Visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a journey to a National Park like no other. Wedged between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio this is the first and only National Park in the Buckeye State. It made National Park status in the year 2000. At 18-years of age, I think it is still a work in progress as it is more of a collection of parks in and around old towns and older homes making its border porous and nondescript at times. The park is named after the Cuyahoga River which was named by the native Americans in this region. Cuyahoga means “crooked.” An apt name for this curvy waterway. The National Park itself has no gates or fee stations. They do have a visitor center and they do have park rangers decked out in their familiar National Park garb.
Ohio & Erie Canal
When visiting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park we are taken back in time to the early days of our great nation. The central appeal of this park is that of the remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal which was one of our nations first superhighways… sort of.
In the early 1800s Ohio was split. The economic future of central Ohio was dependent on getting goods to and from Lake Erie or the Ohio River. These were the lifelines from Ohio to the rest of the world. Luckily a few men pushed the Ohio legislature towards connecting these two vital water sources to give access to more of the state, enabling more Ohioans to move their goods.
By 1833 the Ohio & Erie Canal connected Lake Erie at Cleveland with the Ohio River at Portsmouth making the mass transit of goods across Ohio a reality. For 20 years these canals reigned supreme and brought commerce to Ohio. The railroads started to take hold in the 1850s and by the late 1800s, the canals brief heyday had ended.
Remnants of the Canal
Today there are remnants of this once amazing man-made structure. Many of the locks in Cuyahoga Valley National Park can still be seen and the canal itself in certain areas still has water running through it although it is more swampy than it would have been during the canal’s heyday.
Visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park
The National Park is tasked with maintaining this historic area for future generations to appreciate. When visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park travelers have other scenic opportunities beyond the ruins of the canal. The park has hiking trails to several picturesque spots most notable of which is the 60’ Brandywine Falls. The hike to which is barely a hike and more of just a small staircase from the adjacent parking lot. The park at times just feels like a slice of the rural USA as it’s boundaries more or less encompass several small towns, a lot of local roads and it even has two major interstates that bisect it. There’s even a ski resort located in the heart of the park. I know! Who knew Ohio had snow skiing. This place is truly like no other National Park I have ever been too.
Flora & Fauna
Yet, despite all of the roads and towns, the place teems with flora and fauna. It has several marshlands and lush thick forests. Jennifer and I saw deer, beaver, birds of all kinds and several different species of turtle.
The Towpath Trail
I think the real highlight of visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park is found on the Towpath Trail which roughly follows the original path of the Ohio & Erie Canal as it passes through the park’s boundaries. The Towpath Trail actual exceeds the park and by a lot. It is an 87-mile trail only 20-miles of which reside within the park’s boundary. The Towpath Trail is the major draw of this National Park which makes Cuyahoga Valley even more of an oddity in the National Park system. Most National Parks shun the usage of bicycles within their boundaries, but here the major attraction is primarily a bike path.
Bikes & Trains
Travelers along this ancient route also have the ability to take a ride on the very rails of the train system that brought about the demise of the canal system. Jennifer and I cycled the full 20-mile length (plus a few extra miles) of the Towpath Trail and then flagged down the passenger train and for $5 a piece rode the rails back to our starting point. It is a very enjoyable and unique experience. I am just not sure that any part of it feels like a National Park.
Click the Video below to see our journey on the Towpath Trail.
Perhaps a New Kind of National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park doesn’t have the grand natural landscapes of those National Parks we have grown up reading about in National Geographic. It doesn’t resemble any National Park I have ever been too. The closest thing I can akin it to is that of Mesa Verde with its preservation of historical human achievement. Perhaps this type of National Park is indeed needed. Cuyahoga Valley National Park holds our history as Americans within its porous borders and protects that for future generations. At the same time, it also gives wildlife a place to survive our ever-encroaching modern world. This place may not feel or look like a traditional National Park, but it does have a similar DNA and spirit. I recommend that you come and check it out for yourself.
Tips for Visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park:
Century Cycles Bike Shop
If you don’t have a bike you can rent one from the Century Cycles bike shop located in the middle of the park. While it is centrally located it is one of the many privately owned pieces of land that has found itself nearly surrounded by the National Park’s border.
The park has backcountry campsites, but no drive in campgrounds.
The trains run through the National Park three times on most weekdays and four times on weekends. It doesn’t run at all on Mondays.
Cold beverages (including beer!) are available for purchase on the train. (Oddly enough, alcohol is not allowed within Cuyahoga Valley National Park…) 🙂
Direction to Ride the Towpath Trail
The park ranger suggested that we park at the northern end of the park and catch the train to the south side where we could start our bike ride back. This is because the park generally slopes down towards the north. It is very gradual so I don’t know that it matters that much which way cyclists travel.
Jennifer and I started in the middle of the park at Boston Heights and cycled south out of the park where we flagged down the train at Big Bend Station (really just a park bench next to the tracks). I say flagged because while this is a train stop the train doesn’t stop unless you wave your hands in the air to flag it down.
Train workers then loaded our bikes on and we enjoyed the air-conditioned car to which bike passengers are directed. We rode the train all the way up to the northern Rockside Station where we offloaded the bikes and then headed south to return to the Boston area where we had begun.
This way of doing the trail is nice as it gave us a break in the middle of our ride. However, it has to be timed right or you run the risk of missing the train.
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