Located in northern Ohio between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is not your typical national park. There are no grand views or unique natural features as you’ll find at Yosemite or Yellowstone. What makes this park interesting is its accessibility. Indeed, over our two days at Cuyahoga Valley NP, it was obvious that this is a “playground” for the locals. Don’t worry, though, out-of-town visitors will still find plenty of things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
I have heard quite a few people say they did not like Cuyahoga Valley NP and I kind of understand why. If you’re expecting the scenic vistas or wide-open spaces that you find at most national parks, you will be disappointed. But, if you expect a place where you can enjoy the outdoors, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised. In fact, there were more hiking trails here than I ever would have guessed.
If hiking isn’t your thing, you can ride the scenic railroad, drive Riverview Road, bike along the Towpath Trail, watch for wildlife at Beaver Marsh or shop a historic farmer’s market. In the winter, you can even go skiing. Seriously, there are plenty of things to do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park for both locals and visitors that will leave you rethinking what it means to be a national park.
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Cuyahoga Valley National Park Basic Information
This somewhat odd park got its start with the National Park Service in 1974 when Congress created Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. Congress later redesigned it Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2000. The park preserves 33,000 acres mostly in a north-south line along the Cuyahoga River.
The historic Ohio & Erie Canal opened in 1927, mostly paralleling the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron. At the time, the canal provided a much-needed method of transportation between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. This was necessary because the Cuyahoga River has too many twists and turns for boats. Indeed, “cuyahoga” literally means crooked.
At the time of its inception, Cuyahoga Valley NRA was meant to be an urban park in an attempt to halt the destruction of natural features as the suburban sprawl of Cleveland and Akron grew. Of course, with most of the land being privately owned, that created a bit of a fight between landowners and the National Park Service. Over the years both sides seem to have found a way to coexist. The park’s introductory film touched on this conflict but, honestly, we left with a lot of questions on this topic!
Towns grew along the canal and river as business thrived with this new way to transport goods and people. The remnants of these historic towns are still found along the river today and are part of both the charm and confusion of the park. Perhaps the most well-known and unique feature of Cuyahoga Valley NP is the Towpath, a 20-mile trail for walking, running and cycling along the old canal bed.
Today the park is still very much an urban park with only 20% of the 2 million annual visitors coming from out-of-state. So, what should you do while you are there? Keep reading for our top ten things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Visit the Boston Store Visitor Center
We always suggest starting any visit to a national park at the Visitor Center. The main visitor center for Cuyahoga Valley NP is located at the old Boston Store, pretty much in the middle of the park. The current building is fairly small, but the park service is working on a much larger building that should be open sometime in 2019.
The Boston Store Visitor Center currently has a small exhibit area focusing on the history of canal boat building. Hopefully, this will be expanded once the visitor center moves to a larger building. You can also watch a short (15-20 minute) film on an overview of the park. The film covers the history of the park and a few of its features.
Of course, you should also check in with a ranger to get any alerts or updates. The rangers and volunteers can also offer their suggestions on things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We also picked up a couple of free trail maps which were extremely helpful.
Check Out Blue Hen Falls
Not far from the Boston Store Visitor Center is Blue Hen Falls, a nice 15-foot waterfall. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park web site describes the trail there as “a steep half-mile hike,” but it really was not a difficult hike at all. Honestly, finding a parking space is the difficult part here!
The trail to the waterfall is about 1/4-mile and does include a few downhill sections. Yep, that means you’ll have a bit of uphill coming back. The trail itself is wide and overall easy to walk.
I know that a 15-foot waterfall may not sound super impressive, but it is picturesque and worth a quick 15-20 minute stop. The hike itself is only about 6-7 minutes each way. Allow at least another 5-10 minutes to take pictures.
In terms of parking, there are three spaces in the official lot. Yes, only three! There is a larger overflow lot across the street. Unfortunately, even the overflow lot is still somewhat limited in size, especially compared to some other parking areas at the park. There are a few other things to do nearby, so swing back by later if you can’t get parking the first time.
View Brandywine Falls
For an impressive waterfall in Cuyahoga Valley NP, be sure to stop at Brandywine Falls. Brandywine Falls is a 65-foot waterfall with a handicapped accessible viewing area. Not only is this waterfall much higher than Blue Hen, it is also wider and has several ledges creating small cascades on the way down.
