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AARP's Guide to Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Find serene nature, accessible adventure and American history

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Mshake/Getty Images

Brandywine Falls

En españolU.S. national parks typically wow with jagged peaks and dramatic landforms, but you won't find this over-the-top splendor in Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), less than 20 miles south of Cleveland. Instead, Ohio's only national park blends rolling hills with fog-fuzzed valleys over 33,000 acres. The backdrop, a landscape etched by glaciers and carved by the crooked Cuyahoga River, provides a lesson in Midwest modesty: It's striking but not excessive. Photogenic, but you won't hear it bragging.

CVNP attracts 2.2 million annual visitors with an easily navigable patchwork of serene nature, accessible adventure and deep history. Thick forests, rushing waterfalls and copper-tinged bedrock tell tales of ancient seas that covered this land some 400 million years ago. Indigenous tribes such as the Hopewell and Whittlesey hunted, farmed and traded along the fertile land for millennia. After America gained independence, settlers moved in.

In the late 1700s, Connecticut claimed a 120-mile-wide strip along Lake Erie, known as the Western Reserve, that included the Cuyahoga Valley. Settlers later spearheaded the valley's breakthrough project, the Ohio and Erie Canal, which sparked trade and put what was now Ohio (as of 1803) on the map. But America's railroad revolution in the 1850s and subsequent industrialization in northeast Ohio eventually turned the Cuyahoga River into a catchall for industrial waste and sewage — so bad fires would burn on the polluted river. In 1969, those flames sparked an eco-movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as protected national recreation status for Cuyahoga Valley.

In 2000, it became a national park, and it stands proud as an environmental success story today.

"Our national park is a story of redemption,” says Rebecca Jones Macko, an interpretive park ranger. “Our river was named an area of concern — the naughty list for the EPA — and we're well on our way to getting off that list. Where we once had maybe three species of fish, we now have 70. This all started as a grassroots movement, and it worked.”

Experiences abound across CVNP, and the diversity of attractions draws visitors from all walks of life. “We have farms, farmers markets and a lovely town in the middle of the park that's like stepping back in time,” Macko says. “You want to go birding? Great. Kayaking? We have it. Want to sit, sip and watch the world go by? We have a winery. If you look, there's a little something for everyone."

locator map of ohio showing the location of cuyahoga national park

Getty Images/AARP

Northeast Ohio

Acres: 33,000 acres

Best view: The Ledges Overlook, roughly 200 feet above the Cuyahoga River

Lowest point: Cuyahoga River, 590 feet

Miles/number of trails: 125 miles along more than 50 trails

Main attraction: Brandywine Falls

Cost: Free

Best way to see it: Riding the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad or biking the Towpath Trail

When to go to avoid the crowds: Midweek in the summer, as well as winter, spring or fall

Plan Your Trip

Cuyahoga Valley is about as urban as national parks get — and not simply because it's 30 minutes south from downtown Cleveland. Ohioans live near, and in some cases within, the 50-square-mile national park. It's their backyard, a shortcut driving east to west, and a morning run or dog-walk route. That's why CVNP visits are blissfully simple.

You won't find entrance gates, long lines and permit requirements in the valley. Visitors come and go with ease, through dozens of entry roads across park borders. Entrance is free, and the park's open all day, every day — even during holidays. The only areas closed daily from dusk to dawn are Brandywine Falls, Kendall Lake, Octagon and Virginia Kendall Ledges.

Driving is the best way to experience Cuyahoga Valley's beauty. Interstates 77, 80 and 271 cut above and through Cuyahoga Valley, making it a straight shot from Pittsburgh (I-80, 110 miles to the southeast) and Columbus, Ohio (I-71, which connects with I-271, 130 miles to the southwest).

If you're flying in, start your trip at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, just southwest of the city. The airport runs a speedy shuttle to its offsite car-rental facility. From here, head 25 minutes down I-71 and across I-80 to reach Peninsula, a popular and central gateway town flanked by forests and trailheads.

With reliable cell service and frequent trail rest stops, accessibility is the norm across Cuyahoga Valley. The park boasts everything from creek-crossing trails to long-distance bike paths and ski runs, not to mention wildlife viewing (bald eagles, beavers and more), best around sunrise and sunset.

