June 14, 2016

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Jun. 2016, OH)

Cuyahoga Valley National Park
June 10-11, 2016
Between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio
Super hot, 100 degrees F, almost unbearable to be outside

Nestled neatly in a valley between Cleveland and Ohio, the Cuyahoga Valley represents a good story of human impact in some of the densest deciduous forests I've seen. Although much of the park seems secluded from its urban brothers of Cleveland and Akron, the effort to restore the land to its present condition was significant. It's also a beautiful area in its own right, history notwithstanding.

The park spans the entire Cuyahoga River, as well as many of its spur creeks. The valley has many ups and downs and houses many different habitats. These include swamp, dense forest with undergrowth, meadows, river, and high trees. Harboring such diversity of wildland homes creates many opportunities to see and compare distinct features of the park. Half the fun of visiting a natural area is generating guesses as to why things are the way they are...at least it is that way for me, the nerd.

The park area had been a federally recognized recreation area since the 70s, but was declared a national park in 2000. I only stumbled on the park's existence after looking at a list of national parks to find ones close to Chicago. Despite only recently earning national park status, it was clear that the Cuyahoga Valley has been a treasure to Ohioans for decades. The park was full of bicyclists and hikers even on the hottest day we had experienced yet this year. The sun's beams on Saturday cooked the landscape to a nice 100 degrees. After visiting, though, I am sincerely glad this area has been preserved for future generations. I will return in future years, this time with my bicycle. The park is particularly friendly for bicyclists, as the hills are not likely to induce cardiac episodes and the towpath is well groomed for pedal travel. Hiking is also fun at the park, and I will be exploring more miles trails that I missed in my future visits. As with any national park, it is impossible to visit it all in one trip - you can only see enough to inspire both your imagination and desire to visit again.

We found that we could do a lot in a two-day stretch. As it was extremely hot, we spent most of our day on Saturday on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The four-hour round trip on the train allowed us to see some of the beautiful landscape along the Cuyahoga River. However, we didn't spend all our time indoors - we found our way to some of the park's numerous trails. Being in a glacier and river-cut valley, there were some beautiful rock and water features buried in the park's forests.

Although not a challenge like the heat was, an insect invasion made our trip more interesting. We came to Cuyahoga Valley during a rare time when the cicadas of the area came out of their underground homes to be adults and mate. This group of cicadas happens to be called Brood V of magicicada septendecim, a species that emerges once every 17 years in the area. For one, a 17-year-old bug was fascinating to me. Second, that it spends almost all of its life underground was crazy. Third, and probably most important for practical reasons, they are loud... so deafening in fact that we could not hear the voices of other people standing right next to us. A ranger said that the Cleveland area was expecting around one billion of these gigantic-cockroach-sized bugs. And they fly. Every tree, every car, every surface seemed to have some cicadas on it. I can only imagine what the ground will smell like after they all die in a month or two.

Here is but one of the legion of the winged cacophony.

Cicada Brood Emissary

In short, this was an excellent weekend trip. We rented a car from Chicago and rented rooms next to the park. There's no camping in the park (although we stumbled on BSA Camp Manatoc hiding in a deep glade of trees on Brandywine Road)

Here are some of my favorite features that we experienced on our tromp through the Cuyahoga Valley.

Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail

The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is the primary draw to the park for locals. It connects in Cleveland and proceeds down the entire length of the historic O&E Canal. It's a magnet for bicyclists as the length of the trek might be too long for hikers without any place to camp along the way. We predominantly saw bicyclists along the trail, but some hikers could be seen braving the heat and sun.



One program that I'd like to try someday is the "bike/hike aboard" program offered by the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. You can hike any length of the towpath trail and then jump onboard the train downpath to go back to where you started for only $3. This would be perfect for hikers who want to try a few broken-up legs of the trail. It's also great for cyclists who go 30 miles and don't want to go return that same 30.

I've had a fascination with towpaths and canals recently since I renewed my interest in the C&O in Washington, D.C. There's so much history at these small waterways, defining the local areas just as much as the large cities they supplied. The large cities tend to get all the historical credit, but these economic stretches empowered urban areas to thrive. The canals are also an excellent way to examine both human and natural history together and investigate the impacts that human behavior and the natural world have on each other.

Peninsula access to the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath

I'll be back to this path. It's too close not to. And the dense forest is too good to never return.

Treetop Greens

By design, the canal hugged the river closely. It drew its water from the Cuyahoga to operate the lock systems. Sometimes the canal and trail left the river's immediate proximity, but it was always close by.

Cuyahoga River


One defining feature of the canal and the valley itself was the persistent reminder of the twin cities between which the park was situated. Continual reminders of the more tamed civilization and human control were spread throughout the park. This included a number of overpasses for the interstates in the area. This juxtaposition actually worked really well, providing a point for reflecting on the dual influence and potential for the simplicity we impose and the complexity in which nature operates.


