The Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley: Ohio's Only National Park
September 5, 2022
Ohio’s only national park is home to waterfalls, beautiful rock formations and an interesting mix of history and nature. One of the most unique aspects of the park is the scenic railroad, which runs right through the park. Whether you enjoy hiking, history or biking, the park has something for everyone.
Entrance to Cuyahoga Valley National Park is free and you will pass residencies throughout the park. The Ohio Turnpike also goes directly over the park, which was a negative for me. It takes away a little bit from the feeling of exploring the untouched nature that many national parks offer. However, I still really enjoyed hiking and exploring Cuyahoga Valley and it’s worth visiting with the proper expectations.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located less than an hour from Cleveland and can be visited as a day trip or weekend trip. In order to explore the park via hiking, biking and by train, I recommend allowing at least two days to explore.
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is accessible year round but may look very different season to season.
In the spring, you can enjoy wildflowers, rushing waterfalls and cool weather. In the summer, temperatures can be hot and humid, but not everyday. In the fall, you can experience beautiful fall foliage and cooler temperatures. In the winter, there may be a lot of snowfall and you can partake in cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
Most visitors come between June and September. Personally, I recommend visiting in October so you can enjoy fall foliage and fewer crowds. October is also a great time to ride the train, enjoy some hiking and take advantage of fall activities at Szalay’s Farm.
These photos are from a visit in early September.
There are two lodges and no campgrounds available inside of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The lodges are the Stanford House (you’ll need to rent the whole house) and the Inn at Brandywine Falls (call to make a reservation).
There are several hotel options surrounding the park in areas like Richfield, Akron and Macedonia. I recommend looking at the Courtyard by Marriott Akron in Fairlawn, the Holiday Inn Express in Richfield, and the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Akron-Stow.
There are also several homes available in Peninsula on Airbnb.
There are multiple trails that will lead you to Brandywine Falls, the most iconic feature of the park. The most direct way to see the falls is parking at the trailhead for the Brandywine Gorge Trail. From the parking lot, you’ll take a short boardwalk trail and will be able to see the fall from above and face to face. To only see the waterfall, it is about a half mile round trip.
If you want to extend the trail, you can hike the Brandywine Gorge Loop trail. This is a 1.4 mile trail that will give you some additional viewpoints of the Brandywine Gorge. You’ll also get to cross over the river on a bridge.
If parking is full or if you would like to extend the hike even more, you can park at the Stanford House and hike 3.9 miles round trip. This trail will take you through a meadow, a peaceful forest and then connect you over to the Brandywine Gorge loop trail. I had to hike this way because the main parking lot was under construction during my visit, but I’m glad I did. It was a great way to enjoy some peace in nature and see more of the area beyond just the waterfall.
The Ledges Trail is my favorite hike in Cuyahoga Valley! You’ll pass by a variety of rock formations canvassed in green moss. There are passageways that feel like slot canyons and even right angles in the rocks that you’ll be shocked to find in nature. Exploring this area is quite the adventure. You’re sure to discover nooks and crannies and enjoy admiring the massive rocks.
The entire trail is a loop that extends about 2 miles. You can enter or exit the loop at multiple places so you can shorten the loop if you’d like. I thought that the whole loop was worth doing, but highlights include the Ledges Overlook and the Icebox Cave. There are also a few places near the Icebox Cave where you can explore between the giant rocks that I found to be the most exciting.
The parking area of this trail has a picnic area and a shelter with restrooms.
You’ll begin the hike to Blue Hen Falls at the Boston Mill Visitor Center. The trail has a good amount of elevation and you’ll be hiking up and down steps that are sometimes steep. After about a mile, you’ll cross Boston Mills Road and continue downhill to reach the waterfall.
This waterfall is special because there is a little cave area behind it. When you reach the waterfall, please respect the signage and do not climb under the waterfall. If you have time, you can continue on after Blue Hen Falls and hike to Buttermilk Falls. This would add about a mile to the total hike.
The Beaver’s Marsh area is a unique and beautiful part of the park. You can reach this from the Canal Towpath Trail or park next to the boardwalk area and enjoy a quick and easy walk to the marsh.
The marsh area is full of lily pads and wildlife. I was so impressed to see a giant snapping turtle munching on leaves on the surface of the water. It looked like a dinosaur. In addition, I saw turtles, birds and fish.
Along with the wildlife, there is a lock that was used for raising and lowering boats in the canal. This is a beautiful area for a quick stroll and shouldn’t be missed on your trip to Cuyahoga Valley.
One of the most unique things about Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the railroad! Take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad where you can enjoy the scenic views and use it as transportation. If you ride the entire route round trip, it will take about 3.5 hours.
One of the best ways to utilize the train is by biking the towpath one way and taking the train back. You can flag the train down at any station and pay cash to ride with your bike one way. You can also do the same with kayaks or as a hiker.
The train has been around for over 100 years and operates as a non-profit. No other national park has a non-profit heritage railroad, so this is a really special experience and a great alternative if your group doesn’t enjoy hiking.
A great way to explore the area is by biking the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath trail. This route extends 101 miles and follows along a former canal from Cleveland to Zoarville, Ohio. Several miles of the path go through Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
If you don’t have a bike of your own, you can rent from Century Cycles in Peninsula, Ohio. From there, you can bike north or south on the towpath. If you plan accordingly, you can bike in one direction and then take the train back to return the bikes.
Szalay’s is a great stop in close proximity to the park’s attractions. This roadside farm store sells all sorts of snacks such as salsa, fresh produce, jams and more. During my visit, they also had fresh sweet corn, hot dogs and ice cream. There is a good amount of outdoor seating and a corn maze in the fall.
Szaley’s is cash only and gets very crowded, so plan accordingly.
The Everett Covered Bridge is a nice, quick stop inside the park. The bridge was originally built in the 1800s but destroyed in a storm, so the current bridge is a reconstruction built in 1986.
There is a short, paved path to the bridge so you can see it up close.
There are some beautiful places with waterfalls and beautiful rocks within close driving distance of Cuyahoga Valley! If you have more time, consider these stops:
- Great Falls of Tinkers Creek
- Chippewa Creek Gorge
- Whipps Ledges
- Worden's Ledges
- Twinsburg Ledges Area & Nature Center
Cuyahoga Valley is an underrated national park worth visiting whether you’re taking an Ohio road trip, visiting Cleveland or exploring the midwest. The ledges, the waterfalls, the train and more make this a special park with a lot to offer.
For other guides on visiting Ohio, check out these blogs:
- A Guide to Exploring Hocking Hills
- Top 10 things To Do in Cincinnati
- 100+ Date Ideas in Cincinnati, Ohio
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