(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.