Day 1-2: Ohio, camping in Cuyahoga Valley

It was still wet everywhere when we began to pitch our tent, but we were just glad to finally be there. It had been a tough day of driving! Unpacking our gear took several short-trips back and forth to the Jeep, but our great reward was that we actually saw a real beaver!!!!

Thrilled at the unexpected wildlife encounter, we set out to find the “community fire ring,” where we could kick back and relax while making dinner. We were set up at one of the five Stanford House primitive campsites (see for details). Developed as an overnight spot for hikers doing the Towpath Trail, these hike-in sites are cut into tall grass, so you kind of feel like you are in one of those halloween corn mazes, but the effect is one of great beauty, and on a practical note, it offers excellent privacy, as the sites are nicely spaced with good separation between them.


Unlike many other national parks in far-flung corners of the wilderness, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park stretches between two urban hubs, Cleveland and Akron. Centered around the winding Cuyahoga river (the Native American name means “crooked river”) the 33,000-acre park gives way to deep forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands. The river once provided water for the 19th-century Ohio & Erie Canal. And today that history is recalled by some of the park’s key attractions.

The Towpath Trail runs the length of the park and parallels remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal and the twisting Cuyahoga River. The trail itself was a path used by the mules that towed boats through the narrow canal. Visitors walking there today, can see many historical structures and wayside exhibits highlighting the history of the area. Be on the lookout for the locks that raised and lowered boats through elevation changes and markers that indicated mileage. Connecting the Ohio “frontier” with the rest of the settled United States, the canal played a crucial role in the 19th century. It was built in 1825, and workers faced particular challenges trying to construct such an intricate system of hydraulic locks, aqueducts, culverts, and slackwaters in a mostly wilderness state where malaria was common. However, once completed, the canal’s presence transformed the character of the region, bringing industrialization to Northeast Ohio.

Over time the river suffered, as it was used to transport industrial waste and sewage from the booming cities of Akron and Cleveland. Pollution worsened until 22 June 1969, when a spark from a passing train’s broken wheel ignited floating oil and piled up debris, and the Cuyahoga became famous as “the river that burned.” That incident helped galvanize the environmental movement in the U.S.A., leading to the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and creation of state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies, as well as the first Earth Day.

Inspired to action, local communities began working to revive the river, and in 2000 the area became a National Park. Industries and cities reduced the discharge of toxins into the river, and obsolete dams were removed to improve oxygen levels and fish movement. Today, the Cuyahoga’s first 25 miles are biologically rich and have been designated as a state scenic river. Within the park, nesting bald eagles have returned after a 70-year absence, a potent symbol of renewal and proof that with concentrated effort, people can work together to reverse environmental damage.


In the morning, we decided to take the short hike to Brandywine Falls. With a 60 foot cascade, Brandywine is the largest of several waterfalls created by the Cuyahoga River and its tributaries in the park.

The earth was still wet from yesterday’s rain, and it was a bit slippery in spots, but the sun’s rays trickled through the leaves. A startled deer looked up as we passed. We continued slowly, relishing the moment as we uncovered a few of the forest’s secrets.

A section of the stream was blocked by piles of tree limbs. Could it be the beavers’ dam? We had seen several of them, not far from our campsite, scurrying back into the underbrush when we approached.

Further along the path, we began to hear what sounded like the Falls. Approaching, we made our way through some trees, to see the source of the rushing water, but this was definitely not the “scenic overlook” that was supposed to end our walk. Though it was both scenic and an overlook, we found ourselves on the edge of a steep drop–if we leaned out to frame a photo, we could easily tumble down into the rock strewn water rushing by below. It was beautiful and breathtaking, and it was our own discovery. We stopped for a bit to savor the moment there, before returning to the well-maintained trail and following it to the developed “overlook” that was indeed a great view of the Falls and the Valley below.


For more information on things to do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park:

Brandywine Falls (on Brandywine Road in Sagamore Hills): The 60-foot Brandywine Falls is set amid red maple trees and is one of many spectacular natural features in the park. This popular site has a boardwalk leading into the waterfall’s gorge, allowing for close-up looks.

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (CVSR) (Excursions depart from Akron Northside Station, Peninsula Depot, and Rockside Station in Independence): Visitors to Cuyahoga Valley today can take a trip on this historic train, which goes through the vast park lands. Experience the Voices in the Valley Audio Tour, which gives you the chance to immerse yourself in the stories and sounds of the Cuyahoga Valley while enjoying the ride — Hear a young Emily Nash describe the challenges her parents faced on the Western Reserve frontier. Listen to African American canal boat captain John Malvin tell about his interactions with passengers. Learn how people have transformed the Cuyahoga River and its surrounding valley from an environment suffering from generations of neglect to one worthy of its national park designation. Collectively, the stories reveal the people, events, and natural processes that have shaped the landscape outside the train window.

Beaver Marsh (on Riverview Road in Cuyahoga Falls, park at Ira Trailhead and walk the Towpath Trail north to the boardwalk): Beaver Marsh is a good destination for wildlife viewing where you can to see the habitat created by a nearby beavers’ dam. Beavers were nearly trapped to extinction in the early 19th century, but they returned in the early 1980s, building a dam along the old canal. Spend some time on the expansive wooden boardwalk and you may see the beavers; gnawed tree stumps and stripped logs reveal their presence. You might also see birds, frogs, muskrats and turtles. The park also has two heronries for great blue heron watching–with their 7-foot wingspans, great blue herons are an amazing sight.

More from Ohio:
NOTES FROM THE ROAD: Ohio Transitions…
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: Portfolio: Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley
REFLECTIONS & OTHER THINGS: A White Bread Town | Fragments from the Road to Chicago
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: Time for a New Tent

Back to Pennsylvannia | Complete Trip Log | Start at the Beginning

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