The bridges across the valley were pretty magnificent, really.



Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is a dedicated line that serves the Cuyahoga Valley National PArk. My buddy Danton informed me that this is a fully operational Class 3 railroad, and is a good example of what short line rails used to look like before highway travel became more common. This full-size train runs from the northernomst part of the park to Akron.

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad


Stations are along the towpath trail. We boarded our train at Peninsula Station in the town of Peninsula, about midway along the line. We bought our tickets at the tiny station, which had a turn-of-the-century feel to the whole experience.



Peninsula Station

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

The train itself is a privately-owned corporation that works closely with the park service. NPS owns the rails and the Cuyahoga Valley line maintains its cars and purchases new cars to restore. Cars are 1950s era passenger liners that have been restored. The line has a variety of engines, of which one was an old B&O railroad engine. The Cuyahoga line was formerly a part of the B&O system. Yeah for knowing my rail history in terms of Monopoly railroad properties!



The trip was about 4 hours, and was a round trip that took us down to the bottom of the rail, all the way up to the top, and then back to Peninsula. A great view of the Cuyahoga River was visible throughout most of the north-to-south trip. Additional features were visible along the way.






We ran by Indigo Lake, a small but deep lake that used to be a part of a quarry. It now houses many fish for which fisherman come to try their luck.


We saw a heronry from the train. The audio tour that we listened to said that many great blue herons live here along with a family of bald eagles. We saw many herons flying in their stick-jutting pond as we rode by. The herons live in nests in the dead trees.



Marshes were also common along the Cuyahoga, representing diverse plant and animal life. The train station at Peninsula was near one of these marshes. Many red-winged blackbirds were in full song as they fluttered about the swamp.

Marshland at Peninsula



Countless hues of green probably overwhelmed my camera's sensor. As we moved between forest and meadow, the color experience was gorgeous. If it hadn't been 100 degrees outside, I would have loved to hike all 30+ miles of the towpath.






Boston Store

A historic building stands at approximately center-park along the towpath trail. The Boston Store was a rest area and spot where canal travelers could resupply or chat with other canal-goers. Also, canal boats were constructed near the Boston Store. Now, the building is a small NPS visitor center, gift shop, and mini-museum that focuses on canal boats. A couple of exhibits show how canal boats were constructed. Rocking chairs are available on the Boston Store porch for towpath travelers to take a break. An old timey gas station sits next to the Boston Store.

Boston Store and M.D. Garage

Boston Store Canal Shipbuilding

One interesting aspect was a discussion on how timber in the area was harvested to create lumber for the boats. Hand tools ruled the day as laborers constructed the boats. One display was cool, showing downed logs were hacked up to create the necessary planks and beams for the canal boats.

Log use patterns for building canal ships

We had lunch our first afternoon at the Boston Store area right along the towpath trail. I pulled out the little grill and made some polish sausage.



A small squirrel joined us for lunch as it ate its nut. His chattering and sounds from cracking the shell of his lunch provided a nice addition to the cicada song.

Squirrel with huge nut

Canal Exploration Center

Want to know what a canal was used for and how they used it? The Canal Exploration Center's your place. The O&E Canal provided the ability to move large amounts of product up and down the state to the Ohio River, greatly expanding commerce (and Cleveland's stature in the region).


The Canal Exploration Center has many well-done historical exhibits on how the E&O canal was designed, how they worked, and how they helped trade in the region.


A white historic building sits near a lock on the canal. The towpath trail runs right next to the canal and stays there for the canal's entire length.



The canal locks have been preserved and are still functional, as water continues to be diverted from the Cuyahoga.


Brandywine Falls

These shire-sounding falls come pretty close to inspiring a Tolkien novel. Perhaps the "grandest" of the views in Cuyahoga, and probably the most memorable, Brandywine Falls feature broad swaths of white water cascades along layered rock.

Before we started down the trail to the falls, prairie wildflowers were in bloom around the trailhead.


Prairie Wildflowers

Prairie Wildflowers


Prairie Wildflowers


A dense forest line and small sign delineated the start of the path.

Brandywine Falls Trail

A deep-forest, lumber-clad trail showed us the way to the grand cascade.

Brandywine Falls Trail

Brandywine Falls Trail Staircase


A steep drop off the edge of the wooden path showed us how tall the trees really grew.

Forest colors

Rocks line the gorge like decks of cards. The wooden boardwalk guides visitors to the falls along the edge of the gorge. It's almost as if you're walking the defenses of a castle on these high passages. The stacked rocks along the edge tell centuries of stories on your way to the falls.

Hugging the Rockside - Brandywine Falls Trail




The falls emerged brightly from the trees once we reached our destination.



