Straddled on either side by Cleveland and Akron, the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a welcome escape into nature from the surrounding urban jungle. The park preserves and interprets the meandering Cuyahoga River, remnants of the old Ohio Canal, and offers exciting outdoor adventures.
The locals call it “Urban National Park” because the park is entirely surrounded by urban neighborhoods – sometimes it is difficult to know if you’re inside the park or driving through a town. Interstate highways and county roads dissect the park into sections. But at the heart of the park, the Cuyahoga River winds through a narrow valley surrounded by nature, wildlife, and outdoor recreation.
Learn about the adventurous things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, from hiking trails to riding a scenic railroad.
Brief History of Cuyahoga Valley National Park
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire – again. After decades of dumping chemicals, debris, and oil into the river, a spark from a passing train ignited the river for the 13th time on record. Although that final fire was relatively small – it only caused $50,000 in damage compared to $1.3 million in damage from a 1952 fire – it was the last straw for the country.
As a direct result of the latest fire on the Cuyahoga River, the United States Congress passed the National Environment Policy Act in 1970. The act helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Water Act.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed a bill establishing Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation area. People argued against the designation because the polluted Cuyahoga River could not possibly be used for recreation or tourism at the time. However, the move was more preventative, allowing the government to purchase land along the historic river and Ohio Canal to preserve it for future use.
On October 11, 2000, the area was redesignated as Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Today, the national park preserves the river, railroad, and remaining sections of the historic canal. Outdoor recreation, historical interpretation, and beautiful spots of nature await visitors to Ohio’s only national park.
01 | Visit the Boston Mill Visitor Center
Adventures need planning, and the Boston Mill Visitor Center is precisely where you need to go for help. Fortunately, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park visitor center is located near the middle of the park in Peninsula. Riverview Road – the primary road through the national park – is easy to access from nearby interstate highways.
The two-story white building was once a general store for a canal town. Recently, the National Park Service renovated the old building for the new Boston Mill Visitor Center – the only visitor center in the national park. Inside, you’ll find a small gift shop, brochures and park maps, rangers to answer your questions, and a small one-room museum.
02 | Visit the Canal Exploration Center
The Canal Exploration Center is a wonderful museum for exploring the history of the Ohio & Erie Canal. After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825 across New York, Ohio decided to build a canal connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie. A towpath was constructed alongside the canal, towns sprang up as work proceeded, and the 308-mile canal opened in 1832.
The Canal Exploration Center has a complete map of the entire canal system between Ohio and New York with interactive features. Interpretive panels explain the history of the canal system and how it fostered urban development in the area. Park rangers are usually on-site during normal business hours, ready to answer any and all questions.
7104 Canal Road, Valley View, OH | 440-717-3890 | www.nps.gov/cuva/learn/historyculture/canal-exploration-center.htm
03 | Tour Hale Farm & Village
In 1810, Jonathan Hale arrived in Bath, Ohio, on the Western Reserve. Ohio had just become a state seven years earlier, so life was rough on the frontier. A gorgeous three-story brick farmhouse was built on the property and remained in the Hale family for generations. In the 1930s, Clara Belle Ritchie – the great-granddaughter of Jonathan Hale – purchased the property, restore the house, and donated it to the Western Reserve Historical Society.
During normal business hours, visitors will find docents throughout the property, take guided tours of the house, and learn about the history of the Hale family, living on the frontier, and early life in Cuyahoga Valley.
04 | Hike the Plateau Trail
The 4.4-mile Plateau Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The loop trail only has about a 300-foot elevation change – it loops around a small lake on a plateau – so it’s a relatively easy hike. The trail winds through a forested area of the national park and is peaceful when not crowded.
The gravel parking area for this trailhead is small, but by mid-afternoon, hikers frequently leave to find lunch. Restrooms are available.
3901 Oak Hill Road, Peninsula, OH
05 | Take a Leisure Walk to the Everett Covered Bridge
By the mid-19th century, there were nearly 2,000 covered bridges across Ohio. Today, the Everett Covered Bridge is the only remaining bridge in Summit County – and one of only a few dozen left in the state.
From the small, paved parking lot on Everett Road, go for a leisure walk on a paved trail to find the covered bridge. Crossing Furnace Run Creek, the vibrant red bridge is a gorgeous sight. Walk through the bridge and find a path leading to the creek for the perfect place to plop out a chair.
2247 Everett Road, Peninsula, OH | www.nps.gov/cuva/learn/historyculture/everett-road-covered-bridge.htm
06 | Explore the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail
One of the best ways to experience the nature of Cuyahoga Valley National Park is hiking or biking on the 19.5-mile Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath. But don’t worry – you don’t have to do the entire trail! There are ten trailheads to access the trail throughout the park.
