Cuyahoga National Park is not your typical national park. I remember getting there for the first time and thinking, âWhat is this? Most national parks are surrounded by national forests, rustic accommodation and campgrounds. In contrast, Cuyahoga National Park is surrounded by development and industry. Many small towns surround it and Cleveland lies to the north, making Cuyahoga an oasis amid commerce and housing.
The booming industry, rapid growth, and industrial climate of the 1960s was the recipe that would create Ohio’s only national park.
The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 for the 11th time in a century. The locals weren’t surprised by the scorching river. However, as it burned down this time, there was a grassroots movement starting to take hold in America. People were ready to see a change start to happen in the way we care for the earth. The 1969 fire is sometimes presented as a direct cause of the first Earth Day in 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed a bill establishing the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. People were suspicious of this designation of the polluted Cuyahoga River, and many argued that the river could never be used for recreation or tourism. However, Ford used this platform as a preventative measure allowing the government to purchase land along the historic River and the nearby Ohio Canal, creating the path to Cuyahoga National Park.
1. Visit the Boston Mill Visitor Center
Start your tour of this unique national park at the Boston Mills Visitor Center. Reopened in 2019, this completely renovated building was constructed in 1905 and was the Cleveland-Akron Bag Company’s first corporate store. Here you will find all the information you need to explore the park and the surrounding area. Watch the video on how Cuyahoga became a national park, check out the interactive exhibits, and browse the gift shop. Parking is easily accessible and there is room for oversized and tall platforms across the intersection.
Pro tip: Pick up a Jr. Ranger book to help you explore the park. While you might think it’s just for kids, rangers will tell you that they can be used from preschoolers to over 100s. You are never too old to learn.
Open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
2. Take the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
The history of trains in the area dates back over 100 years, and you can hop aboard to experience the beauty of the national park from the air-conditioned cars of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway along the route. The train connects Rockside Station in Independence, Ohio, to North Side Station in Akron, Ohio. You will be able to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Cuyahoga River throughout your excursion. Journeys can take up to 3.5 hours during the summer months.
Pro tip: Passengers aged 55 and over receive a $ 2 reduction on the price of an adult coach ticket on the National Park Scenic Train on weekdays (Wednesday through Friday) between June and September. This reduction only applies to coach tickets.
3. The best time to visit Cuyahoga National Park
At any time, of course! However, there are a few perks to every season in Ohio. Spring offers the beauty of the world waking up after its long winter nap, with wild flowers and lots of flowing water. Summer brings warmer temperatures and longer days for outdoor adventure. Autumn is beautiful here in the valley. The trees glow bright red to dark orange, and the cooler temperatures bring an invigorating freshness to the air. Winter isn’t all about hot chocolate by the fireside; adventures in the park are just as exciting as summer, but with a different look. During the colder days, guests can ski at the nearby Boston Mills Brandywine Ski Resort.
Pro tip: Pack layers for your trip as temperatures can fluctuate throughout the day.
4. The best ways to explore Cuyahoga National Park
There are many ways to explore this national park; all you have to do is choose your adventure.
There are over 125 miles of hiking trails available for your hiking pleasure in the CVNP, and choosing the right one for you is all you have to do! Below are three of the easiest and most accessible hikes in the park:
- Tree Farm Trail (2.75 miles) runs along an arboreal farm that the park has acquired.
- Blue Hen Falls (3 miles) takes you to a 15 foot waterfall. Note that there is a steep hill for half a mile on this trail.
- Station Road Hike (1 mile) is a short scenic hike over flat terrain that offers views of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad Brecksville Station, the historic Station Road Bridge, the Cuyahoga River, the Ohio & Erie Canal, and you can see a nest eagle and blue heron along the course.
One of the best ways to experience the nature of Cuyahoga Valley National Park is to cycle the 19.5-mile Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath. The path is made of compacted gravel, which makes it wheelchair accessible and suitable for bicycles. Century Cycles and Eddy’s Bike Shop offer bike rentals, and both now offer e-bikes for a quieter ride. In my opinion, this is one of the best ways to experience the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath by bike.
There is nothing quite like going down this reclaimed river to see what conservation and restoration is like! You might encounter a beaver, white-tailed deer, and a fox or two on your way. There are 10 kayak launch sites in the park, and you can use the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway train to return to your vehicle. There is no place to rent kayaks in the park.
You might not want to venture too far from your vehicle, and that’s okay. Visiting the national park this way offers one of the best ways to see Cuyahoga Valley National Park without ever breaking a sweat! You can take one of the scenic routes from the visitor center. Riverview Road Scenic Drive stretches nearly 20 miles through this park, taking visitors on a road trip through some of the most beautiful parts of the park.
No matter how you find your adventure in Cuyahoga National Park, it will be the perfect adventure for you.
Pro tip: Plan your desired exploration style and book early.
5. You must see the waterfalls
Let’s face it; the waterfalls are magical. The sound of the water falling on the edge of the falls to come crashing down on the rocky bottom is bewitching! Cuyahoga has many falls to choose from, so plan your day accordingly. Some are easier to access than others.
- Bridal Veil Falls: A short, easy walk along a boardwalk with a few steps will bring you to this cascading beauty. Parking is across the street so be careful crossing.
- Mudcatcher Falls: This man-made waterfall is located on the towpath, making it an easily accessible sight.
- Brandywine Falls: The most popular and visited waterfall in the park! Plan your trip here accordingly as parking is limited. Try to arrive early in the morning or later in the day. You can take the easy walk to see the falls from above or walk down the stairs into the gorge for an up-close look and walk the 1.5 mile gorge trail.
- Shredder Falls: After visiting Brandywine Falls, continue on the Brandywine Gorge Trail and you will find the falls. The story goes that this long waterfall got its name in the 1970s, when Boy Scouts walked here to climb and slide the falls, ripping their pants off. While it was fun in the 70s, it’s not allowed today.
Pro tip: Stay nearby at the Brandywine Falls Inn for a relaxing evening near Brandywine Falls.
6. Study at the Canal Exploration Center
The Canal Exploration Center is an exceptional museum for exploring the history of the Ohio & Erie Canal. After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 across New York City, Ohio decided to build a canal connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie, and the race for trade was on! It is essential to learn more about the history of the canal and how it transformed the state of Ohio. Find out how this is such a vital part of CVNP.
The Canal Exploration Center has a comprehensive map of the entire canal system between Ohio and New York with interactive features. Park rangers are on site during regular business hours, ready to answer questions and share useful information.
Even though urban areas surround it, Cuyahoga National Park seems a world apart. You are close to all the amenities of the modern world, but you can explore like Lewis and Clark in a wonderland of restored land and waterways. Take a road trip to Ohio and explore the rediscovered natural beauty of this one-of-a-kind national park.