Photo: NPS

Cuyahoga Valley National Park Essentials

Discover quiet forests and a wild refuge in Ohio’s only national park.

Tucked along the banks of the mighty Cuyahoga River, just south of Cleveland, lies a 33,000-acre pocket of verdant hills, lily-lined ponds, and deep forest. Deer flit through the dappled sunlight and river otters twist beneath the water’s glassy surface. In a place like this, it’s easy to forget that you’re just 20 miles from one of the Midwest’s biggest cities.

And that’s exactly what the park’s founders had in mind. Created in 1974 by an act of Congress to carve out a protected zone between the cities of Cleveland and Akron, the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (later designated a national park) ensured that locals would have access to wild places for generations to come. Today, over 2 million annual visitors come to trace the banks of the twisting Cuyahoga by foot, bike, and boat.

Because of its close proximity to the city centers, the park stands as a monument to the ever-evolving relationship between humans and nature. Amid the hardwood trees and wetlands, you can spot the remains of old dams and bridges, 19th-century mills, and artifacts from over 500 generations of Native American history. To walk through the park is to walk through all the layers of Ohio’s past.

With 22 miles of river, 125 miles of trail, and dozens of historic sites, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has plenty of adventures to choose from. Narrow down your options below to make the most of your next visit.

Making a Comeback

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River burned. Just north of the national park’s current boundaries, a wayward spark caught an oil slick and trapped debris in an industrial section of Cleveland, lighting up the water in a blaze that lasted about a half-hour. Today, the fire is remembered as a symbol of the pollution our nation’s waterways once suffered—and a turning point in American environmentalism.

More than 50 years later, Cleveland still remembers the fire. But thanks to partnerships between government agencies, nonprofits, and local volunteers, the river is on the mend. Fish wriggle beneath the surface, and the banks are lush with greenery. There’s still work to do, but the river stands as a testament to both the power of cooperation and nature’s ability to heal.

The Human History of Cuyahoga Valley

Northeast Ohio’s Indigenous history spans for more than 13,000 years. The area’s first inhabitants were hunters and gatherers who followed game animals across the landscape and arrived just after the last Ice Age. The first permanent settlements appeared 10,000 years ago with a civilization now known as the Archaic people. For the next 9,000 years, a collection of tribes called the valley home, hunting, farming, and building complex earthworks for ceremonial uses. By the time European settlers first arrived, all the Native residents had moved away from the valley, and fur traders became its primary residents.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Native peoples returned to the area. Relocation efforts displaced thousands of tribal members from reservations across the West to Cleveland as part of a government-sponsored assimilation program. The program promised jobs but ultimately resulted in discrimination, adverse mental health effects, and economic hardship for many of those who were resettled. Today, Cleveland’s Native residents work together to celebrate and remember their culture and navigate the relocation program’s complicated legacy.

Photo: NPS

Visiting the National Park

From hiking and paddling to snowshoeing and ice fishing, Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) offers adventure year-round. Better yet? Entry to Ohio’s only national park is totally free. Parking lots tend to fill up in the summer months, and fall weekends get busy with leaf-peepers, but weekday visitors, early birds, and determined hikers will find plenty of opportunity for solitude.

Seasons

Winter

The national park is just a half-hour from the shores of Lake Erie, making it subject to the “lake effect.” This meteorological phenomenon brings moisture inland and can result in deep snow in the winter. The good news? You can rent snowshoes and cross-country skis in the park to make the most of powder days. (Note: Ski rentals are currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Spring

Spring showers can leave trails muddy, but warmer weather and blooming wildflowers make late spring an excellent time to visit CVNP. Bring plenty of layers and come prepared for rain.  

Summer

Summers in northeast Ohio tend to be humid. However, conditions can remain variable even in the hotter months, with temperatures ranging from the high 40s to the mid-90s. No matter the morning temps, pack lots of water and sun protection.  

Fall

As the year draws to a close, cooling temperatures coax bright color from the leaves—and draw crowds of shutterbugs on the weekends. Come during mid-October for the best foliage, and aim to arrive in the early morning or early evening to beat the midday crowds.

Activities

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is an outdoor adventure wonderland. Here are some of our top picks for spending an afternoon—or a whole weekend—taking in all the valley has to offer.

Take a Hike

Pick one of these day-missions to tour some of the park’s most iconic scenery.

Ledges and Pine Groves Loops: This 4-mile loop hike winds past rock formations and mossy bridges amid plentiful shade. Start at the Ledges Loop trailhead and follow it clockwise (south) until you hit the Connector Trail. Veer east. Then pick up the Pine Grove Trail and follow it clockwise for a full circuit before picking up the Connector Trail again and taking it east then north back to the trailhead.

Brandywine Gorge Trail: This trail is busy, but for good reason: It encircles a gorgeous 60-foot waterfall that’s one of the park’s biggest highlights. To see it, link the Stanford, Brandwine Gorge, and Bike and Hike trails in a 1.5-mile loop hike. Pro tip: Go in October when the leaves are popping off, but aim to hit the parking lot just after sunrise, especially on weekends—it fills up fast.

Buckeye Trail: Hike from historic Frazee House north to Bridal Veil Falls, a tranquil stepped cascade in the park’s northernmost reaches (i.e., well beyond the crowds). To get there, follow the Sagmore Loop Creek Trail northeast until it connects with the Bridle Trail, which will take you straight to the falls.

Go for a Ride

Whether you’re equipped to ride gravel roads or have scenic singletrack in mind, the park has plenty of trails worth exploring. 

The Towpath: The graded, multi-use Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath traces the historic route of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The whole trail is 87 miles long, but CVNP contains a 20-mile section of it—ideal for a day’s ride. Need a shuttle? Book a one-way trip on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad to get back to your car.

East Rim Trail System: The first mountain biking trail system in Cuyahoga Valley, the East Rim currently offers a 2.3-mile loop and a 4.7-mile loop, both suitable for intermediate mountain bikers. Flowing curves, fun obstacles, and plenty of shade make for an ideal summer afternoon. Need more terrain? Check out the nearby Bedford Reservation, which hosts nearly 10 miles of bike-friendly singletrack.

Paddle the Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga River is the park’s namesake and the lifeblood of this region. Experienced paddlers can put in at any one of five official access points within the park for a day of flatwater paddling with a few small rapids. (Always check the forecast and water levels, bring proper safety equipment, and read up on known hazards before launching.)

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.