The path is comprised of compacted gravel – it’s not pavement, but it’s slightly better than loose gravels. It’s wheelchair accessible and bicycle-friendly. In fact, one of the best ways to experience the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath is by bicycle. Century Cycles and Eddys Bike Shop offer bicycle rentals – and both now offer electric bicycles for a more leisurely ride!
One of the prettiest places to go for a walk or bicycle ride is at the Station Road Bridge access. The large parking lot has plenty of room for personal vehicles and RVs. Begin the adventure with a trek across an old trestle bridge where you are treated to a spectacular view of the stone arched Brecksville-Northfield Bridge.
Valley Parkway, Brecksville, OH
07 | Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
Start the day off with a comfortable ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The three-and-a-half-hour National Park Scenic ride is a round trip journey between Rockside Station and Akron Northside Station – although riders can also get on and off the train at Peninsula Station and Boston Station.
The enclosed, climate-controlled passenger cars provide a comfortable place to enjoy the beauty of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The railroad follows the path of the river and canal through the park.
08 | Visit Brandywine Falls
Cascading 65 feet down exposed bedrock, Brandywine Falls is the tallest waterfall in Ohio and the most spectacular natural sight in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s a popular waterfall to visit because it’s one of the most accessible waterfalls to view in the state.
The adventure begins along a wooden boardwalk at the edge of the large parking lot. You’ll hear the crashing water long before you see it – and before you have to descend a couple flights of stairs. The steps are wide, shallow, and there are sturdy handrails if you need them.
The wooden boardwalk ends at an observation deck about midway through the waterfall’s height. It is the perfect vantage point to admire the enormous water feature, and the benches make it even more inviting to sit and enjoy it for a while.
8176 Brandywine Road, Northfield, OH
09 | Explore The Ledges
The Ledges are one of the most stunning natural features in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Over millions of years, an 80-foot-tall rock ledge developed around a small plateau in the valley. Today, the large parking lot is on top of the plateau and surrounded by the popular ledges.
The adventure to see the ledges begins with a short walk along a forest service road past the covered shelter. The 1.8-mile Ledges Trail loops around the parking lot and offers chances to see the ledges from above and below.
The primitive trail is an easy hike – although it is not accessible. Covered with roots and rocks at points, it will take a while to hike the loop trail. It will take even longer when you inevitably stop to admire the gorgeous rocky cliffs and boulders.
One of the best views at The Ledges actually isn’t the ledges at all. The Ledges Overlook is a rare, elevated observation point in the national park, with a westward view overlooking the plateau. It’s a great place to watch the sunset while lounging in a comfy hammock.
701 Truxell Road, Peninsula, OH | www.nps.gov/cuva/the-ledges.htm
10 | Visit Kendall Lake
Not all adventures have to involve hiking shoes, kayaks, or physical exertion. The tiny Kendall Lake is another kind of adventure – it’s called going for a leisure walk and admiring nature from a park bench.
Kendall Lake was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 after building a dam on Salt Run Creek. While visiting, take note of the interpretive panels explaining a few engineering concepts used by the CCC.
Benches line a portion of the lake shore where you can watch ducks swimming across the calm surface. For a more vigorous adventure, go for a walk on the 1-mile Lake Trail that loops around the trail from the parking lot.
1000 Truxel Road, Peninsula, OH
11 | See the Wildlife at The Beaver Marsh
When the Ohio & Erie Canal was built through the state, it passed through these wetlands. But by the mid-1900s, an automotive repair shop and junkyard had backfilled the land and littered it with chemicals and garbage. After decades of rehabilitation work by the Sierra Club and National Park Service, the wetlands were restored.
Today, the Beaver Marsh is the best place to see wildlife in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Beavers do indeed live in the wetlands but are notoriously difficult to spot. Birds, ducks, and geese are far more common – especially during the first or last hour of daylight.
From the parking lot, it is a 1-mile out-and-back hike on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail to the Beaver Marsh. A wooden boardwalk crosses the wetlands and offers spectacular views of the wildlife from a small deck with benches.
Along the trail are sections of the historic Ohio Canal. Portions have been reclaimed by nature, but pieces of the structure remain and provide a glimpse into what the canal looked like in the 1800s.
3912 Riverview Road, Peninsula, OH | www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/the-beaver-marsh.htm
12 | Paddle the Cuyahoga River
The Cuyahoga River is the reason for the national park today. The river played an important role in the route of the Ohio Canal because of the need for a steady supply of water. When industries began developing along the upper portion of the river in the 1950s – they also needed a steady water supply – it led to heavy pollution. After a series of fires from oil and debris in the river, it was left toxic and unusable.
