I Heart My National Park: Cuyahoga Valley

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Many people are surprised when they hear that there’s a full-blown national park in northeastern Ohio, smack-dab between the urban centers of Cleveland and Akron.

Crisscrossed by roads and freeways, encompassing towns, private attractions, and city parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is hardly comparable to the vast western wilderness parks—a circumstance that leads to even more surprises. Visitors can ride a scenic railroad, hear a symphony concert, attend an art exhibition, or, in winter, zoom down snowy ski slopes.

But, in true national park form, opportunities for personal reflection abound, too. Cuyahoga Valley features secluded trails through rugged gorges that seem far removed from civilization; vistas of tree-covered hills where the urban world is out of sight; marshes where beaver, herons, and wood ducks thrive.

Rebecca Jones Macko has been an interpretive ranger at Cuyahoga Valley for 16 years (after spending an additional 10 at other parks, including Great Smoky Mountains and Mammoth Cave). Here’s a look at Ohio’s only national park through her insider lens.

Cuyahoga Valley Is My Park

Fall is the best time to visit my park because of the colorful autumn foliage. Spring is the best time to see the wildflowers.

My park’s biggest attraction is the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, but a visit isn’t complete without seeing the Ledges Overlook, Brandywine Falls, and the Canal Exploration Center.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to make a stop at the Boston Store Visitor Center (which includes a canal boat-building museum) in Peninsula, Ohio, the first thing you do when you arrive at the park.

My favorite “park secret” is the Buckeye Trail, a long-distance footpath that runs through Cuyahoga Valley.

Watch out for wildlife on the roads and be sure to bring water and bug spray (especially if you are hiking) when you come to the park. Also: If there has been a lot of rain, be prepared for muddy trails.

Head to the Beaver Marsh if you want to see wildlife. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a beaver, otter, or great blue heron fishing in the water.

For the best view, head to the Kendall Ledges.

The Buckeye Trail is the best trail in the park and the Ohio & Erie Canalway, from Canal Road to Riverview Road, is the most scenic drive.

If you’re up for an adventure/physical challenge, try Bike Aboard, where you can ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway to a destination along the Towpath Trail for $3, then bicycle back to your car!

To experience the park’s cultural side, visit the Canal Exploration Center.

Local bed-and-breakfasts such as the Inn at Brandywine Falls and the Stanford House are the best places to stay while visiting. And, though great restaurants abound in Cleveland and Akron, the Winking Lizard and Fisher’s Cafe & Pub are the best places to eat in the heart of the park.

The most peaceful place in the park has to be along the Buckeye Trail, where you can’t believe you are within 45 minutes of 4.5 million people. It is quiet; the wind in the hemlocks and nearby rippling streams are the only sounds you’re likely to hear.

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is an “unsung hero” of my park because it makes the park accessible to visitors who may not be able to see it otherwise. People of all ages and walks of life love the train ride through the valley.

Seeing a pig on a leash could only happen in my park. We’ve even had cow jams with the cows or sheep escaping the park’s farms and blocking the road.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the Junior Ranger programs or Music in the Meadow, a free concert featuring great local music that’s held every other Wednesday evening in the summer. Bring a picnic!

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the “Emerald Necklace” of Cleveland Metroparks, and the Summit Metro Parks. We have great museums and ethnic eats in close proximity, too.

If my park had a mascot it would be either a beaver or a bald eagle. Beavers returned to the park in the 1980s, reclaiming a former junkyard as the Beaver Marsh. Bald eagles also returned to the park in 2006 after a 70-year absence to build nests and raise young after the Clean Water Act and other legislation geared toward protecting the environment had time to work its magic on the water.

The biggest threat to this park’s future is people and politics.

The world should heart my park because it’s a success story, reminding us that if people who care come together, rivers can be saved. The Cuyahoga is once more a vibrant, healthy part of the landscape.

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