(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2004)
A greenbelt glimmers in northeast Ohio: 33,000 acres all but hidden along the bustling industrial corridor linking Cleveland and Akron.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a miracle of renewal, a jewel of outdoor recreation, environmental conservation and historic preservation. Established as a recreation area in the 1970s to battle urban sprawl and recognized as a national park and renamed less than four years ago, it's the star of northern Ohio's "emerald necklace," a string of municipal and county parks stretching across the region.
The preserve is a rare treasure in the Midwest, which has only six national parks (although the 12 states include many National Historic Trails, Scenic Riverways and other National Park Service sites).
The Cuyahoga River bisects the hilly, tree-filled park, which lies within an hour's drive of more than 5 million people and annually attracts more than 3 million visitors. They come for quiet scenes such as beavers skimming across the lily-covered marsh that once was a junkyard. They come to attend concerts, play golf and visit a re-created historic village.
Clearly, few other national parks are like Cuyahoga Valley (pronounced KI-uh-HO-guh). There are no entrance fees or campgrounds, and Interstate highways encircle its boundaries. This is no city park, where traffic noise drifts down the shaded paths. But it's far more accessible than most national parks, which always seem at least a day's drive away from anywhere in a crowded family car.
"Urban parks can be a life-changing experience," says Bill Carroll, deputy superintendent for the National Park Service. "They play a critical role in exposing some people to the outdoors and the environment, while protecting and preserving cultural resources."
Nature reigns as Cuyahoga Valley's primary attraction. The park boasts a pair of blue heron subdivisions: natural rookeries 30 to 60 feet overhead in sycamore trees, surrounded by protective moats. As many as 100 nests fill each rookery, where the gangly birds return every year for hatching season. Rangers expect eagles to nest in the park soon.
Joggers and bikers share the limestone Towpath Trail, running north to south along the Cuyahoga River and the canal that parallels it. This trail once bore mule teams towing canal boats filled with goods; canal locks remain from the 19th-century heyday of that brand of commerce. (The trail extends outside the park for a total length of 70 miles, with another 40 miles planned.) Hemlocks, yellow birches and starflowers surround the paths, and bounding deer and knocking woodpeckers are never far away.
The park's 160 total miles of trails lead hikers and horseback riders who bring their own mounts (there are no rental stables) to some dramatic natural formations. With its bridal-veil cascade, the 65-foot Brandywine Falls at the east-central side of the park endures as a signature attraction. Signs along a multilevel viewing platform explain how erosion accounts for the variety of colors in the rock beneath the flow, where yellow-brown sandstone mixes with reddish shale.
As its name suggests, the Inn at Brandywine Falls sits adjacent. Except for the spartan HI-Stanford Hostel, also known as the International Stanford House, the bed-and-breakfast inn offers the only lodging within the park, though plenty of chain hotels and motels along the surrounding highways lie just minutes away. The spare, but handsome, furnishings in the farmhouse inn reflect a spirit of elegant simplicity.
As the crow of a rooster heralds the morning, guests savor the inn's noted omelet of spinach and bacon with cheddar cheese.
A few miles southeast of the falls, the looped Ledges Trail near the Happy Days Visitor Center takes hikers past the natural formations of the sculpted sandstone Ritchie Ledges and Ice Box Cave where, as the name suggests, the temperature drops. Though guidebooks suggest allotting 90 minutes to hike the moderate-difficulty oval trail in either direction, you don't have to maintain a brisk pace to finish in half that time. It's worth planning for a few extra minutes, however, to sit down at one of the picnic tables near the scenic overlook for a prime view of the vibrant forest stretching to the limits of your vision.
Though such walks make the park a paradise for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, you also can appreciate the beauty from a comfortable seat inside the sleek silver cars of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
"We're a scenic railroad, so we don't want to go roaring through the park," conductor Al Green explains as the train sways along the tracks at 20 miles per hour. "Just look out the window and enjoy yourself."
Hale Farm & Village
One of the many excursions, which can last from less than an hour to more than three, takes passengers to Hale Farm and Village. This town-size living-history museum, celebrating the crafts and trades of the mid-19th century, re-creates the society of Wheatfield Township circa 1848.
Residents in period garb welcome visitors to an earlier era. During your tour of the property's 40 buildings, you'll hear townspeople sharing gossip about each other, and you'll learn about basket-making and candle-dipping. You might even overhear the matriarch, Mrs. Hadley, giving an etiquette lesson to one of the day's visiting school classes (some 38,000 area students take field trips to Hale Farm annually).
Near the village at the southern end of the park, the open-air amphitheater of the Blossom Music Center presents performances ranging from the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra to the likes of the heavy-metal Ozzfest. The nearby Porthouse Theatre stages professional productions in the round.
Golfers have their choice of four courses, including a par-3 option. During the winter, skiers can select between the two resorts, Brandywine and Boston Mills.
Antiques shoppers appreciate the selection in the boutiques of Peninsula (population: 700), a community nestled into the center of the park. Drivers should watch their speedometers, as the town vigilantly enforces its speed limit.
The combination of historic and natural preservation fulfills the mission of one of the park's founders, Ohio Congressman John F. Seiberling, who introduced the bill that established Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in 1974.
"We will never see the land as our ancestors did," he wrote. "But we can understand what made it beautiful and why they lived and died to preserve it."
The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located between Cleveland and Akron. For more information, contact: Cuyahoga Valley Visitors Center (800/445-9667; www.nps.gov/cuva).
Featured in the article Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (800/468-4070; www.cvsr.com). Hale Farm and Village (877/425-3327; www.wrhs.org/halefarm). Century Cycles For bicycle rentals in the park: 800/201-7433.
Featured in the article The Inn at Brandywine Falls (www.innatbrandywinefalls.com). HI-Stanford Hostel (www.hiusa.org).