If you want to get in some hiking, there is a 1.4 mile loop trail here. We had our eye on a couple of other hikes, so we just went straight to the viewing platform. The lower viewing area provides a bit better viewing angle, but does require taking quite a few steps down.
Just past the upper viewing area, you’ll find the remnants of an old mill. Back in the early 1800s, settlers admired not only the beauty of the waterfall, but its power, too. According to the NPS web site, George Wallace built the first saw mill in 1814; grist and woolen mills soon followed. The village of Brandywine eventually became one of the first communities in the Cuyahoga Valley.
Hike the Ledges Trail
The Ledges area of Cuyahoga Valley NP is perhaps one of its most unique natural features. In this area, you’ll find numerous rock formations creating overhanging ledges and hidden spaces to explore. We really enjoyed the hike here. Young kids would enjoy exploring and playing among the rocks, I’m sure!
The full loop trail is about 2.5 miles and took us a little over an hour to hike. There are a number of shortcuts if you don’t have the time or mobility for the full hike. Most of the trail is fairly flat, though there are few uphills and downhills and some rocky terrain. The best part is that the trail is shaded pretty much the entire time, so that helps keep the temperature down.
The one downside to this trail is that it is very popular and, therefore, fairly crowded. Thankfully, the parking area is large so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a place to park. Just know that this hike will not necessarily be a quiet one.
Even if you don’t have time for a full hike, this area is unique enough to warrant at least a quick stop. There is also a large picnic area and grassy area for the kids to run and play before or after checking out the rocks.
Explore a Less Popular Area
From my research I knew that Brandywine Falls and hiking at the Ledges are some of the top things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. But, we also like to get off the beaten path and explore some of the quieter spots. We asked a ranger for his recommendation and ended up at the Boston Run Trail.
What we enjoyed most about the Boston Run Trail is the lack of people. Seriously, we saw a grand total of 3 people on the entire 3-mile loop trail. That was quite a change from the Ledges hike!
The first part of the Boston Run Trail is close to the road, so we did have to endure a bit of road noise. Once we made the turn, though, it was nice and quiet. The trail itself was mostly flat and easy-to-walk terrain. There is only one uphill section, which is just before the trail connects back to the starting point.
Honestly, we enjoyed the Boston Run Trail, but there wasn’t anything super unique or interesting about it. The isolation truly was the best part, especially in this very urban park. If you have the time to explore one of the lesser-known areas, I highly encourage you to do so. Just ask a ranger or volunteer for a recommendation based on your schedule and ability.
Search for Wildlife at Beaver Marsh
First things first, when I say wildlife, I don’t mean elk, bison, bear or any other large mammals that you might find at many other national parks. Still, Beaver Marsh offers a great environment to spot birds, turtles or even a beaver inside the park.
In addition to being a good place to watch for wildlife, Beaver Marsh has an interesting history. In the 19th century developers drained the original wetland. At one time a dairy farm was located on part of the land. Most “famously,” an auto repair shop and junkyard was located here.
When the National Park Service gained control, they cleaned up the area and started planning for a parking lot. Well… That took so long that the beavers returned and eventually transformed the area back into a wetland.
As you walk through and view the waterlily-covered wetland, it’s difficult to imagine that it was once covered with car parts other household trash. Today, Beaver Marsh is one of the top places to visit in Cuyahoga Valley NP by locals and visitors alike.
From the parking lot, it is an easy 5 minute walk along the towpath to reach Beaver Marsh. You can spend as much or as little time admiring the scenery as you want. We didn’t see any beavers, but we did see a couple of snapping turtles – one sunning on a log and the other swimming.
As always, you’ll have the best opportunity to spot wildlife (and the best light for taking pictures) early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
Learn About the Historic Canals
On the north end of Cuyahoga Valley NP is the Canal Exploration Center, which serves as a secondary visitor center. If you’re coming in from the north and want to start here, you certainly could. That said, once the park opens the new and expanded Boston Run Visitor Center, I think it will be a much better starting point.
