Let’s get it out of the way: The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, and not for the first time, catapulting Cleveland’s image as the Mistake on the Lake. But that infamous moment in pollution history occurred at the industry-laden mouth of the Cuyahoga where it drains into Lake Erie. The Upper Cuyahoga River should not be confused with this environmental low point, and is well deserving of its status as a state-designated scenic river. The only mistake today would be to miss out on paddling this gem—especially with a paddle-pedal or even a paddle-train shuttle option within Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The 100-mile-long Cuyahoga begins east of Cleveland and cuts a U shape, flowing south to Akron then back north to Cleveland. It’s a designated Ohio Water Trail, and most of the river is navigable by canoe, kayak, or standup paddleboard. Check the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Cuyahoga Water Trail map to see which sections are off limits due to hazards or drinking water protection. This is a good late-spring to summer float.
With all of the gains made after the Clean Water Act of 1972—prompted largely by the Cuyahoga River catching fire—and ongoing restoration efforts, wildlife has come back in abundance. You may see herons, kingfishers, and other birds as well as beavers, otters, and muskrats.
Recommended Route: Boston Mill to Station Road Bridge, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Some 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River flow through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which affords it the highest level of environmental protection. Even better, paddling a section within the national park gives you excellent bike or train shuttle options.
Start by arranging your shuttle. At the takeout at the Station Road Bridge parking lot, leave a vehicle or lock a bike if you plan to shuttle back to the put-in by way of a 4.4-mile ride along the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail, which parallels the river. For a unique and Instagram-worthy shuttle, time it to board the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad here at the Brecksville Station—they will even help you carry and load your kayak onto the train (no canoes or standup paddleboards allowed). For $10, you and your kayak will be shuttled upstream to Boston Mill Station ($15 for double kayaks; shuttle operates Wednesday through Sunday, June through October). At Boston Mill Station, portage across the bridge and put in river-right.
Float 6.5 river miles back to the Station Road Bridge takeout, on mellow class I water, under the shade of sycamore trees. In between, you have a good chance of seeing a bald eagle, since there is a nest close by. Juvenile eagles fledge at the end of July.
From Columbus, take Interstate 71 north to I-271 north; Cuyahoga Valley National Park is two hours from the city.
The Winking Lizard in Peninsula is a stone’s throw from the Cuyahoga River. They serve burgers and pizza plus whiskey and beer, and they have a few Great Lakes Brewing Company options on tap.