Any history buff who hears the words “Cuyahoga River” will automatically think of the infamous day in 1969 when the river caught fire. Yes, you read that correctly. An oil slick on the top of the water was ignited, causing the river to burn and damage nearby structures. Today, however, you would never think the river was ever so polluted it burned. In fact, one section of the Cuyahoga River and the surrounding valley have transformed into a beautiful 33,000-acre national park.
I had about one and half days set aside to wander the park, and I felt like that was enough to see the highlights. In my opinion, there are three must-see areas in the park: Brandywine Falls, Ledges Trail, and Beaver Marsh.
Brandywine Falls felt like the heart of the park. It’s a huge waterfall formed from the sandstone found throughout the valley, and it’s pretty stunning. There are upper and lower overlooks that allow great views. There is also an abundance of hemlock trees, something not found throughout much of the park. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a trail down to the creek under the falls, though that didn’t stop a lot of people from climbing the fence and going down there anyway. This is definitely the type of destination where you just park, soak it all in, and get back in your car, but sometimes that’s a nice break during a long day of hiking. There are ranger-led tours of the falls a couple days a week. We went on one, but thought that an hour was a little long for the amount of information we got from it.
Ledges Trail was probably my favorite part of the park because it was so unique. The “ledges” are huge sandstone formations that abruptly end to form large cliffs. The stone itself is beautiful, with layers of colors that are swirled and pitted from years of wind and rain. The trees that grow on them are spectacular too simply because they’re so strange, with roots that twist over the rocks. Ledges trail is best viewed in the evening. Start the 2-mile trail where it crosses the road near the overlook, but go the other way. You will pass huge sandstone cliffs, CCC-built stairs, and tons of boulders before finishing at the overlook, which is a perfect place to watch the sunset.
Last but not least is Beaver Marsh. In my opinion, there’s nothing like a good wetland for seeing wildlife. We saw huge snapping turtles covered in algae and painted turtles sunning themselves on rocks. A Great Blue Heron speared a catfish right off the boardwalk and walked around with it long enough for me to snap some pictures. Green Herons hunted the old canal, staring into the water waiting for prey. Wood ducks paddled among the lilies, dragonflies flitting over their heads. The Towpath Trail, a paved trail that follows the remains of the Erie & Ohio Canal, runs through the middle of the marsh and offers easy access for a leisurely stroll.
Other highlights of the park included Bridal Veil Falls and Blue Hen Falls, both of which are beautifully secluded glens with pretty waterfalls as a centerpiece. Kendall Lake and the trail that surrounds it are worth a visit too, especially if you’re already at Ledges.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park isn’t the largest national park, or the most stunning. However, it is one of the most accessible. It’s right by two major metropolitan areas, and offers lots of family and biker-friendly trails. Admission is free. It’s partnered with metro parks to extend its borders and protect more natural areas. It has an environmental education center where kids who grew up in the city can go to learn about nature. In short, Cuyahoga is a strong link connecting the urban to the natural, and bringing people into naure. With the growing disconnect between humans and nature, places like Cuyahoga are critical in helping people feel like part of nature and understand its importance. The burning Cuyahoga River may have helped spark the environmental movement, but Cuyahoga Valley and places like it will be what keep that movement alive in all the generations to come.