Cuyahoga Valley National Park: A Suburban Paradise

Cuyahoga Valley National Park
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Although it’s not usually the first place that comes to mind when people think of America’s public lands, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the US. Cuyahoga Valley attracts around 2.2 million people each year and was the seventh most visited US national park in 2020, with 2.8 million visitors.

Unlike the vast wilderness areas that comprise many US national parks, Cuyahoga Valley is located in an urban part of northeastern Ohio. The park stretches along 22 miles (35.4 km) of the Cuyahoga River in between the metropolitan areas of Akron and Cleveland.

Despite its proximity to major cities, Cuyahoga Valley features dense forests, gorgeous rolling hills, cascading waterfalls, and numerous wetlands. The park also provides an important habitat for wildlife like raccoons, bald eagles, great blue herons, minks, and river otters.

This destination guide covers all the essential information you need to plan a trip to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In addition to providing some historical background and key facts about the park, we’ll go over weather and climate information, the best time to visit, and what kinds of activities you can do while you’re there. We’ll also cover practical details like what gear to bring, where to stay, and how to get there.

History

Although Cuyahoga Valley is a relatively new national park, human history in the region goes back thousands of years. Around 12,000 years ago, humans were already living in the valley. Over the centuries, numerous tribes built villages, hunted, farmed, and traded in the area. These include the Lenape, Wyandot, Objibwe, Munsee, Ottawa, Iroquois, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Miami, and Catawba.

From the early 1600s to around 1730, Euro-Americans used the river valley for transportation, trade, and hunting. This period and the following decades saw a series of violent conflicts between American Indians and Euro-American settlers. In response, the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 and the Treaty of Fort Industry in 1805 refined land boundaries. The Indians in the area were forced to relocate, and the Ohio Country, including Cuyahoga Valley, became open to pioneers.

In the late 1700s, settlers from New England began arriving in the area to make a new life in the river valley. Settlements developed slowly at first but picked up by the 1820s. By then, various industries were emerging in nearby cities and bringing prosperity and opportunity to the region. The opening of the Ohio & Erie Canal between Akron and Cleveland in 1827 dramatically changed the region from a backcountry locale to a boomtown.

As the cities’ populations grew, so did the demand for leisure and recreational activities. Urban dwellers increasingly sought out the natural areas in Cuyahoga Valley to escape city life. As demand grew, formal park development began in the 1910s and 1920s. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era public work relief program, built a significant portion of the park’s infrastructure in the 1930s.

By the 1960s, industrial pollution and sewage became a major issue in Ohio and the Cuyahoga River. Conservationists worried that urbanization and industry would continue to negatively impact the area and erode its natural beauty. Following efforts from local citizens and government workers, President Gerald Ford signed a bill on 27 December 1974 establishing the Cuyahoga Valley Recreation Area. The move was met with criticism from his administration.

Since then, significant amounts of toxic waste have been removed from the river, and habitats have been restored. The area was designated a national park in 2000, but restoration efforts were not completed until 2015.

Today, Cuyahoga Valley National Park provides a habitat for diverse wildlife, although the health of the ecosystems continues to be a work in progress. The park is an excellent outdoor getaway for city residents in Ohio and visiting travelers, and it attracts over 2.2 million visitors every year.

Cuyahoga River in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Key Facts about Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Size: 51 square miles (132 km2)

Number of visitors: around 2.2 million in 2019 and 2.8 million in 2020

Established on: 11 October 2000

Length of hiking trails: over 125 miles (201 km)

Highest point: 1,164 feet (355 meters) at Brush Road

Lowest point: 590 feet (180 meters) at Cuyahoga River

Other interesting facts about Cuyahoga Valley:

  • The name Cuyahoga comes from the Native American word “Ka-ih-ogh-ha,” which means crooked river. This refers to the Cuyahoga River, which winds for 22 miles (35.4 km) in the park.
  • Unlike most other US national parks, entrance to Cuyahoga Valley is free. The National Park Service does, however, encourage visitors to donate to the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
  • The park is home to diverse habitats and wildlife. You can find over 900 plant species, 194 bird species, 32 mammal species, 91 aquatic macroinvertebrates, 43 fish species, 22 amphibian species, and 20 reptile species within the park’s borders.
  • For a time, the Cuyahoga River was one of the United States’ most polluted rivers. Records show that since 1868, it has caught fire 13 times. The 1969 river fire was significant enough that it resulted in an overhaul of American environmental policy and legislation. Since then, there have been no fires on the river, and Cleveland has new waste management programs to protect its waterways effectively.
  • Efforts to remove toxic waste from the river began in 1987. By 2012, 371,000 short tons (742,000,000 lbs; 337,000,000 kg) of contaminated debris and soils were removed. Companies responsible for dumping factory waste in the river were charged for the pollution.
  • On average, the park experiences 61 inches (155 cm) of snow and 39 inches (99 cm) of rain each year.
  • Cuyahoga Valley is one of three national parks in the Great Lakes Basin (along with Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan) and the only national park in Ohio.
  • Cuyahoga Valley is a relatively pet-friendly park. Pets are permitted on over 100 miles (161 km) of hiking trails and on the historic Towpath Trail.
  • In contrast to many remote national parks, there is cell reception throughout Cuyahoga Valley.
  • There are two diverse geographic regions in the park: the Appalachian Plateau and the Central Lowlands.

Climate and Weather

Like other areas in northeastern Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley experiences four distinct seasons with substantial variations in temperature possible on any given day. Summers are usually hot and humid, while fall sees cooler temperatures and brilliant foliage. Winters are cold, cloudy, and occasionally snowy. Springtime can be quite rainy, but there are also many sunny days where you can view the park’s flowing waterfalls and blooming wildflowers and enjoy the warming temperatures.

Snow is possible from October to May and most likely in December, January, and February. May through September is the rainiest time of year, but spring and fall can also bring a lot of wet weather. The park experiences an average of 61 inches (155 cm) of snow and 39 inches (99 cm). You can read more about what kinds of weather conditions to expect in each season below.

Summer (June to August)

Summers are usually hot and humid in Cuyahoga Valley, but temperatures as low as 49°F (9°C) are not unusual. Thunderstorms and hazy skies are typical, so make sure to pack rain gear.

July and August are the warmest months, closely followed by June. During this time, average highs hover around 80°F (27°C), and average lows dip to about 58 to 62°F (14 to 17°C).

Fall (September to November)

Fall weather is highly variable, with rain, snow, fog, and sunshine all possible. September often sees warm, summer-like days, but temperatures cool off more at night. October brings more crisp fall days, with an average high temperature of 61°F (16°C) and an average low of 44°F (7°C). November becomes increasingly cloudy and wintry, with lows approaching freezing and snow flurries more likely.

Winter (December to March)

Winters in Cuyahoga Valley are generally cold and cloudy with some snow. Weather conditions can change quickly in the park because of lake effect snow off of Lake Erie.

December, January, and February are the coldest and snowiest months. Average highs range from 33 to 37°F (0.5 to 3°C), and lows drop to about 19 to 25°F (-7 to -4°C). March is still relatively cold and wet, with 3 inches (7.6 cm) of rain and 11 inches (28 cm) of snow, on average. Daytime highs usually reach about 46°F (8°C) and drop below freezing overnight.

Spring (April to May)

As spring creeps into the valley, warming temperatures and spring rains bring wildflower blooms and new leaves to the forests. In April, expect highs in the upper 50s Fahrenheit (around 14°C) and lows in the upper 30s Fahrenheit (around 3°C). By May, daytime temperatures warm up to the upper 60s or low 70s (20 to 21°C), on average, with nighttime lows dropping to the upper 40s (9°C).

When to Visit

April to May and September to October are widely considered the best times to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but anytime between April and October is an excellent time to go. April and May are fantastic months to see blooming wildflowers, like the Virginia Bluebell, Bloodroot, and Marsh Marigold, and spot wildlife emerging after the winter. As the snow melts and the spring rains fall, the park’s waterfalls flow freely and are a beautiful sight.

Summer is often hot, humid, and crowded, making it less comfortable to explore the park. Still, it’s a great time to enjoy water sports like canoeing and kayaking, hike the park’s numerous trails, and view the lush deciduous forests. Fall brings cooler temperatures and brilliant colors. The fall foliage typically peaks in mid-October, but the entire month is a great time to visit for leaf peepers.

November through March is a quiet period in Cuyahoga Valley, so those seeking to avoid crowds should consider visiting during this time. Although the winters can be cold, gray, and wet, there are also excellent opportunities for winter sports like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter hiking after lake effect snowstorms. Seeing the park’s frozen waterfalls and snow-covered forests is a magical experience for those who don’t mind the colder temperatures.