Today, the river is an example of rehabilitation in nature. Although the National Park Service does not actively maintain the river for recreational use, it is in remarkable condition for enjoying a day paddling.
There are five places for putting kayaks and canoes into the water in Cuyahoga Valley National Park:
- Lock 29 in Peninsula
- Boston Store in Boston
- Red Lock in Northfield
- Station Road Bridge in Brecksville
- Lock 39 in Valley View
Where to Stay at Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Unlike most other national parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park does not have any campgrounds or even primitive campsites. For a time, visitors with RVs and sleeping in the backseat of your car was permitted in the parking lots – but those days are now over. Without campgrounds, where can you stay while visiting the national park?
The national park is not that big – it is possible to drive from end to end in about an hour. Where you stay entirely depends on what you want to do outside of the park for dinner and entertainment.
Here are some recommendations for hotels surrounding the park in places that would be great for spending a few nights.
At the northern edge of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Independence is just minutes from Lock 39 and Canal Road leading into the park. There is easy access from I-77 and I-480. You’ll also find plenty of places nearby for food when not exploring the park.
Hyatt Place is the epitome of comfort and luxury at a reasonable price. The hotel features free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool, and an on-site bar. Enjoy breakfast in the morning with comfortable seating in a large dining area. All of the rooms include a sleeper sofa – perfect for traveling families.
Hampton Inn & Suites is a hotel chain I always recommend because they offer the best free breakfast. It’s a no-frills hotel without a swimming pool or on-site restaurant or bar, but would you need that while exploring the national park? Rooms include one or two beds, and connecting rooms are perfect for larger families.
Red Roof Inn is an excellent budget-friendly choice in Independence. Featuring recently renovated rooms with faux hardwood floors, new furniture, and nice amenities like lamps with outlets built-in, this would be a great place to spend a few nights. Choose from rooms with one king bed or two full beds.
Today, Macedonia is nothing more than a suburb in the greater Cleveland area that blends with all the others. However, there are two great hotel options, plenty of nearby places for food and supplies, and it’s the closest to the middle of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
La Quinta is where I chose to spend four nights while exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was remarkably comfortable, and I was shocked to find a reclining chair with footstool in the room! Choose from rooms with one or two beds or the Deluxe King Suite that includes a sleeper sofa.
Country Inn & Suites has a few more amenities to offer, like an indoor swimming pool and hot tub. A continental breakfast is included with each overnight stay that has some moderately good food on the menu. Choose from rooms with one or two beds or the King Suite with a sleeper sofa.
Although the population of Stow tops 35,000, it’s really just a suburban community in the greater Akron area. But it’s also just ten minutes from the southern end of Cuyahoga Valley National Park and makes a great place to spend a few nights.
Hampton Inn is my favorite hotel chain to recommend because of the fantastic complimentary breakfast. Choose from rooms with one or two beds or the Premium Executive King Room that also includes a sleeper sofa.
Courtyard by Marriott is always a great choice for a moderately luxurious hotel with comfortable and affordable rooms. The common space in the hotel lobby features comfortable seating and makes a great place for larger groups traveling together to hang out. All the rooms include one or two beds along with a sleeper sofa.
Downtown Cleveland is only about 20 minutes from the northern end of Cuyahoga Valley National Park – remember how it’s nicknamed Urban National Park? It would be entirely possible to spend a few nights in Cleveland to enjoy the views of Lake Erie and downtown dining while exploring the national park by day.
Aloft is a quirky hotel chain with comfortable rooms, great amenities, and just about as close as you’ll get to Lake Erie in Cleveland. It’s located at the edge of downtown beside the Cuyahoga River, so you won’t be walking to many destinations – but it’s also away from the hustle and bustle.
Hampton Inn is another great downtown hotel – a chain that still offers the best complimentary breakfast you’ll find at any hotel. Located in the heart of downtown, it’s within walking distance to attractions like the Browns’ stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Choose from rooms with one or two beds or a suite with two beds and a sleeper sofa.
La Quinta is a more affordable option located just off Interstate 71 near the airport. There are a few food options nearby, but it’s just a comfortable hotel away from the downtown congestion. Choose from rooms with one or two beds or the Executive Room with a king bed and a sleeper sofa.
Four Points by Sheraton, located across the street from La Quinta, is another great option with comfortable rooms at a more affordable price. Take advantage of the indoor swimming pool and on-site restaurant and bar.