The historic Ohio & Erie Canal rose nearly 400 feet in elevation as it traveled from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. A total of 44 locks worked as elevators rising and lowering boats as they made the journey through the canal. At the Canal Exploration Center, you can learn more about these locks and how they worked.
Lock 38, located at the CEC, is one of the few restored, working locks. An exhibit explains how the locks work and the importance of the locks. Another exhibit can be found in Peninsula (not far from the Boston area). There, you’ll find the remnants of Lock 29. While it is not functional, it does show a different perspective of the locks.
While learning about locks may not be exciting for kids, adults will most likely find this one of the more unique things to do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Drive the Scenic Riverview Road
The Cuyahoga River really is the “spine” of the National Park. As such, you should certainly spend some time taking in the river views, whether it is by car, bike, foot or train. To see it by car, you’ll drive Riverview Road. I’ll cover the other options below. If you have a limited amount of time, exploring by car will certainly be the fastest and easiest of these options.
On the official Cuyahoga Valley NP map, the scenic drive is outlined in yellow, making it easy to follow. You can start on either the north end or the south end, or even in the middle – it really shouldn’t matter too much one way or the other. It is important to note that the scenic road is actually Canal Road and Chaffee Road on the northern end.
The road travels along the river, with ample opportunities to park so you can enjoy the views or take a short walk. That said, it is only about 15 miles through the park. If you’re not stopping, I’d expect to take about 30 minutes to drive the entire road one way.
Many of the suggestions I’ve made above are located along the scenic drive; others are not far away. The Canal Exploration Center is at the northern end and the Boston Store Visitor Center is near the middle. Both of these should have clearly marked parking areas. Beaver Marsh is located further south. The closest parking is at Ira.
Hike or Bike the Towpath Trail
If there is one thing that truly defines Cuyahoga Valley National Park it is the Towpath Trail. This fully accessible, sometimes paved trail follows the historic Ohio & Erie Canal route the entire length the park (and beyond). The Towpath Trail is a well-used trail by walkers, hikers, runners and cyclists. It was obvious to us that the locals frequently use this for their daily exercise.
Like Riverview Road, the Towpath Trail mostly follows the Cuyahoga River, so you will get a lot of the same views. Indeed, the road and the trail are each visible from the other quite often. There are several places where the trail and the road are on opposite sides of the river, though, so the views are not exactly the same.
The Towpath Trail can be accessed through the many parking areas along the scenic drive. If you have the time, I highly encourage you to spend at least a little time along the Towpath Trail.
Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
For a relaxing and kid-friendly (or maybe kid-at-heart-friendly) way to see the park, consider a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The route, again, runs along the Cuyahoga River and the old canal, so it is many of the same views you get from the scenic drive or the Towpath Trail.
Still, how often do you get to ride on a train, much less in a National Park?!?! This certainly ranks as one of the most unique things to do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park!
There are a couple of ticket options, with the most common being a round-trip coach ticket for $16/adult. You can spend more for a First Class ticket or a Scenic View, but I don’t think it’s necessary. We enjoyed our “cheap seats” just fine!
One thing that does make the railroad different from the road or the trail is that you do get some commentary and park trivia along the way. Since we had already driven the road, we had seen many of the sights. Still, we enjoyed just being able to relax and learn a little more about the park.
We boarded the train at the south end station, Akron Northside. You can also board on the north end (Rockside Station) or in the middle at Peninsula. Technically you can get off and on, though depending on which station you’re at, it could be hours before another train comes.
Unfortunately, you cannot bring outside food or drinks on the train. There is a dining car that offers basic sandwiches, fruit cups, chips and drinks (including decent options for beer & wine).
A Perfectly Timed Stop: Canal Exploration Center
If you board the train on the south end, like we did, you do have the opportunity to visit the Canal Exploration Center from the train. The Canal station is the 2nd northernmost stop. When the train gets to Rockside Station (farthest north), it stays there for about 30 minutes before starting the return journey south. And there’s really nothing to do there.
Rather than just sitting on the train for 30 minutes, a group of us got off the train at Canal and joined a park volunteer on the short walk to the CEC. Yes, we did miss that northern section of the route. But, we had already driven the road and had not yet been to the Canal Exploration Center. The 40 minutes we had was just about the perfect amount of time here.
