When most people think about northern Ohio, they typically don’t envision wild places like Cuyahoga Valley National Park, tucked between the cities of Cleveland and Akron. Not far from the shores of Lake Erie, this preserved river valley offers a rugged escape from the urbanized corridors surrounding it.
Whether you’re seeking ideas for vacation in the Midwest or planning any adventure-packed national parks road trips across America, Cuyahoga Valley NP should definitely be on your list. Additionally, because the park has a mix of rugged and mellower terrain, this makes for a good stop on a road trip with kids. Within striking distance of other lesser-known Midwestern parks like Gateway Arch NP in St. Louis and Indiana Dunes NP across Lake Michigan from Chicago, Cuyahoga Valley adds another state to your must-visit itinerary of national parks: Ohio.
This relatively small park, about 50 square miles, sees around 2.5 million visitors every year. Like most parks, visitation peaks during summer months for warm weather recreation like hiking, biking, river paddling, and fishing. But Cuyahoga Valley is truly a year-round national park that’s also popular during blossoming springtime, stunning fall colors, and snowy winters, when you’ll find opportunities for skiing and other icy adventures. While the park is open year-round for day use only, there are campgrounds and lodgings located nearby. And you can even take a fun train trip through the park on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
Hiking Cuyahoga Valley National Park
There are 125 miles of trails inside the park, ranging from mostly flat and easy walks on crushed gravel to moderately challenging hikes through rugged and hilly terrain. Those looking for an easy stroll or jogging path should check out the multiuse Towpath Trail, discussed below.
One of the park’s most popular hikes is the Ledges Trail. This 2.2-mile loop circles around a plateau of dramatic limestone bedrock. Along the way, there are many scenic views of the forest and rock formations, including the Ledges Overlook which offers an expansive view of the Cuyahoga Valley. The unpaved trail is rocky with some stairs and elevation changes. The route can be made shorter with cutoffs or longer by adding adjacent trails like the 2.2-mile Pine Grove Trail, the 0.5-mile Forest Point Trail, and the 0.5-mile Haskell Run Trail.
Another highly popular trail is the Brandywine Gorge Loop. This 1.5-mile hike includes sections of several trails, so picking up a map from the trailhead or visitor center is recommended. The highlight is stopping at the viewing platform across from the 60’ Brandywine Falls, which can also be reached via a short boardwalk from the Brandywine Falls parking lot. Because of the popularity of the falls, the parking area frequently fills up during midday, so consider arriving early morning or late afternoon. You can alternatively extend your hike by starting at other trailheads like Boston Mill Visitor Center (5.7 miles round-trip), Boston Trailhead (5.5 miles roundtrip), or Stanford Trailhead (3.8 miles round-trip).
One of the harder hikes in the park is the Blue Hen Falls Trail. Starting from either the Boston Mill Visitor Center or Boston Trailhead, this trail is about 3.5 miles roundtrip with 580 feet of elevation change. The reward is visiting Blue Hen Falls, a scenic 15-foot waterfall dropping over a bedrock ledge.
There are plenty more trails inside the park, so if you’re looking to escape into a lesser-known portion of the valley, check out the park’s hiking webpage.
The Towpath Trail is a mostly completed 101-mile multiuse recreational path following the historic Ohio & Erie Canal, which parallels the Cuyahoga River, from Cleveland in the north to New Philadelphia, OH, in the south. As of 2022, about 87 miles are complete, with the surface being a mix of pavement, crushed gravel, and hard-packed dirt. The path is popular for walking, jogging, and bicycling. A few sections of the trail allow horseback riding. After winter snowfalls, the path is used for cross-country skiing.
The twenty miles of the Towpath Trail passing through Cuyahoga Valley National Park have a crushed gravel surface. Various trailheads have parking lots for accessing the Towpath, with each section offering a slightly different experience. Check out this NPS webpage for more information.
Cuyahoga River: Paddling and Fishing
Chances are you may have heard about the Cuyahoga River for less than flattering reasons. During the 20th century, industrial pollution from Cleveland manufacturing heavily polluted the river. The surface became so contaminated by an oily slick of flammable liquids, that the river caught fire multiple times. The most recent was in 1969, and the public reaction helped spur the American environmental movement of the 1970s.
Today, the Cuyahoga River through Cleveland is much improved. The river through the national park is in even better shape, being upstream of Cleveland. However, the park is downstream of Akron and other communities, meaning water quality can be affected by storm runoff. During normal flows, paddling and fishing have become popular activities throughout the park.
For paddling, there are 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River and five access points in the national park. The park doesn’t offer boat rentals, so paddlers must bring their own equipment. The river sections are mostly class I-II that are suitable for beginner to intermediate paddlers during normal water conditions. Two sections are particularly popular, each about three river miles in length: from Lock 29 to Boston Store Trailhead and from Boston Store Trailhead to Red Lock. Because of the adjacent Towpath and railroad, some paddlers choose to walk, run, bike, or ride the train to shuttle their vehicles.
Fishing is allowed in the national park, with anglers required to possess a valid Ohio fishing license and abide by state regulations. For more information visit the NPS webpage.
Winter visits are a fun way to explore Cuyahoga Valley NP, with opportunities for cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, snow tubing, and sledding. Hiking trails remain open during winter, though be careful when ice is present. When trails are snow-covered, snowshoeing may be preferred, and snowshoes are available for rent at Boston Mill Visitor Center. Sledding is popular at the Kendal Hills area, located on Quick Road near the town of Peninsula. And ice fishing in park lakes and ponds is possible for those who are experienced.
Cross-country skiing occurs throughout the park, with NPS recommending certain trails like the easy Towpath, while other routes are more challenging through rolling terrain. Boston Mills Brandywine is a small pair of affiliated ski resorts located in the Cuyahoga Valley, offering 18 runs for all skill levels over 79 acres with about 250 feet of vertical relief. There is also a snow tubing park.
Want a complete list and recap of all our US National Parks as well as free downloadable maps and other great resources? Check out our US National Parks List and Map guide!
Cover photo: Blue Hen Falls. Patrick Jennings/Adobe