Parking and bathrooms are readily available at nearly every attraction, restaurant and trailhead. Parking lots get congested on weekends, particularly for popular attractions such as Brandywine Falls.

Ohio enjoys all four seasons, and each month brings a new park experience. Wildflowers paint the valley with pops of pink, purple and yellow come spring. Summer pleases with mild heat, bustling farmers markets, canoeing and kayaking (rentals are available outside the park) and concerts at the park's outdoor amphitheater, Blossom Music Center, the Cleveland Orchestra's summer home. When autumn chills the valley, bursts of gold and red leaves dramatically follow. The rumors are true — Cleveland winters are bitingly cold — but the park's ski, sled and snowshoe excursions make the extra layers worth it. The park sees steady crowds throughout the year, but Macko says Memorial Day, July 4 weekend and August are the busiest.

Where to Stay and Eat

Stanford House is a historic 19th-century farm home built in the 1830s by George Stanford

Sandra Foyt/Alamy Stock Photo

The Stanford House

For CVNP lodging, mix history, charm and true Midwest hospitality at two gems: the Inn at Brandywine Falls and the Stanford House, both in the park, minutes from Peninsula.

At the more luxurious Inn at Brandywine Falls, you get a front-row ticket to the valley's top waterfall, Brandywine. Four charming retreats, including the coveted waterfall-view Simon Perkins Room, make up the main inn. A former carriage barn claims the property's most luxe accommodations, the Granary and Loft suites. All rooms have private baths, with a shared living room, library, dining room and kitchen, where guests gather for fun and fare.

The Stanford House history spans two centuries, with generations of Stanfords having lived and farmed here; now it welcomes guests as a B&B. With rustic and historic digs, it's almost like sleeping in a museum. It has nine bedrooms, two community restrooms (with showers and stalls in each), a self-service kitchen, a shared dining room and an outdoor fire pit. Walk to waterfalls, wooded trails and the Cuyahoga River.

CVNP prohibited camping in 2019 due to a lack of infrastructure, but you'll find three backcountry camping sites at Ottawa Overlook in Brecksville Reservation, just north of the park. Call Cleveland Metroparks (216-635-3304) to obtain a free permit. At Nimisila Reservoir Metro Park, 20 miles south, 29 campsites come with impressive birding opportunities. Every August, thousands of migrating purple martins flock to the reservoir for roosting; eagles, osprey and waterfowl also call this park home. Reserve online at Reserve America ($25 to $30 per night).

At more than 25 picnic sites, mostly shaded picnic tables share real estate with kiosks and trailheads at popular attractions such as the Beaver Marsh, Brandywine Falls and Everett, steps from the valley's most photogenic covered bridge. Amenities range from simple trailside benches to covered shelters with grills and restrooms or portable toilets.

Fisher's Café & Pub in Peninsula serves ribs, steaks, wings and sandwiches, but you'll want to try the Grandpa George burger, a classic and hearty cheeseburger still made with the same recipe Fisher's founder — and the burger's namesake — debuted in 1958. Dine outside along the town's picturesque main street, or in the eclectic and cozy dining room with retro Cleveland snapshots.

At Sarah's Vineyard, a winery in the park proper that grows its own grapes, sip Sarah's own estate blend, the Blue Heron Blush. As you do, admire lush gardens and sprawling vineyards from the tasting room, outdoor pavilion or loft. For a bite, nothing beats Sarah's crispy margherita pizza.

Things to Do

two bikers along a trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Hike: CVNP's 125 miles of secluded and densely forested hiking trails prove Ohio is more than a flyover state. A web of hilly, wetland and woodland trails ranges from easy to challenging. The shortest hikes require no more than 15 minutes. Longer treks reach up to 37 miles, where the Buckeye Trail, a 1,444-mile loop around Ohio, winds through the park's most rugged terrain. Leashed dogs are allowed on more than 110 miles of the trails. Find pet stipulations, as well as background on flora, fauna and history, at trailhead kiosks. Grab a paper map for a guide-to-go, although most trails are well marked with directions and mileage.

