. It's a 20-minute drive from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, two hours from Pittsburgh, three hours from Detroit and four hours from Cincinnati.
Hiking trails abound, and the park is a bicyclist's paradise. The bike paths are flat — the advantage of no mountains! One long trail stretches along the old Ohio & Erie Canal, partially restored, and runs next to a working train for 20 miles. You (and your bike) can get on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad where you want and get off where you want in the summer; tickets cost $2 to $15.
Among the most popular ways to enjoy the park is to bike one way along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, then take the train back to where you started. It's not unusual to see 6,000 people on the Towpath on a Sunday afternoon. Spread over 20 miles, that's not as crowded as it may sound.
Despite being a national park, Cuyahoga Valley functions much like a local or regional park. Only about 10% to 15% of visitors are from outside a two-hour drive, deputy superintendent Paul Stoehr says. For outsiders, this can make the park a hidden gem. For locals, it creates an intense relationship with the place.
"At Everglades National Park," says Stoehr, who used to work there, "it's one and done. People come once in a lifetime. Here, visitors come again and again and have a unique relationship with the park."
There's no shortage of scenic beauty. The Cuyahoga River snakes through the park and lives up to the name Native Americans gave it — words that mean "crooked river." Brandywine Falls is among the most beautiful and popular waterfalls in the park. And solitude can be found on more than 125 miles of hiking trails. (Try the Plateau Trail.)
In the summer, the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra and other groups play concerts outdoors. Several privately owned golf courses in the park are open to the public. Horses are welcome on many trails. (Bring your own horse; no rental operations currently operate.) Depending on the season, canoeing, kayaking, picnicking and cross- country skiing are popular.
The park service is still adapting to the region's industrial heritage. An old junkyard is now a beaver marsh. An old industrial dump — think auto industry waste — became a $50 million Superfund environmental cleanup project. The 180 acres are now safe. After regrading, the old dump will look like a meadow, then a forest someday. Says Stoehr, "It's a story of restoration."
About the park