Recommended Gear

No special gear is required when visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park. For anyone planning an easy day hike or some sightseeing, standard day hiking gear is sufficient. This includes:

  • Day pack (a capacity of 10 to 25L is usually enough space, but it depends on how much stuff you plan to carry with you)
  • Hiking boots or trail running shoes
  • High-quality hiking socks
  • Weather-appropriate clothing and additional layers
  • Rain gear
  • Sun protection
  • Bug spray
  • First aid kit
  • Headlamp and extra batteries
  • Traction devices for your shoes if you’re going in the winter
  • Navigation system, such as a map and compass or a GPS hiking app
  • Snacks
  • Water bottle or hydration reservoir and plenty of water

If you plan on doing multi-day hikes or are interested in learning more about packing for an outdoor adventure, take a look at our Backpacking Checklist.

What to Do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Hiking, Backpacking, and Trail Running

Hiking and trail running are possible year-round in Cuyahoga Valley, and these activities are some of the most popular pastimes among park visitors. The best times to hit the trails are in the spring when the waterfalls are flowing and in the fall when the leaves are turning gorgeous shades of yellow, orange, and red. The park is also an excellent winter hiking destination since nearly all of the trails remain open throughout the year.

Cuyahoga Valley is not the best destination for backpackers due to the limited availability of camping options. Camping inside the park is prohibited. The only option for backpackers who want to camp is to stay at the Ottawa Overlook Backcountry Site, which requires a permit and reservation. Ottawa Overlook is located in the Brecksville Reservation and is managed by Cleveland Metroparks. Multi-day hikers can also forgo the tent and stay in the historic Stanford House or the Inn at Brandywine Falls within the park.

Permits for Ottawa Overlook are issued from Memorial Day Weekend through the end of September. You are limited to one-night maximum and should receive your permit within two weeks of your request. More information about backpacking in the Cuyahoga Valley area is available from Cleveland Metroparks.

Best Hikes in Cuyahoga Valley

  • Brandywine Gorge Trail: Brandywine Falls is one of Cuyahoga Valley’s top attractions. As a result, the Brandywine Gorge Trail is one of the best and most popular hikes in the park. This 1.5-mile (2.4-km) loop trail is relatively easy but is rated moderate in difficulty due to the number of stairs. The trail features beautiful views of the creek and surrounding forests and rewards hikers with a stunning view of Brandywine Falls. You can hike the trail any time of year, but consider wearing traction devices on your trail running shoes or hiking boots if you go in the winter.
  • Ledges Trail: This 2.2-mile (3.5-km) trail will take you past unique sandstone cliffs and boulders, the Ice Box Cave, and towering hemlock trees. Although the trail only has 209 feet (64 meters) of elevation gain, it is considered moderate because of the rough and rocky terrain. The highlight on this route is the Ledges Overlook, which offers one of the best views in the park. The Ledges Trail is accessible year-round and is very scenic in the winter.
  • Buckeye Trail: The Buckeye Trail is a long-distance hiking trail that wraps around the state of Ohio for 1,444 miles (2,324 km). 40 miles (64 km) of the trail pass through Cuyahoga Valley, and it is an excellent option for hikers and backpackers who want to experience less crowded parts of the park. You can hop on and off the trail at various places in Cuyahoga Valley. There are many beautiful sections to choose from, or you can hike the entire trail.
  • Pine Grove Trail: As the name suggests, this easy 2.2-mile (3.5-km) loop features beautiful greenery, including hemlocks, oaks, and wildflower meadows. The trail is family-friendly and suitable for beginners. If you’re looking for a longer outing, it’s easy to combine the Ledges Trail with Pine Grove.
  • Plateau Trail: This 4.4-mile (7.1-km) loop trail is favored among hikers, trail runners, and bird watchers. Although the route is popular, it rarely feels too crowded and is a great place to view wildlife in the park. There is one bigger hill, but the trail is otherwise easy. You can connect it with the Oak Hill Trail if you want to add an easy 1.5 miles (2.4 km).
  • Kendall Lake Loop and Salt Run Trail: If you’re up for hiking some hilly terrain, this 4.3-mile (6.9-km) loop trail is a beautiful route that winds through lush forests and wraps around Kendall Lake, the largest lake in the park. Make sure to wear shoes with good grip and bring bug spray since this trail is often wet and muddy.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Scenic Train Rides

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is one of the top experiences in the park and is an accessible adventure for all visitors. From May to October, the round-trip takes 3.5 hours and costs between US$10 and US$35. Shorter rides are typically available on Saturdays in February, March, and April.

