A park that attracts as many people as Cuyahoga Valley National Park does -- nearly 2.6 million in 2009 -- has got to be doing something very right. That "something" is providing high-quality outdoor recreation opportunities for the heavily-populated Cleveland-Akron urban region of northeastern Ohio. The nearly 33,000-acre park is certainly well-positioned to do this, since it is centered on the rural Cuyahoga River Valley stretching some 22 miles between the two big cities and containing segments of the Ohio & Erie Canal and a scenic railroad, historic farms, and other attractions besides the meandering river (Cuyahoga is an Indian word for "crooked river") and glaciated terrain with a good deal of variety. The northern boundary of the park is less than ten miles from downtown Cleveland.
Coming into existence as a National Recreation Area in 1974, and redesignated National Park in 2000, Cuyahoga Valley National Park was born out of the 1970s-era urban park movement that produced a half-dozen or so national parks situated cozily inside the day-tripper zones of major urban centers and catering to the outdoor recreation needs of the nearby city dwellers. Within this "mass recreation" model, preserving and interpreting natural and cultural resources plays a secondary role (though by no means an unimportant one).
Other NPS units parks created on the National Recreation Area urban model include Gateway National Recreation Area (serving New York City/northern New Jersey), Golden Gate National Recreation Area (San Francisco Bay area), Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (Los Angeles), Chattahoochee National Recreation Area (Atlanta), Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve (New Orleans), and in 1996, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.
With these understandings in mind, here are Traveler's recommendations for things that people should see and do when visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the first time.
Water quality problems and navigation obstructions severely constrain water sports in this park. Before engaging in recreational activities that take place on or in the water, make sure you understand the do's and don'ts. Generally speaking, assume that the water in the river, streams, and ponds is unsafe for skin contact unless you are told otherwise. Don't eat fish taken from park waters.
The only lodging in the park is at the Inn at Brandywine Falls or the Cuyahoga Valley HI-Stanford Hostel.
Don't bring alcoholic beverages with you. They're banned in the park.
** Bring your picnic basket. There are picnicking areas throughout the park. The Ledges and Octagon Shelters sites can be reserved for a small fee. All other sites are first come, first served.
** Enjoy the scenery and wildlife. The intermingling of Appalachian Plateau and Central Lowlands landscapes hasn't produced jaw-dropping beauty here, but along the winding river and in adjacent areas you'll see rolling wooded hills, steep ravines, sandstone ledges, lush farmland, and an assortment of wildlife that includes white-tail deer, beaver, and nearly 200 bird species. Among the park's 70 waterfalls is Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley's most popular natural attraction. There's a darn nice photo op at Tinkers Creek Gorge, too.
If you're a leaf peeping fan, the park is a great place to be in the fall when the maple, oak, birch, beech and hemlock trees at their scenic best. You'll have company; this park gets roughly half a million visitors in September-October.
** Stop at the Canal Visitor Center. There you'll find park information and an overview of valley and canal history. You can also sign up for ranger-led tours and special events.
** Hike or bike the Towpath Trail. As the name implies, the Towpath Trail runs along the towpath of the historic Ohio & Erie Canal. Extending from downtown Cleveland southward along the Cuyahoga River, the trail passes through the park on its way (via Akron) to the historic community of Zoar. The nearly 20-mile stretch in the park has ten trailheads, lots of wayside exhibits, and a nearly level surface that offers outstanding hiking and biking. There are over 100 miles of other trails in the park, including dandies like the Brandywine Gorge Trail, the Plateau Trail, and the Bridal Veil Falls Trail.
You can ride a horse, but stay on the designated trails. There are six bridle trails in the park, including Riding Run Trail and Brecksville Reservation. They range from 3 to 14.5 miles in length, and if you want to ride them you'll need to provide your own horse.
** Take the path less traveled. There are some rugged backcountry hiking trails in the park. If overnighting is in your plans, there are five primitive campsites for hikers and bicyclists at Stanford House Backcountry Campsites. Reservations are required.
** Ride the rails. A trip aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, with its vintage (1940s and 50s) engines and coaches, is a recreational staple of this park. The northern terminal is near Thornburg Station at the park's northern border, and there are stops at the Canal Visitor Center, Hale Farm & Village, the Village of Peninsula, and several other places. If you're headed north out of Akron, you can get on at the Zoo, Stan Hywett Hall & Gardens, or Inventure Place ((National Inventors Hall of Fame).
** Visit Hale Farm & Village and take in some history. The park has a number of preserved and restored displays of 19th and early 20th century sustainable farming and pastoral living environments. The Hale Farm & Village (at Bath) depicts a Western Reserve settlement of the late 1840s. Not federally-owned and operated, it is a compatible-use site very popular with park visitors. Adult admission is about $12.00.
** Attend an outdoor concert at the Blossom Music Center. Located on Steels Corners Road near the south end of the park, the Blossom Music Center serves as the summer weekend "annex" of the renowned Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to its slate of classical performances, the center is a major venue for rock and pop concerts during the summer months. Contact the center for a schedule of events.
** Enjoy water sports (but be careful). Water quality problems and navigation obstructions severely constrain water sports in this park. While swimming, wading, paddling and fishing are legal in various water bodies within the park, none of these activities is recommended except in certain places or under certain conditions. For example, while swimming is permitted in all areas of the park except Indigo Lake and Kendall Lake, the only healthy place to do it is at the Dover Lake Waterpark. And while fishing is allowed in the river and numerous ponds, it's not safe to eat the fish you catch. For more information on water quality at Cuyahoga Valley National Park visit this site.
** Give Questing a try. Questing is a fairly new search-and-find interactive recreational activity that bears some similarity to geocaching, but does not require the use of a GPS unit or the exchange of trinkets. Participants only need a pen or pencil, walking shoes, and the ability to follow rhyming clues and a curious map. When you find a quest box, you collect its unique stamp, sign its logbook, and then re-hide it for others. The next questing season at Cuyahoga Valley is scheduled for April 15 to November 15. For more information about questing at the park, visit this site
** Have some winter fun. The snow and ice season means cross-country and downhill skiing, snow tubing, snowshoeing, sledding, ice fishing and other winter fun at Cuyahoga Valley. For sledding hills and snowshoeing/cross-country ski programs and trails, visit the Winter Sports Center on Truxell Road at Kendall Lake Shelter southwest of the Happy Days Visitor Center. The Cuyahoga Nordic Ski Patrol monitors the trails and sledding hills. Contact the park for open dates and remember that the center closes when the snow depth is less than four inches.
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park website is a well-indexed source of visitor information.
Click to the park's maps site for a nice selection of maps organized by area and activity.
The Stanford Backcountry Campsites FAQs site has detailed camping information.
For a complete listing of the park's hiking trails and related information, go to this site.
The Cuyohoga Valley National Park Association mission is to engage public support for the park and enhance public use and enjoyment of the park. CVNPA accomplishes its mission by developing and operating a variety of programs and services that educate the public, add to the park experience, and reach a diverse community. By engaging the public in participation and philanthropic support, CVNPA energetically and enthusiastically strives to achieve its vision to ensure that Cuyahoga Valley National Park achieves its full benefit to the citizens of Northeast Ohio and the nation.