Since its establishment back in 2000, Ohio's Cuyahoga Vallery National Park has routinely been ranked in the top ten most visited parks in the entire U.S., welcoming an average of more than 2.2 million visitors on an annual basis.
Once inside, it's easy to understand why the park has become so popular. The serene setting features rolling hills, sprawling forests, and a wandering river that has carved the Cuyahoga Valley over the millennia. All of this gives the park an incredibly tranquil feeling, which is especially surprising considering its proximity to several large urban environments. But that has only enhanced its appeal as a place to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life for a while.
Whether you're going for just a day, or plan on staying a bit longer, this is everything you need to know before you go to Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The Cuyahoga Valley was occupied by a succession of Native American tribes over the course of 12,000 years. At various times, the Iroquois, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Objibwe, and Wyandot—amongst others—called the region home. The fertile ground found within the park's borders proved excellent for growing crops, including corn. The dense forests also made for excellent hunting grounds with whitetail deer being especially plentiful.
By the late 1700s, western expansion by Europeans began to push the tribes off of their ancestral land, including the river valley. A series of treaties between the U.S. government and Native American leaders resulted in the land being absorbed into the fledgling United States. In 1803, Ohio would officially become a state and its fertile farmlands proved to be fruitful to farmers, many of which would visit the region to take in its beautiful vistas.
Later, when the industrial revolution caused small towns to grow into large cities, more and more people sought a refuge from urban life. The Cuyahoga Valley provided just such an escape, making it a popular recreational retreat. By the 1960s, much of the land in the area had been designated as a protected space to ensure that it stayed as pristine as possible. In 1974, President Gerald Ford declared the region a National Recreation Area, and in October of 200kk0, President Bill Clinton would officially establish the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, ensuring that it would stay preserved for generations of visitors to come.
This is just scratching the surface of the history of the park. Over the years, it has also been a place to witness the evolving role of women in American society, while also being a popular destination for Black Ohioans looking to connect with nature too.
Unlike some national parks that require hours of driving to reach, Cuyahoga Valley is extremely accessible. Located just 20 miles south of Cleveland and 8 miles north of Akron, the park is sandwiched between two sizable metropolitan areas. That makes planning a visit very easy, as there are plenty of local hotels and restaurants in close proximity.
From Cleveland, head south on Interstate 77 to Miller Road (Exit 147), following the signs while en route. If you're coming from the Akron, take state highway OH-8 to W Hines Hill Rd. in Boston Heights. Again follow the signs to the national park, which is very easy to find.
The Best Things to Do
As with most national parks, there is plenty to see and do inside Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Most travelers will only spend one day in the park, although there are certainly enough activities and attractions to warrant a multi-day outing. This is especially true for hikers who may want to explore as much of Cuyahoga Valley's 125 miles of trail as possible.
Other highlights include the stunning Brandywine Falls, which is a 60-foot waterfall that is located along a highly accessible boardwalk. More adventurous travelers may want to stretch their legs along the 1.4-mile Brandywine Gorge Trails which is usually less crowded and offers views of the falls from a different angle. Similarly, the 1.5-mile hike to Blue Hen Falls is spectacularly beautiful, particularly in the fall.
Another boardwalk takes visitors into the Beaver Marsh, where they can experience the local flora and fauna in all its glory. This is another leisurely stroll, which means it can get somewhat crowded during peak times. To escape the crowds, head to the Ritchie Ledges instead. A bit more off the beaten path—and requiring a 1.8-mile hike one way—this area features a geological record of the region displayed in the towering rock faces and stone formations.
In addition to hiking, there are a number of mixed-use trails that allow biking—including some surprisingly fun mountain bike routes. The Park Service has even designated some trails for horseback riding and paddling along the Cuyahoga River is a great way to take in the sights. During the winter, many of the trails are also accessible for cross-country skiing too, making this a year-round destination.
After you've hiked or biked a few miles, you can catch your breath and rest up aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The historic train follows the path of the river and takes riders deep into the surrounding wilderness where they have the chance to spot wildlife along the way. It is not uncommon to see bald eagles, whitetail deer, beavers, and other animals while riding the rails. The 2.5-hour-long train ride runs all year long and offers a variety of seating options.
Where to Sleep and Eat in the Park
Because it is so closely located to Cleveland and Akron, most visitors to the park end up staying in one of those two cities. Still, there are a few options for anyone who wants to stay inside the park itself. The Stanford House and Inn at Brandywine Falls are two quaint lodges that offer a limited number of rooms for anyone looking to extend their stay. Both are nicely situated to allow guests to take advantage of nearby attractions.
Sadly, the Park Service no longer allows any camping within Cuyahoga Valley National Park, although there are campsites to be found just outside the park. Ottawa Overlook is great for backcountry outings, while nearby Punderson and Portage Lakes State Parks have plenty of places to pitch a tent as well.
If you're looking to grab a quick snack while traveling through the park, there are two Trail Mix stores that sell cold drinks, ice cream, and a variety of other items—including park merchandise. The Peninsula and Valley View restaurants also offers sit-down service for anyone looking to dine without exiting the park. Those who don't mind venturing outside the gates will discover a wide variety of options for both quick and relaxed lunches and dinners.
The Best Time to Visit
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is open year round, with trails accessible to visitors even during the winter. Even more interesting, despite some areas closing at dusk, much of the park is open 24 hours per day, opening up opportunities for late-night adventures.
The busy summer travel season—stretching from late-May to early-September each year—correlates with larger crowds within the park as well. This translates to more people on the trails and in parking lots, sometimes creating traffic jams and long waits as a result. The more popular attractions—including Beaver Marsh and Brandywine Falls—draw the bulk of attention, while some of the longer and more remote trails (Wetmore Trail, Plateau Trail) are left fairly empty.
If you're looking to avoid crowds but still enjoy warmer weather, mid-April to mid-May and mid-September to mid-October make great times to visit Cuyahoga Valley. Autumn is especially lovely, although the park can get crowded on weekends when the leaves start to change colors.
Cold weather warriors will find the park all but deserted in the winter. If you have the outdoor gear and experience to go winter hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing, you'll often find that you'll have the place almost entirely to yourself.
Tips for Visitors
Before you head to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, here are a few more things you should know:
- Dress Appropriately: The weather can change rapidly inside the park and it is important to dress appropriately for the season. Winters can be cold and harsh, while the summer months are warm and humid. Bring layers that can be added or removed as needed, providing protection from the elements.
- Fall Foliage: The autumn colors usually hit their peak around mid-October, making the first few weeks of that month an especially good time to be in the park. Be aware, however, the crowds can be naturally larger at those times too, particularly on the weekend.
- Bring Snacks and Water: Food and drinks are not always easily accessible throughout the park, so be sure to bring some with you. Do not drink from the rivers, streams, or ponds. Instead, bring a water bottle. Remember to stay hydrated, even during the winter.
- Check Park Conditions Before You Go: The conditions in the park are constantly changing, so be sure to check the Cuyahoga Valley NP website for updates. Park rangers often post information about road and trail closures, river conditions, and even the size of crowds.