Please note, you do NOT want to do this if you board the train on the north end at Rockside Station! On this route the return train doesn’t come for more than 3 hours and it’ll just take you about 4 miles right back to where you came from.
Also, remember you can only board the train at Rockside, Peninsula or Akron Northside. You cannot do your initial boarding of the train at Canal station.
Bike and Hike Aboard
During the summer, visitors can save some money by taking advantage of the train’s Bike and Hike Aboard program. With this ticket, you can bike or hike in one direction and take the train in the other direction. Pretty cool, huh? Tickets only cost $5… Even better!
We REALLY wanted to do this so that we could experience the train and also get in a bit of exercise. But we do not have bicycles and didn’t really want to hike 20 miles! There is a bike rental shop in Peninsula but we quickly realized that the cost was just not worth it.
With the Bike and Hike Aboard ticket you can board at any of the 9 stations by flagging down the train. That said, I’d suggest you do the train first so that you can move at your own pace without having to worry about being at a certain station by a certain time. The train stops really are very infrequent.
If we ever return to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, hopefully we’ll have bikes with us so that we can take advantage of this program!
Other Things to Do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park
We spent about a day and a half doing all of this, mostly in this order. If you have additional time, there are several other things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. First of all, there are a ton of hiking trails that we didn’t get to. You could certainly spend a lot more time hiking the trails or the Towpath. There are even a few horse trails.
The Peninsula area has a couple of restaurants and a gift shop. We did not visit any of these, but we heard that it was a popular area to explore. There is also a bike rental shop in Peninsula.
If you’re looking for fresh produce, you might want to check out Szalay’s Farm & Market. This historic farm specializes in sweet corn but offers a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. We didn’t stop, but it was recommended by the train staff.
For families with young children, I’d suggest a visit to Hale Farm and Village. This historic property is within the National Park boundaries, though it is run by the Western Reserve Historical Society. According to their web site, Hale Farm offers historic structures, farm animals and early American trade demonstrations.
Tips for a Shorter Visit
If you have the time, I think two days at Cuyahoga Valley NP is just about perfect. With that time, you can see all the “must see” sites and a few of the “off-the-beaten-path” sites as well. You’ll also have time to relax and enjoy the area and not be rushed.
That said, if you only have one day, or even just half a day, you can still see a lot and do this park justice.
In this case, I’d recommend you spend your time walking or biking the Towpath Trail, riding the railroad and/or driving Riverview Drive. This will allow you to see the majority of the park and learn a bit about the canal and the history of the area.
You could spend as much or as little time as you want walking/biking/driving – just be sure to check out a few of the exhibits at the parking lots/trailheads along the way. The round-trip train ride will take about half a day – check the park newsletter or the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad web site for the schedule.
I would also suggest a visit to Brandywine Falls. While you could easily spend an hour or more hiking and taking pictures here, you can also see the falls and move on in just 15-20 minutes if you’re tight on time.
Where to Stay
There are very limited options for lodging or camping inside the park. Thankfully, you’ll find tons of options in the surrounding cities.
We camped at West Branch State Park in Ravenna, which was about 30-45 minutes from Cuyahoga Valley NP. While the drive was a bit long, we really enjoyed this campground and highly recommend it. This is one of the best state park campgrounds we’ve ever stayed in. It was also a good central location for visiting a few other National Parks sites in the area.
Final Thoughts on Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park certainly is not a “traditional’ national park. While there you may not really feel like you’re in a National Park. Still, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park to keep you busy for a day or two.
This park started as a National Recreation Area and, honestly, that designation seems to fit it a little bit better, though there is more to the area that just recreation. I’ll say, though, the more we visit all the different park units, the official designation (National Park, National Historic Site, National Battlefield Park, etc.) seems to be very random and very much at the whim of Congress and the folks lobbying for the preservation. All that said, these days I think you really have to adjust your expectations of not just National Parks, but all the units.
A visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park is well worth your time, especially if you are already in the northern Ohio area. Additionally, there are several other National Parks units nearby that you can combine into one trip. In fact, there are a total of 8 National Parks sites in Ohio, plus a couple of affiliated sites and another one just north of Toledo in Michigan. Cuyahoga Valley NP makes a great centerpiece for visiting all of Ohio’s National Parks.