The Ultimate Guide to Cuyahoga Valley National Park
As railcars chug through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the scenery slowly unfolds, unveiling an oasis of history and nature just south of Cleveland. Towering hickory and oak trees fill the woods, eagles soar above rehabilitated wetlands, and waterfalls plunge into Brandywine Creek. Vegetables grow on small, restorative farms. And mysterious earthen mounds, built by prehistoric Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago, dot Greenwood Village.
Visitors experience a sense of rebirth at Cuyahoga Valley. The Lenapé Nation, along with the Ottawa, Ojibwe, Munsee, Miami, Potawatomi and others, lived in this area before being forced off the land by European settlers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these settlers farmed, but then the cities of Cleveland and Akron encroached from north and south. Today, this 33,000-acre park aims to capture something of the past by restoring native habitats and fostering sustainable land use for recreation and agriculture—all sandwiched between two urban centers. A decades-long, $50-million Superfund cleanup reversed the damage of a dumpsite where corporations, including Ford, Chrysler, 3M, General Motors and Chevron, had poisoned the ground with toxic waste. Now a preserve for wildlife and native grasses, it opened to the public in 2021. Following years of effort, one of the most polluted waterways in the nation—the Cuyahoga River actually caught fire four times in the mid-20th century—once again teems with life. And thanks to a unique project called Countryside Initiative, several small, independent farms operate within the national park, living proof of how people and nature can healthfully coexist.
Fittingly, perhaps, the park offers a variety of ways for visitors of all abilities and interests to explore. Whether you ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, bike along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, or walk on a backroad or trail, you can't help but wonder at the transformation. Hiking the popular Ledges Trail or paddling the Cuyahoga, it's easy to forget how close two cities loom.
PLAN Cuyahoga Valley is one of the more accessible national parks due to its proximity to Cleveland and Akron. Summer weekends get busy, but rarely will you feel the crowds are claustrophobic. Late spring and mid-autumn will be the best time to visit.
PACK Cuyahoga is a pretty tame park—in a good way! You don't need specialized gear for most hikes, aside from comfortable shoes, but you may want bug spray for ticks and mosquitos.
DRIVE Just hop on Interstate-77 (southbound from Cleveland or northbound from Akron) to get to Cuyahoga Valley. Once in the park, the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park has two suggested scenic driving routes that you can find on their website.
FLY Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is the quickest and easiest airport.
RIDE Leave the car behind and take a more eco-friendly way to the park. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs between Independence, Ohio, about 20 minutes south of Cleveland, and Akron. (Plans are afoot to extend the route north into downtown Cleveland.) There are eight stops total and five within the park. Keep in mind, only three are boarding stations; the rest are "Explorer" stations where you can hop off and hike, bike or kayak your way back. You can even bring your bike or kayak aboard, for an extra fee.
LEDGES TRAIL This favorite 2-mile moderate trail winds through forest and the namesake sandstone ledges to an overlook with some of the park's best views. The rocky terrain can be slick after a rainfall. To add some distance, connect to Pine Grove or one of the other trails.
SALT RUN TRAIL This 3.25-mile loop wanders through gorgeous wooded ravines, connecting to Kendall Lake and the Cross Country Trail, among others. Be prepared for a few steep inclines (and, unfortunately, background traffic noise from a nearby road).
OHIO & ERIE CANAL TOWPATH TRAIL More for cyclists than hikers (though anyone is welcome), this route traces the remnants of an old canal for 20 miles, through forest and wetlands. Many people bike the crushed-limestone trail one way, then take the train back to their starting point.
EAST RIM MTB TRAILS Devised by acclaimed singletrack designer Alex Stewart, these seven fast and flowy miles of intermediate-level trails will get your heart rate up. (If you prefer to hike them, that's OK too.) Riders needing more singletrack excitement will find 18 additional miles just outside the park.
CUYAHOGA VALLEY SCENIC RAILROAD You can also ride the rails for a three-hour sightseeing jaunt. Stay put and watch the scenery fly by or hop on and off at various stations to explore the park. Loop tickets start at $16 for adults, or you can splurge on a themed excursion (Ales on Rails, anyone?).
BRANDYWINE AND BRIDAL VEIL FALLS Of the roughly 100 waterfalls scattered throughout the park, these two are especially easy to see, accessed via short boardwalks. (If you do want to stretch your legs, you can continue past Brandywine Falls for a 1.5-mile hike.)
EVERETT COVERED BRIDGE Summit County's sole covered bridge draws lots of photographers, especially in the fall. It was constructed by the National Park Service in 1986 to replace a historical bridge washed away by a flood.
CHECK IN Two inns operate inside the park, both in 1840s Greek Revival homes: Stanford House and the Inn at Brandywine Falls. The Holiday Inn Cleveland-S Independence sits just outside the north end of the park.
CAMP OUT There are no campgrounds inside the park. Silver Springs seasonal campground in nearby Stow is cheap and includes amenities like hiking trails and a dog park. The Streetsboro/Cleveland SE KOA boasts all the conveniences KOAs are known for. West Branch State Park, 30 minutes east in Ravenna, allows camping and offers activities like mountain biking, horseback riding and disc golf, with several sites on the Mahoning River for boat access.
AKRON CHILDREN'S MUSEUM Fun, interactive STEM-related exhibits let kids learn the hands-on way. Experiment with how gravity and the elements work with and against each other using miniature wind tunnels, or rattle tables to test how building-block houses might withstand an earthquake.
CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY For more than a century, this museum has helped visitors better understand the natural world. It's open amid an ongoing renovation, so visitors can still enjoy exhibits like Andy Warhol's Endangered Species, a series of 10 screen prints created to raise the profile of endangered animals like the black rhinoceros and orangutan.
CLEVELAND METROPARKS ZOO You won't find lions and tigers in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but you will find them, and many other animals, at one of the Midwest's best zoos.