Best Driving Vacations 2023: Cuyahoga Valley Showcases a Magnificent Restoration Story
More people outside of Ohio are discovering this place of extraordinary renewal between Akron and Cleveland.
Cuyahoga Valley has a tremendous capacity to delight and surprise. It’s a lesson that frequent visitors learn over and over—and one that hit me again during my last trip to Ohio’s only national park.
In late November, my family and I spent the day hiking through the 33,000-acre natural oasis between two of the state’s biggest cities, Cleveland and Akron. After hitting some favorite trails and attractions, we decided to try something different before beginning the two-hour drive back to Columbus. We went on a quick, quarter-mile walk to Beaver Marsh on the south end of the park. This 70-acre wetland, located along the popular Towpath Trail, is one of the park’s most vibrant areas—even on a bitterly cold, late fall day like this one. When we arrived at the marsh, we were surprised to spot two of its namesake rodents—a beaver swimming to its dome-shaped den in the icy waters and another one lying on a nearby rock.
It’s glorious, of course, to see nature’s furriest engineers anywhere in Ohio, where they were wiped out in the 1800s before staging a comeback a century later. But seeing a beaver has special meaning in this spot, a place of extraordinary renewal. In the 1970s, the National Park Service took control of the property, a former auto salvage yard just west of the Cuyahoga River. A cleanup ensued, which then attracted beavers, who built dams that flooded the area, awakening dormant seeds of wetland plants and attracting even more wildlife, including bats, frogs, turtles, muskrats, herons and more.
Founded as a national recreation area in 1974 and elevated to national park status in 2000, Cuyahoga Valley has long stood out for its accessibility (no entrance fees), its location (within a one-hour drive of nearly 4 million people) and its rich history (the Ohio & Erie Canal once ran through it). But perhaps its most remarkable attribute is its restoration story, which can be seen in Beaver Marsh and other spots throughout the park.
In some ways, the genesis of the park occurred in 1969, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, turning the city into an international punchline and helping create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By conserving the river basin south of Cleveland, the park created a bulwark against further pollution while also giving Northeast Ohio a much-needed natural attraction. Today, that river—including its 22 miles inside the park—isn’t exactly pristine, but it is much healthier, with both paddlers and anglers enjoying its waters.
Perhaps the park’s most remarkable comeback story is the Krejci Dump. When the park was created, it included this 50-acre site, which was contaminated with paints, solvents, pesticides and cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, arsenic and lead. After the dump closed in 1980, the National Park Service spent decades cleaning the property, an effort that finally was completed in 2021. The park doesn’t provide public access to the former Krejci site yet, but indigenous plants have returned, creating habitats for turtles, birds and other wildlife. “There’s a wetland that is really, really thriving and has come to life, and it’s beautiful with wildflowers in summer,” says Pamela Barnes, public information specialist for the park.
The diversity of experiences also makes Cuyahoga Valley unique. Natural beauty abounds, of course, from the sandstone cliffs of the Ledges to the majesty of Brandywine Falls (the tallest waterfall in Ohio). But you also can find within the park’s borders two ski resorts, the Blossom Music Center (the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra), a scenic railroad, the charming town of Peninsula and a dozen restored farms, which sell their produce at seasonal markets year-round.
Long beloved by locals, the park appears to be attracting more people from outside Ohio these days. The NPS’ last visitor study, conducted in 2015, showed that 21 percent of Cuyahoga Valley visitors came from out of state, up from 10 percent in 2005. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the non-Ohio percentage has continued to rise in recent years, Barnes notes. “If you come to the visitor center on a summer day, you will see license plates from all over the country,” she says.
Suggested Side Trip
Cuyahoga Valley’s urban location means access to attractions and amenities in Cleveland, Akron and beyond. What’s more, you can easily reach some of these destinations on two wheels, thanks to the 100-mile Towpath Trail, which extends from Cleveland to New Philadelphia. Hop on the beloved bike path, which runs the entire distance of the national park, and head north to Canal Basin Park, the trail’s northern terminus in the Flats neighborhood of Cleveland. Grab a bite to eat in the bustling area, and if you’re not up for the 24-mile ride back to the valley, stay the night in downtown Cleveland, where there’s no shortage of things to do. canalwaypartners.com, thisiscleveland.com
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for accommodations within Cuyahoga Valley’s borders, the stalwarts are Stanford House, a remodeled historic home operated by the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and the Inn at Brandywine Falls, a bed-and-breakfast overlooking the waterfall. The inn offers six guest rooms with private bathrooms, while the nine-bedroom Stanford House, a former youth hostel, currently requires rental of the entire property. Though camping isn’t allowed in the park, Heritage Farms, a Peninsula Christmas tree farm, offers 12 tent and three shelter campsites from spring through fall on its private property. The farm also has a one-bedroom garden apartment available via Airbnb. conservancyforcvnp.org, innatbrandywinefalls.com, heritagefarms.com
This story is from the Best Driving Vacations package in the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.