Cuyahoga Valley, where urban living meets some of the best hiking trails in the Midwest
"What can't you do here?" my travel companion asked as we crossed a glade surrounded by weddings, runners, dogs, bikers, caves, a golf course, and a scenic overlook. As the first visit to a capital N, capital P national park on my three-year (maybe longer!) journey to all 413 U.S. National Park Service sites, Cuyahoga Valley proved why it's so treasured.
It's suburban national park paradise, the land surrounded—right up to its borders—by 3 million residents in the greater Cleveland area. That proximity makes it the most accessible national park I've come across in my five months on the road. And looking at the map of the remaining national parks, I think it's going to stay that way.
For two local residents I met, this park serves as their family's escape from urbanity. Living just seven miles from the entrance, they come here with their kids as often as possible to instill a love for nature in the next generation. And perhaps that's the greatest asset of Cuyahoga Valley National Park: It doesn't smack you in the face with melting glaciers, plunging canyons, or sweeping coastlines. It subtly inserts itself as a spectacular part of people's normal lives.
As a smaller National Park, you can cover Cuyahoga Valley with a full day of hiking. However, for those after a more leisurely pace through the park's offerings, it could just as easily fill an entire three-day weekend. I talked to a local park ranger to get her expert advice on the must-sees in Cuyahoga Valley.
"This is so cool," I said at least three times on Ledges Trail, a short loop hike. After taking in the west-facing Ledges Overlook (which should be experienced at sunset or in the fall), I was amazed by the way the path of light green trees suddenly switched to dark evergreens. Continuing farther along the same path, that new ecosystem led to a stairway of rocks descending to even more diverse scenery. Massive boulders, moss, and trees that looked like they belonged in an ancient Asian temple all came together to make me feel like I was in another part of the world.
Halfway through the loop, a closed-off bat cave provided a burst of natural air conditioning for the hot hikers passing by its front door.
Finishing the loop, the entire process happened in reverse, as I was led through each ecosystem back to my Vanny McVanface and ready to drive to the next trailhead.
When I arrived at 11 a.m., Brandywine Falls was decently packed, and upon telling a group of tourists this was the lighter period, they all said they'd hate to see it later.
But the falls themselves were stunning. "Falling over 60 feet, the Brandywine Falls are one of the most beautiful natural features in the park," says Hiking Project staffer Mikhaila Redovian. "Formed by the erosion of the Bedford and Cleveland Shales, the falls are capped by the Berea Sandstone. As the softer layers under the sandstone eroded away, the result is this spectacular waterfall."
The hike to the falls from Boston Store Visitor Center was quick—we arrived in under an hour. I recommend doing the same instead of driving to the parking lot near Brandywine Falls. And a word to the wise: "Go early in the morning," according to a Cuyahoga Valley ranger named Paige, "Before the crowds get too crazy."
Dawn and dusk provide your best chance to see an actual beaver in Beaver Marsh. Because the path is really more of a boardwalk than a hiking trail, keep in mind that your goal on this marsh stroll is to expose hikers to the frogs, turtles, northern cardinals, and other wildlife that call the damp environment home.
From the parking lot, enjoy an easy 15- to 20-minute walk along a calm river filled with lily pads and willow trees. Because this trail is flat and straight, it's family-friendly, even for those with toddlers and strollers.
Hike to Blue Hen Falls (and the Unmarked Buttermilk Falls)
I started this hike at the Boston Store Visitor Center and it was immediately filled with tons of sharp ascents and descents. If you're in a hurry, you can drive to the Blue Hen Falls parking lot where the walk to Blue Hen Falls is under 30 minutes.
After you reach the falls, take a recommendation from the local family I met and go beyond where the sign says "Trail Ends Here." This will lead you to Buttermilk Falls. There were a lot of people who did this, just be sure to respect Leave No Trace practices. Personally, I found this waterfall far less crowded than Blue Hen Falls—and more beautiful.