Destination: Cuyahoga Valley, OH

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.


The park has five primitive campsites at their Stanford House location (see for details). Developed as an overnight spot for hikers doing the Towpath Trail, these tent sites are cut into tall grass, offering excellent privacy and great beauty at the same time.

In addition to the Towpath Trail, there are a number of other attractions nearby.

Just a short hike from the Stanford House sites is the Brandywine Falls. This 60-foot cascading waterfalls is set amid red maple trees and is one of many spectacular natural features in the park. At the top of the falls, is a scenic overlook with a boardwalk leading into the waterfall’s gorge, allowing for close-up looks. Brandywine is the largest of several waterfalls created by the Cuyahoga River and its tributaries in the park.

Another spectacular natural attraction is the Beaver Marsh. This incredible wildlife habitat was created by a nearby beavers’ dam. The beavers were nearly trapped to extinction in the early 19th century, but they returned in the early 1980s, building their dam along the old canal. It has become an excellent destination for wildlife viewing. From the expansive wooden boardwalk it is occasionally possible to see the beavers, and the gnawed tree stumps and stripped logs that reveal their presence. You might also see birds, frogs, muskrats and turtles or even the amazing sight of a great blue heron with its 7-foot wingspan.

For a different kind of experience, visitors can hop on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. This historic train, which runs through the vast park lands offers an audio tour, “Experience the Voices in the Valley.” Hear about the challenges families faced on the Western frontier or the experiences of an African American canal boat captain. The stories and sounds of the Cuyahoga Valley animate the train ride as passengers learn more about how the Cuyahoga River and its surrounding valley were transformed from an environmental disaster to an environment worthy of its national park designation.

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