Discovering Cuyahoga Valley National Park

As a Midwesterner, preparing for an excursion to one of my favorite national parks would have to require the following: strict budget planning, a rather hefty bankroll, finely prepped and tuned transportation, myriad camping supplies and time-precious time. After all, aren’t the national parks accessible only by dragging seemingly half your possessions across the country?

Actually, no. Seasoned, experienced park enthusiasts usually have a regional spot that they believe only they and a few others are privy to - a Mammoth Cave, a Sleeping Bear, a Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - just to name three of my favorites that quickly come to mind. At the beginning of July 2017, it became my good fortune to be able to add Cuyahoga Valley National Park to that list.

Who would have thought, growing up in Cincinnati, there was only a couple hundred miles northeast a hidden chasm of moss covered cliffs, cascading waterfalls, hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty, and breathtaking natural beauty in, well, suburban Cleveland?

That is correct! Taking advantage of what geological history and nineteenth century accomplishments had left them, the National Park Service and local governments turned this 33,000 acre reserve into a rather unique national park. Developed around the winding Cuyahoga River, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park has all of the inspiring, imposing, natural attractions of other parks. Just one of the positives? As a Midwesterner, it’s in my neighborhood.

Brie and I recently visited the ledges, cliffs, verdant valleys and trails of CVNP, but it also has a unique charm it can call its own. It surrounds, compliments and absorbs a historical region that not only encompasses a part of the former Ohio and Erie Canal (which was crucial in the economic development of the region), but the remnants of the villages and infrastructure resulting from the canal's existence. It is almost as if there is a symbiosis that exists between the melding of the natural wonders of the park and the past human accomplishments which remain.

Photo Credit: Conservancy for CVNP

It is a wonder to experience this. It was our second day at the park as we visited Ledges and Ledges Overlook and hiked the relatively easy trail that loops for a couple miles through huge blocks of Pennsylvanian and Mississippian Era sandstone formations (some that appeared so precise as to have been quarried by goliath ancient stone men) painted green with moss, likely encouraged by the constant shade provided by white pine and hemlock. The trail itself winds along at the base of these rocks, or ledges, and follows it tightly in a circle. The only difficulty we were presented with was the potential for falling on our faces as we constantly forced ourselves not to stare upward at the enticing scenery above. If you begin in the right direction, you can complete almost all of this two mile trail and have it culminate near Ledges Overlook which gives an awesome view of the Cuyahoga river valley far below.

From our base further north of Ledges, we had the pleasure of passing through one of the villages nestled within the park so we could reach the Visitor Center. It was located in the “town” of Boston, a place that was active during the days of the canal, which passed through a hundred yards or so to the east. It now boasts of an antique service station, a museum that specializes in educating guests on the building of canal boats, and the Visitor Center which, itself, is left over from the old canal days. It is easy to see where the canal once was, as the canal towpath is now a trail used for hiking and biking. The Towpath Trail follows the Ohio and Erie Canal path from Akron and continues north through the edge of the park and is one of the top attractions in CVNP. Another couple hundred yards in the opposite direction is Boston Mills Ski Resort which, along with Brandywine Ski Resort, help keep this park incredibly attractive even in the winter months. Brandywine also offers polar blast tubing. At the supposedly advanced age of 66, I don’t even wish to know what that is because I’d still be likely to try it.

That second day at Cuyahoga Valley National Park convinced me that the opportunities to enjoy our country and its’ natural beauty can be found almost anywhere. Finding it was somewhat of a fluke, however. We arrived two days previously to attend the U2 concert in Cleveland. On the trip from Michigan, we read of the park and I scoffed, saying “I grew up in Ohio and no such place exists!”, or astute words to that effect. We had Friday night to ourselves and, under threatening skies, I decided to prove my point. Arriving at Brandywine Falls trailhead, we started off on a brief hike around the falls and creek. This hike is rated easy and, as I can recall, was about one and a half miles. After passing next to the roaring Brandywine Falls which was even more impressive thanks to the thunderstorms of that day, we were inundated with a constant deluge of rain and finished our hike in water, mud and wind….but where was the accompanying misery one would expect? The fact was, we were so consumed by the knowledge that we had just found this gem of a park where I had never believed one to exist that we were rather oblivious to the elements. It was enough to lead us back two days later to see just what in the world we found!

Photo Credit: Appalachian Outfitters

However, time-precious time, halted our exploration. It will not stop us though, because there is so much more to discover in this park. It is a haven of hiking, picnicking, golfing, horseback riding, fishing, education – the list is incredibly extensive. It holds at least as many reasons to visit as any national park. It is a wonder, as is the wonder that I knew nothing about it.

Sometimes it’s great to be wrong.

Jeff Poole is a guest blogger contributing to our Underscored Gems in the National Park System series