You can choose from three different departure points: Rockside Station, Peninsula Depot, and Akron Northside Station. Through October 2021, train rides are available from Wednesday to Sunday – check the CSVR website for schedules and ticketing information.

The train ride is an excellent way to explore the park, but it’s especially beautiful in the late summer and fall. Go between late August and October to take in the changing colors in Cuyahoga Valley’s dense forests.

Biking

Cuyahoga Valley has excellent cycling routes within the park and just outside its borders. One of the best options is the Towpath Trail, a historic path that follows the route of the Ohio & Erie Canal. 20 miles (32 km) of the 87-mile (140-km) Towpath Trail run through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. You can do this section in a day or plan a multi-day biking trip covering a longer distance. It’s also possible to bike in one direction and then take the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad back.

The trail is open year-round, but it is gorgeous in the fall. You’ll have to share the path with numerous other walkers and cyclists, but the scenery is well worth it.

If you’re looking for more of a challenge, try mountain biking at the East Rim Trail System. The area has gorgeous views, thrilling obstacles, and diverse terrain.

Canoeing and Kayaking

Experienced paddlers can bring their own equipment and paddle the Cuyahoga River within the park. The National Park Service does not maintain the river for recreational use. Make sure you are aware of potential hazards, including log jams and swift currents, and that you have the skills needed to navigate the river safely. Various ponds within Cuyahoga Valley National Park are also open to paddlers.

Winter Sports

Winter sports enthusiasts have plenty of exciting activities to choose from in Cuyahoga Valley. You can begin your excursion at the Winter Sports Center at Kendall Lake Shelter, which provides easy access to sledding and tubing areas, downhill ski resorts, cross-country ski trails, and ice fishing. The center is generally open on the weekends in December, January, and February and occasionally on other days when there is more than 4 inches (10 cm) of snow on the ground. Equipment, including skis and snowshoes, is available to rent if you don’t have your own.

Snowshoeing is another excellent way to experience the park during the winter. Nearly all trails in the park are suitable for snowshoeing, with the exception of the Ledges and Brandywine Falls trail system.

Where to Stay

Many of the millions of people that visit Cuyahoga Valley each year are locals and can easily get to the park on a day trip. If you do not live in the area and are looking for a place to stay near the park, there are tons of options. You can find accommodation ranging from historic inns to state campgrounds to urban hotels and apartments.

If you want to stay in the park, you can choose between Stanford House and The Inn at Brandywine Falls. Both options are historic places and are open year-round.

Camping is not allowed inside the park, but there are various campgrounds nearby. These include Nimisila Reservoir Metro Park (11 miles/17.7km away) and Punderson State Park, Portage Lakes State Park, and West Branch State Park around 30-40 miles (48-64 km) away.

Because the park is located in an urban area between Cleveland and Akron, there is an enormous range of lodging options. Whether you’re looking for a quiet bed and breakfast close to nature or a chic apartment close to restaurants, bars, and nightlife, you’ll be able to find it relatively close to Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

How to Get There and Getting Around

You can reach Cuyahoga Valley by car, bus, or train, and there are many routes in and out of the park. Since there are no entrance fees or designated entrance stations where you must check-in, entering the park is very simple. If it’s your first time in Cuyahoga Valley, we recommend going to the Boston Mill Visitor Center to start your trip, explore the canal boat-building museum, and ask park staff any questions you may have.

If you’re planning to fly into the region, the closest airports are the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and the Akron-Canton Regional Airport. Car rentals and public transportation are available at both airports.

Conclusion

Cuyahoga Valley’s urban location is a drastic change from the expansive wilderness areas out West. Still, once you’ve seen the park’s crooked river, lush forests, gorges, and waterfalls, it’s easy to see why this scenic area draws so many people.

The park’s natural environments provide an important habitat for wildlife and are an example of how conservation efforts can renew ecosystems – even after the devastating effects of industrial pollution. Whether you’re an Ohio native looking for a fun weekend adventure or visiting Cuyahoga Valley from afar, the park is full of beautiful scenery and interesting history that make it a fun weekend getaway.

 

If you liked this guide to Cuyahoga Valley, check out our other national park guides and start planning your next adventure.

 


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