They are indeed a jewel of the park. If you visit one "off the trail" spot in this park, it should be the falls.


Once at the falls, I found someone who saw my Oregon ballcap and started a conversation about the old home. He and his wife had recently visited Multnomah Falls, which clearly has nothing on Brandywine in terms of its grandeur. However, I am convinced every falls is different and each tells a different story. Other falls in the park that I experienced later help confirm my thesis in their unique patterns, sounds, colors, and forms. Every waterfall can teach and inspire different things.

The years of water have cut into the sedimentary rock that underlies the entire park. Time, water composition, and local plant life have also painted the rocks to an almost rainbow appearance.




Tinkers Creek Gorge

A drive that spurs off of the scenic byway that traverses the park (Canal Drive) took us up to the top of Tinkers Creek Gorge. At the base of the gorge, many local residents were enjoying the cool waters of Tinker's Creek. However, after we started to gain some altitude on the gorge drive, Tinkers Creek became just a small thread among a larger tree tapestry. The view from Tinkers Creek Overlook was spectacular. I didn't know the valley actually had a point this high from which to observe the green canopy. The form of Tinkers Creek Gorge became visible once we had a macro view.

Cuyahoga Valley Greens

Tinker Creek Canyon Overlook

Within a minute or two drive from the Tinkers Creek Gorge observation deck is Bridal Veil Falls, a small falling water feature that again, gave me another take on what I define as "waterfall." At least...I think this was Bridal Veil Falls - I could have been missing it entirely. It was right where the map indicated - but no sign at the falls.

Bridal Veil Falls Trail

Bridal Veil Falls

In this case, Bridal Veil is a long stack of sedimentary rocks at about a 45-degree fall. There's no free-falling water, only its gradual trickle across the cuts into the accordion-style rock in the creek.

Bridal Veil Falls

What is a waterfall? Does it have to freefall? Seeing many different waterfall forms was great for me and inspiring in terms of the natural design that the park had in store for its water.

Blue Hen Falls

Another waterfall we visited was Blue Hen, which was a short hike from its trailhead near Boston Store.

The trail is lined by trees on each side, and we were well under the canopy to hide from the burning sun. We crossed a creek over a wood and steel bridge, presumably the water source for the falls later on down the trail.

Forest at Blue Hen Falls

Blue Hen Falls Trail

Bridge at Blue Hen Falls Creek

Blue Hen Creek

The macro gives way to the micro in the forest if you have an eye for color changes. A white moth had landed on some undergrowth and stayed long enough for me to take a photo.

Blue Hen Falls Trail

Moth at Blue Hen Falls

The trail intersected with the larger Buckeye Trail, which would be a fun trek during a future round-2 trip to the park.

Blue Hen Falls Trail Meets Buckeye Trail

Some trees make their presence known in the trail, rumbling the path with their rough legs.

Roots overtake a trail

The falls itself is quiet and little water actually runs down it, but was fascinating. This is a waterfall shape I have not even imagined could exist. It was as if a bowl was carved out from under the surface of the rock from which the water falls, and a plate was placed on top of the bowl.

Blue Hen Falls

Blue Hen Falls

A table extended many feet out over the edges of the bowl about 15-20 or so feet from the base of the fall. A single sheet of rock at the topmost layer of the hardened sediment provided the starting point of the falls, dropping down into the bowl to join its creek below.

Blue Hen Falls Creek

Along the walls of the falls, dark, wet rocks were stacked all the way up to the table. These small, sedimentary stacks looked like legos as they served as the backdrop for the falling water.

Some bathers enjoyed the shower in the June heat. Looked inviting, but we didn't feel like climbing down into the ravine.

The Ledges

We didn't spend much time here, as it was evening and the mosquitoes were coming out pretty bad. However, for even just a few minutes, we wanted to see the ledges: sheer rock faces that lined a small gorge in the valley. And by sheer, it was as if they were carved by giants with a butterknife. The geometrical edges leave you reflecting on the clockwork of the universe and the power that mathematics and precision have in nature.

Me at the top of The Ledges

Tops of The Ledges

Deep Earthen Crevices

The trail to the ledges from the trailhead was pretty too. Almost like something out of a movie.

Green canopy

Treetop greens, Trail Browns

These ledges extended for a while, but we had to cut this trip short. Bites were popping up and we were in no mood to get mosquitoed in the intense heat. Note to self - visit here again and explore all of the ledges. One of the features called Ice Box Cave was closed due to a recovery effort for a local bat. I wouldn't have been able to see everything, even if I wanted to.


I collected two patches on this trip. One was from the national park itself, the other referencing the towpath trail.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park Patch

Cuyahoga Valley Towpath Trail Patch

Photo Album

Note: The image below is a photo album. Hover over or tap to get slideshow controls, or view the album on Flickr.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park (OH)

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