Weekend Wanderlust: Escape to Cuyahoga Valley National Park

A monthly guide to day trips around the state

Kevin J. Elliott
Brandywine Falls

These days a trip to the GoAsis — the massive, snack-riddled truck stop directly off of I-71 north in Ashland — is enough to spark adventure, so I’m giving myself a proverbial pat on my back for managing to write a year’s worth of travel columns in the middle of a global pandemic. 

In the past year, I managed to travel a couple of thousand miles around the state, keeping safety and common sense at the forefront. I never found myself in a crowd or a compromising interior setting. Most of my sojourns were to desolate locations: graveyards, Ohio History markers, dead malls and small towns and villages. I did visit a few museums, but usually I was met with empty exhibit halls and masked, welcoming docents. You have to applaud all of the institutions and restaurants who are doing it right, and have been the entire time (kudos, Akron Art Museum). It’s been a slippery slope. 

But what now? Are we in the clear as far as responsibly taking that hard-earned getaway and traveling into situations that could pose potential risk? I’m fully vaccinated, my partner is not. So despite the invitation from the Indianapolis Tourism Board to come revel in the March Madness bubble for a weekend of basketball and Indiana dive bars, I had to decline. That’s a bracket too far. And as we found on our anniversary celebration away from the city, trying to vibe with the outside world is definitely going to take some adjustment. 

Knowing we’d be outdoors for most of our trip, we settled on two nights at a quaint Sheraton, which overlooks the quaint and hidden Little Falls in Cuyahoga Falls, which sits throwing distance from Ohio’s only National Park: The Cuyahoga Valley. Of course, if one wants to escape to nature, we are lucky to have the Hocking Hills and a wealth of off-road trails like Boch Hollow within an hour drive, but it was high time we explored what is often referred to as our nation’s most boring National Park. That’s likely because it’s surrounded by the megalopolis of Akron, Canton, and Cleveland — and in many instances, travelers are either carving around its outskirts or driving right through it on I-271 without ever noticing. There are no mountainous peaks or distinguishing landmarks to see from the window. But what we found within its boundaries proved an overlooked gem. 

As a 32,000-acre collection of trails, lakes, waterfalls, overlooks and historic farmsteads, the Cuyahoga Valley has long been a popular recreation center. But it wasn’t until 2000 that it became a National Park. With such a spread-out expanse, it requires multiple visits to see it all. That said, the 20-mile Ohio-Erie Canal Towpath Trail is a profound way to take in much of it in a day. Snaking along the Cuyahoga River, it passes by the Deep Lock Quarry, Beaver Marsh, Indigo Lake and through the charming town of Peninsula. Parking at one of the many visitor centers will allow easy access to the trail. You could even bike from north to south and then return back to where you started on the Scenic Railway, which cuts directly down the center (set to re-open in May). 

Our first stop of the day was Brandywine Falls, which starts with a short boardwalk to Cuyahoga Valley’s e-ticket attraction. It’s smart to arrive here as early as possible, since the waterfall’s popularity makes for dense crowds on a narrow path throughout the day. The Falls, though, are a sight to behold. At 60 feet, they’re the largest in Northeast Ohio and likely the most prominent feature in the park. It’s certainly not Niagara, but it’s magnificent and bewildering all the same. It’s the first time in a long time I was stunned by something in nature. That was a good feeling. 

Kendall Ledges

The geological history of the park is on full display in the various ledge trails throughout. To the southwest, there are two trails of note: Worden’s and Whipp’s Ledges, the former a magical stroll through sandstone carved into ominous sculptures. If you are keeping it central, though, Kendall Ledges will give you a strenuous workout and incredible views. Along the trail, you’ll see rocks and landscapes that appear to be extraterrestrial, a bat cave set aside for preservation and a meditative overlook at the top that is worth the trek. 

We ended our day at the southern edge of the park on Bath Road, where from February to June, a large siege of migrating Great Blue Herons nest and breed in a few bare trees. Why they’ve come to build temporary homes here is a bit of a mystery, but it’s a smorgasbord for the birders with cameras and binoculars who come for the frisky activity and avian machismo. Before summer breaks, they’ll fledge their chicks and flee, so get there soon. 

With warmer months ahead and getting back to “normal” in a perpetual holding pattern, natural getaways like the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and the parameters in which to enjoy them, will be at a premium (just try booking a beachside campsite in Michigan right now). Those who have sheltered-in-place for more than a year will clamor for wide-open spaces. Once vaccinated, though, these still seem like your safest option, as opposed to theaters and museums. And, with that in mind, the possibilities for such wanderlust are ridiculously endless in Ohio. 

Bath Road herons

There and Back

From our lodging in Cuyahoga Falls, we found plenty of reputable establishments that offered impeccable takeout, including traditional Italian food from the Akron-famous Luigi’s and fried chicken and jojos (crispy, seasoned potato wedges) from Mark and Philly’s. We deemed breweries “safe” if we could comfortably drink from a patio. So it was a nice return to “normal” to have some quality beers at Hiho Brewing and Missing Mountain (which boasts a next-level deck above the Cuyahoga River). If you’re looking for a bonafide delicacy in the area, the Dilly Drive-In has an underrated classic that completes the trilogy of Akron’s famous burgers along with Swenson’s and Skyway. On the way home, a stop in Barberton is essential if you’re looking for Serbian chicken. Oh, and of course, there’s the Goasis.