Cuyahoga Valley National Park

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
   Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Norman Maclean wasn't writing about the Cuyahoga River meandering through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CUVA), but the river does run through 20-odd miles of it, and gives the valley and the park its name.

A recent business trip to Ohio gave me some weekend time to kill. I was overdue for a walk in the woods, so I made my way to CUVA. I grew up near there, long before it was a national park. Locals say “ki-a-hog-a” when mentioning the river, the valley, and the park. As a boy I'd ride my bicycle into Virginia Kendall State Park, the major property around which the current park was formed. I'd spend Saturdays walking in the trees, along the cliffs, around Kendall Lake, and generally immersing myself in the early morning sounds of birds and flowing water. Rain or shine this was a favorite way to spend summer mornings. My recent walk in the park reminded me that it still is. It also reminded me what an odd, yet wonderful place CUVA is.

What's so Odd About CUVA?

A honey bee on a flower in CUVA, Ohio, U.S.

A honey bee on a flower in CUVA.

This is a small park at 33,000 acres. If I've got my numbers right, there are only five smaller Park Service entities wearing the National Park label. Please don't write to yell at me about that—I know there are many tiny park service “entities”, one of which is only .02 acres; I'm talking about National Parks here, not national monuments, national historic sites, or national scenic trails and the like. CUVA was formed of an Ohio State Park (Virginia Kendall) and a bunch of not-necessarily-connected local reservations and "metro" parks. It became the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreational Area in 1974, and in 2000 was designated a National Park. Located in northeast Ohio, where there are no mountains, and situated in the valley formed by the Cuyahoga River, the park is relatively flat. Highest elevation in the park is about 1200 feet (366 meters). There is no entry fee for CUVA.

Because it was formed of a collection of disjointed properties, a drive through the park can be a strange experience. If you're used to the large "wilderness" parks on the scale of Glacier, Yellowstone, or Denali, you could drive through CUVA and, except for the typical Park Service signs, never know you'd passed through a national park. CUVA is criss-crossed with state and interstate highways and high voltage power transmission lines on typical large towers. Interstate routes 271 and 80 form a giant X in the middle of the park. It contains private residences, businesses, farms, and even the sewage treatment plant for the city of Akron. There's a large "hole" in the park, not part of the Park Service land, containing the town of Peninsula, among other things.

Interstate highways in CUVA, Ohio, U.S.

Interstate highway signs in CUVA.

The summer home of the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra is within the park boundaries, and this venue is also used for many other concerts and events. You can see all this weirdness on the map the National Park Service has on the park's Web site.

I live in Montana, just 80 miles (129 km) from Glacier National Park, and a six hour drive to Yellowstone. To me, national parks are wilderness areas, full of wildlife and grand scenic vistas of one sort or another. That's my own bias, of course, as many national parks are small and serve many other purposes. CUVA does not have the grand scenic vistas. While a rogue black bear in the park is not unheard of, generally the population of large mammals consists of whitetail deer, and more whitetail deer.

So What's the Appeal?

CUVA is very accessible. It's a short drive from anywhere in northeast Ohio, and many living in the area consider it their local park, as I did when I last lived in Ohio, about 40 miles (64 km) northeast of the park.  There's lots to do in the park, including hiking, biking. fishing, golf, skiing, bird watching, and of course, photography. There's even a scenic railway on which you can take a leisurely trip the full length of the park and beyond.

A great deal of local and national history is embodied in the park and several visitors' centers preserve and interpret this history. The remains of several locks of the Ohio and Erie Canal are within the park, as is Frazee House, one of the oldest homes in the valley (1826). The Boston Store is a restored structure (1836) on the canal towpath. Hale Farm and Village, a property of the Western Reserve Historical Society, is also within the park. This includes the 1826 farmstead of Jonathan Hale, which is surrounded by historic buildings moved there from around the Western Reserve.

Except for the Towpath Trail and Buckeye Trail (more on these later), there are no long hikes in CUVA. But there are many short trails, and some of these take you far enough from parking lots and roadways that you might think you're in a wilderness area. This is hardwood country, so you'll find maples, oaks, and beeches filling the woods along with the softer hemlocks and spruces. The predominance of deciduous tress gives the park a different feel during the different seasons. Autumn color is always spectacular, of course, and all of the park is accessible in winter, when lower visitor traffic and a blanket of snow heighten the appeal for some.

Autumn color reflected in Kendall Lake

Autumn color reflects in Kendal Lake in CUVA.

The Ledges is an area of impressive sandstone cliffs and lush forest vegetation. A walk through the trees from the Ledges parking area to the Happy Days visitor center, especially on a rainy day in spring or fall, is not so unlike a walk in one of the northwest's rain forests.

There are two large nesting colonies of great blue herons in the park. Combined these form the largest heronry in the state, and one of the largest in the northern U.S.

Kendall Lake is small (around 12 acres) but very pretty, surrounded by trees and trails. On calm autumn days the changing foliage reflects brilliantly in the lake.

60-foot-tall Brandywine falls is a favorite spot in the park. It is beautiful any time, but especially nice in autumn when fall colors fill the sky and float on the water. Stairs and walkways provide access to the creek at the base of the falls, and interpretive signs along the way describe the history and geology of the falls.

Take a Hike

As mentioned, the trails within CUVA offer fairly short, easy hikes, while still taking hikers through some beautiful areas. However, if you'd like a challenging hike, there are a couple that fit that description.

The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail begins at the city of Cleveland's lakefront and continues south for more than 60 miles (97 km). Work continues to develop the trail, which eventually will extend southward to Dover and New Philadelphia for a total length of 110 miles (177 km). If you're looking for a long hike, that ought to do it.

If you're looking for a really long hike, consider the Buckeye Trail. This meandering route can take you from the shore of Lake Erie near Cleveland all the way to the Ohio River on the state's southern border in Cincinnati. It's only 1435 miles (2309 km), but should keep you busy for a while.

Not many of us will make those hikes end-to-end, but both trails pass through CUVA, and they can be hiked in segments of about any length that would be comfortable.

Our CUVA Photos

When I lived in Ohio I photographed often in the valley, as evidenced by some of the pages on our site:

Our gallery of CUVA scenic photos

Four of the photos in our Hand of Man gallery were taken in the park.

We have a gallery of photos from the Bath Road heronry.

Links to More About Cuyahoga Valley National Park

CUVA Web site

CUVA Park Service map

Brandywine Falls page

Canalway Ohio's Towpath Trail site

The Buckeye Trail Association's Buckeye Trail site

And since you were wondering, here's a link to the smallest property of the National Park Service.

28 August 2005