Cuyahoga National Park is not your typical national park. I remember arriving there for the first time and thinking, “What is this?” Most national parks are surrounded by national forests, rustic lodging, and campgrounds. In contrast, Cuyahoga National Park is surrounded by development and industry. Many small towns surround it and Cleveland is to its north, making Cuyahoga an oasis in the middle of commerce and housing.
The booming industry, rapid growth, and industrial climate of the 1960s were 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 were not surprised by the burning river. However, while it burned this time, there was a grassroots movement beginning to take hold in America. People were ready to see a change start to happen in how we cared for the earth. The 1969 fire is sometimes portrayed 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 Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation area. People were wary about this designation to the polluted Cuyahoga River, and many argued the river could never be used for recreation or tourism. However, Ford used this platform as a preventive measure allowing the government to purchase land along the historic river and the nearby Ohio Canal, creating the path for Cuyahoga National Park.
1. Visit Boston Mill Visitor Center
Start your visit to this unique National Park at the Boston Mills Visitor Center. Reopened in 2019, this fully refurbished building was built in 1905 and was the first company store for the Cleveland-Akron Bag Company. Here you will find all the necessary information for your exploration of the park and surrounding areas. Watch the video about how Cuyahoga became a national park, get hands-on with the interactive exhibits, and peruse the gift shop. Parking is easily accessible, and there is space for oversized and big rigs across the intersection.
Pro Tip: Get a Jr. Ranger book to help you experience the park. While you might think it is just for kids, rangers will tell you they can be used from preschoolers to 100+-year-olds. You’re never too old to learn.
Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
2. Ride The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
The history of trains in the area stretches back over 100 years, and you can hop on board to experience the beauty of the national park from the climate-controlled cars of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad along the route. The train runs from Rockside Station in Independence, Ohio, to North Side Station in Akron, Ohio, so you’ll be able to see stunning views of the Cuyahoga River all along the route on your excursion. Rides can take up to 3 and a half hours during the summer months.
Pro Tip: Passengers who are 55 and older receive $2 off an adult coach ticket price on the National Park Scenic train on weekdays (Wednesday – Friday) between June and September. This discount only applies to coach tickets.
3. The Best Time to Visit Cuyahoga National Park
Any time, of course! However, there are a few advantages to each season in Ohio. Springtime offers the beauty of the world coming awake after its long winter nap, with wildflowers and plenty of water flowing. Summer brings warmer temperatures and longer days for outdoor adventure. Autumn is stunning here in the valley. Trees burst forth with bright reds to deep oranges, and the cooler temps bring a crispness to the air that invigorates. Winter isn’t just for hot chocolate by a fireplace; adventures within the park are just as exciting as summer, just with a different look. During the colder days, you can ski at the nearby Boston Mills Brandywine ski resort.
Pro Tip: Pack layers for your trip because temperatures can fluctuate during the day.
4. The Best Ways to Explore Cuyahoga National Park
There are multiple ways to explore this National Park; all you have to do is choose your adventure.
There are over 125 miles of hiking trails are available for your hiking pleasure in CVNP, and picking the one that is just right for you is all you have to do! Three of the more easy and accessible hikes within the park can be found below:
- Tree Farm Trail (2.75 miles) strolls alongside a tree farm the park acquired.
- Blue Hen Falls (3 miles) takes you to a 15-foot waterfall. Note that there is a steep hill for a half-mile on this trail.
- Station Road Hike (1 mile) is a short, scenic hike over flat terrain that provides views of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s Brecksville Station, the historic Station Road Bridge, the Cuyahoga River, the Ohio & Erie Canal, and you can see an eagle’s nest and blue heron along the route.
One of the best ways to experience the nature of Cuyahoga Valley National Park is biking on the 19.5-mile Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath. The path is comprised of compacted gravel, making it wheelchair accessible and bicycle-friendly. Century Cycles and Eddy’s Bike Shop offer bicycle rentals, and both now offer electric bicycles for a more leisurely ride. In my opinion, it is one of the best ways to experience the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath is by bicycle.
There is nothing like taking a trip down this reclaimed river to see what conservation and restoration look like! You could come across beaver, white-tailed deer, and a fox or two along your way. There are 10 kayak launch sites within the park, and you can use the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway train to get back to your vehicle. There is no place to rent kayaks within the park.
You might not want to venture too far from your vehicle, and that’s OK. Touring the National Park this way offers one of the best ways to see the Cuyahoga Valley National Park without ever breaking a sweat! You can take one of the scenic drives from the visitor center. Riverview Road Scenic Drive stretches for 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 at Cuyahoga National Park, it will be the perfect one for you.
Pro Tip: Plan your desired style of exploration and book early.
5. You Must See The Waterfalls
Let’s face it; waterfalls are magical. The sound of the water falling over the rim of the falls to come crashing down into the rocky bottom is mesmerizing! Cuyahoga has many falls to choose from, so plan your day accordingly. Some are easier to get to than others.
- Bridal Veil Falls: A short easy walk along a boardwalk with a few steps down will lead you to this cascading beauty. Parking is across the street, so be cautious as you cross.
- Mudcatcher Falls: This man-made waterfall is located on the towpath making it an easily accessible sight.
- Brandywine Falls: The most popular and busy waterfall within the park! Plan your trip here accordingly because parking is limited. Try arriving early in the morning or later in the day. You can take the easy boardwalk to view the falls from up top or venture down the stairs into the gorge for an up-close look and hike the 1.5-mile gorge trail.
- Shredder Falls: After checking out Brandywine Falls, continue on the Brandywine Gorge Trail, and you’ll find the falls. The story goes that this long cascade got its name in the 1970s when boy scouts would hike here to ride and slide the falls down, shredding their pants. While it was fun in the ’70s, it is not allowed today.
Pro Tip: Stay nearby at the Inn at Brandywine Falls for an evening of relaxation near Brandywine Falls.
6. Get Educated At The Canal Exploration Center
The Canal Exploration Center is an outstanding museum for exploring the history of the Ohio & Erie Canal. Once the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 across New York, Ohio decided to build a canal connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie, and the race for commerce was on! It is essential to learn about the canal history and how it transformed the state of Ohio. Learn how it is such a vital part of CVNP.
The Canal Exploration Center has a complete map of the entire canal system between Ohio and New York with interactive features. Park rangers are on-site during normal business hours, ready to answer questions and share helpful information.
Even though urban areas surround it, Cuyahoga National Park seems a world away. You’re nearby all the conveniences of the modern world but able to explore like Lewis and Clark in a wonderland of restored lands and waterways. Take a road trip to Ohio and explore the returned natural beauty of this one-of-a-kind national park.