To understand Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s appeal, pull out an area map. First, look for a squiggly green ring around Cleveland. That’s the Emerald Necklace, a chain of regional parks. Now find a green curl hanging off the necklace like a huge pendant. That’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a 33,000-acre preserve located just 20 minutes from downtown. Here in Cleveland, you can have your nature—and your city, too.
About 4 million people live within a half-hour of Cuyahoga, but the park absorbs crowds well. Where mules once pulled barges, walkers and bicyclists now stream along the 20-mile Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail. More ambitious hikers choose from an additional 100 miles of trails. Families tour a 19th-century living-history museum, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad chugs past heron and bald eagle nests.
Cleveland, meanwhile, is the bustling yin to Cuyahoga’s pastoral yang, the two worlds linked by the winding Cuyahoga River (and Interstate-77). Spend a day immersed in fall color, then zip back for big-city pleasures: bacon-wrapped pheasant at Light Bistro, an overnight at the historic J. Palen House, an orchestra performance in Severance Hall. Funky neighborhoods like Ohio City and Tremont feel a universe away from Cuyahoga’s rocky gorges—but the dirt on your shoes proves they’re not.
What to do
Cleveland Metroparks The Emerald Necklace is Cleveland’s regional park system. Hike at Tinker’s Creek Gorge or paddle the Rocky River. Free; admission for some activities. See reviews and ratings. (216) 635-3200; clevelandmetroparks.com
Lake View Cemetery The landscaping alone warrants a visit, but history buffs shouldn’t miss President Garfield’s impressive tomb and monument. The cemetery is near University Circle, home to many of the city’s museums. Free. See reviews and ratings. (216) 421-2665; lakeviewcemetery.com
Where to eat
Light Bistro In Ohio City, a long list of tapas and entrees incorporate local ingredients in surprising ways, such as combining Ohio peas and prosciutto. (216) 771-7130; lightbistro.com
West Side Market Cleveland’s ethnic heritage comes to vivid life in hip Ohio City. Try a pumpkin cupcake from Grandma Freida’s or kielbasa from Chuchraj Meats. (216) 664-3387; westsidemarket.com
Where to stay
J. Palen House This 150-year-old Ohio City bed-and-breakfast blends Victorian style with modern amenities: flat-screen TVs, updated bathrooms and a gourmet breakfast. From $129. See reviews and ratings. (216) 664-0813; jpalenhouse.com
For more information: Positively Cleveland (800) 321-1001; positivelycleveland.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2010. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)