Don't miss the Ledges Trail, a moderate 2.2-mile maze through mossy sandstone cliffs and geologically mesmerizing caves. You'll think you're in Oregon, not northeast Ohio.

The valley has more than 100 waterfalls; the most popular in the park is the 60-foot Brandywine Falls, visible via boardwalk or the 1.5-mile Brandywine Gorge Trail. Craving seclusion? Follow Spring Creek for a 1.2-mile hike to the trickling and less crowded Blue Hen Falls. From here, cross the shin-high creek for even more beauty at the cascading Buttermilk Falls. All in all, this out-and-back waterfall route requires roughly two hours.

Go for a train ride: Soak up CVNP's best scenery on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Macko's favorite “windshield tour” of the park barrels along freight tracks from the 1800s that wind along the rushing Cuyahoga River. Trains run southbound and northbound mornings and afternoons, with rides averaging two to three hours.

You're likely to see wildlife. “When the train is running in the spring, it's not uncommon for people to see bald eagles at their nests,” Macko says.

The Scenic Railroad goes all in on the seasons, from the Fall Flyer ride for autumn foliage to the Polar Express, a holiday journey inspired by the hit children's book, with Santa meet-and-greets along the way.

Bike through history: History abounds across Cuyahoga Valley's Towpath Trail, an 87-mile jaunt along the former Ohio and Erie Canal. Floods may have decimated this economic staple in 1913, but more than 2 million visitors now use the trail regularly — and bicycling is the best way to do so. “The trail is flat, easy to ride, and under the cover of trees for most of the way,” says Kevin Madzia of Century Cycles, a CVNP bike shop. “There are many historical sights of interest, like the old canal locks and a visitor center with information about the early inhabitants of the area."

The trail passes natural highlights, including the wildlife-abundant Beaver Marsh and charming Peninsula, as it winds through the park and beyond. Pack two park adventures into one with the Scenic Railroad's “bike aboard” special. Bike one length of the park's Towpath Trail, then flag down the train at a boarding station for a ride back.

Rent bikes, including e-bikes, year-round at Century Cycles in downtown Peninsula.

View wildlife: Ohio may not have grizzly bears and mountain goats, but the park's beavers, birds, coyotes and foxes impress just as much. The Beaver Marsh is your best bet for all-in-one wildlife sightings. Beavers, otters, turtles and great blue heron thrive in these 70 wetland acres — but it wasn't always that way. Until the 1980s, this marsh was an old salvage yard. Grassroots groups removed junk cars and scraps; at the same time, beavers — long absent from Ohio — returned to the valley and made a home in the former junkyard.

Bald eagles are another Cuyahoga Valley comeback story. In 2006, the valley saw its first nesting bald eagles in 70 years, and they've been nesting at Pinery Narrows in the park's northern section every year since. Spring's nesting season is the best time to see eagles and their babies.

Visit a farm: Cuyahoga Valley was farmland well before it became a national park, and nearly a dozen of these farms still operate. Under the National Park Service's Countryside Initiative, farmers lease park land to preserve the valley's fertile landscapes. The nonprofit Countryside organization, developed in 1999, runs events such as the Countryside Farmers’ Market all year. Try Ohio-fresh produce such as sweet corn and plump tomatoes, with stands galore at Old Trail School and the adjacent Howe Meadow in the park's southwest end.

Purplebrown Farmstead, two miles south of Brandywine Falls, hosts classes, workshops and experiences, including cut-your-own sunflower excursions in late summer. Or pick blueberries under the summer sun at Greenfield Berry Farm in Peninsula.

Glimpse into Ohio's agricultural history at the 90-acre Hale Farm and Village, near the Beaver Marsh in the park's southwest corner. See farm animals, stroll through heritage gardens and take in blacksmithing and glassblowing demonstrations.

Go skiing: Perhaps surprisingly, CVNP has 18 trails across 88 skiable acres. Boston Mills and Brandywine are side-by-side ski resorts in the heart of the park with interchangeable lift tickets and season passes. Slopes vary from beginner bunny hills to difficult black diamonds, with a peak vertical drop of 264 feet. Ski facilities rent equipment rentals and sell food and alcohol but don't offer overnight accommodations.

Cross-country skiing trails run the gamut from the beginner-friendly Bike and Hike Trail (a flat, 10-mile course along the park's eastern border) to the tricky Boston Run Trail, an advanced 3.5-mile path across steep terrain and thick woodlands. The 20-mile multipurpose Towpath Trail attracts cross-country skiers with level terrain, minimal elevation and scenic snow-dusted forests. Rent cross-country skis and snowshoes from the Winter Sports Center at Kendall Lake from December through February.

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Gateway towns

Dozens of gateway towns bound CVNP, being it's an urban national park. But the tiny village of Peninsula (population: 600) in the park's center ranks as the most central and scenic. Named for the sharp Cuyahoga River bend that makes downtown look like a true peninsula, it's a picturesque mid-19th-century town with a Main Street that could easily pass for a New England postcard. Colonial architecture and the signature stark-white church are a nod to the town's Connecticut influence, but cozy shops and restaurants showcase northeast Ohio's culture and cuisine. Browse paintings, quilts and woodwork at the Log Cabin Gallery, where artisans mingle with guests in 170-year-old digs, and soak up Ohio history at the Cuyahoga Valley Historical Museum at the Peninsula Library.

Cure growling stomachs with comfort food at family-owned Fisher's Café and Pub, in the heart of the village. Weekly specials include clambakes and outdoor grill nights, although it's hard to pass up the classic Grandpa George burger — after 60 years, those Fishers have the recipe down pat.

Enjoy more of northeast Ohio with a stay in downtown Cleveland, just a 30-minute drive from Peninsula. Hotels such as the luxe Ritz-Carlton and the chic-yet-affordable Aloft Hotel immerse you in Cleveland's vibrant culture, including nearby attractions such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Playhouse Square, the country's largest performing arts center outside New York City. Professional baseball, basketball and football venues energize downtown streets and bars. One of the best spots for game-watching: East Fourth Street, a bustling pedestrian-only strip with packed bars and cheering fans.

When hunger strikes, head two miles west to the city's oldest market, West Side Market in Ohio City, a hip and historic Cleveland neighborhood. Don't miss Steve's Gyros, a cash-only stand with overstuffed lamb-and-beef gyros. Across the street, the Great Lakes Brewery flagship serves beloved brews such the Burning River Pale Ale — named for the once-flaming Cuyahoga — and hearty bites such as the Stilton cheddar soup, made with the brewery's Dortmunder Gold Lager.

You can't leave this city without seeing its crown jewel: the revitalized Lake Erie waterfront, where an ever-expanding park system makes this Great Lake more accessible. At Edgewater, the most popular beach, surfers and stand-up paddleboarders catch waves year-round.

En Route

Peninsula connects with another quaint town: Hudson, a Western Reserve-influenced village five miles east that oozes New England charm, with an energetic main-street mix of red-brick shops and simple white churches. This picture-perfect jewel looks like Beaver Cleaver's hometown, but chic shops and charming cafes are only half of Hudson's story. Its founding New England settlers, strong-willed abolitionists, turned nearly two dozen buildings and homes into stops on the Underground Railroad. Some of these lifesaving spots still stand, including the Western Reserve Academy (a private college-prep school ranked among the country's top high schools), just a short walk from Hudson's main square.

At 90-acre, forest-fringed Hinckley Lake, roughly eight miles west of CVNP, do some casting for bullhead catfish, carp, largemouth bass and rainbow trout. Rent a boat, fishing tackle and bait at the Hinckley Lake Boathouse and Store. Or rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak for some in-the-water fun. Buzzard's Landing, a relaxed picnic-style shack selling burgers, corn dogs and ice cream from local gem Honey Hut, sits just north of the lake. It pays tribute to the migrating buzzards (also known as turkey vultures) that roost in Hinckley each March.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 12, 2021. It's been updated to reflect recent COVID-19 developments.

Stephanie Vermillion is a Cleveland, Ohio-based travel journalist who has written for CNN Travel, National Geographic and Travel + Leisure. 

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