Urban Nature and History: Cuyahoga Valley National Park 

Ohio’s 85 mile long Cuyahoga River flows between Akron and Cleveland and into Lake Erie. Meaning “crooked river” in the Mohawk language, the river area was home to Native Americans, and later, European explorers and trappers. Homesteaders followed to further settle the land. By the 20th century, the Cuyahoga River became one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. The sad state of the river culminated with it gaining national attention when it caught on fire in 1969. This incident contributed to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act.

As cities grew around it, citizens pushed to limit development of the area. In 1974 the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area was created by Congress to establish urban recreation areas for those living in cities. River water quality also improved, and the Cuyahoga River was designed one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in 1998. In 2000 Cuyahoga Valley was elevated to national park status. 

In addition to protecting the river, Cuyahoga Valley National Park also preserves the history of the Ohio and Erie Canal, part of it built next to the Cuyahoga River. The Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie, was opened in 1825. At the time, Ohio was a sparsely populated area with no easy way to get crops to market. Spurred on by the construction of the Erie Canal, work began to build a canal in Ohio spanning 308 miles from Cleveland, on Lake Erie, south to the Ohio River. 

Opened in 1827 and fully completed in 1832, the Ohio and Erie Canal opened up Ohio to the rest of the eastern United States. By 1850 Ohio was the third most populated state in the country. However, by the 1860s, railroads replaced river travel as a track built through the valley resulted the canal’s eventual demise. 

Today the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail follows a former stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal for 20 miles through the national park. Our goal was to follow history and nature by hiking a section of the Towpath Trail. In essence we would be walking along the same path that mules used long ago to tow the canal boats loaded with goods and passengers.

We started at the Canal Exploration Center, where a restored lock is located. We saw a demonstration of the lock, the only one still functioning of the 44 originally built in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park area of the canal. Volunteers in period costumes demonstrated the operation of the lock. 

Looking at the lock at the Canal Exploration Center
Volunteer demonstration of the lock
Looking inside the lock during the demonstration

From there we hiked south on the Towpath Trail, seeing remnants of the canal and occasionally following the Cuyahoga River. The trail meandered through forest, meadows, and wetlands. Along the way we observed a duck and her ducklings in the water and spied a turtle by the side of the trail. 

Sign along the Towpath Trail
Walking along the trail
Ducks in the Cuyahoga River
Turtle spied along the Towpath Trail
Cuyahoga River from the trail

Our plan was to hike one way and catch the train back to our starting point at the Canal Exploration Center. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway runs several times a day between Cleveland and Akron, and in addition to providing narrative tours of the area, the railway offers a Bike Aboard! Program where passengers can bike or hike one way and ride the train the other for only $3.00 per person. To board at a station that doesn’t have a scheduled stop, I needed to wave both arms above my head to flag the train.

We kept an eye on the train schedule as we hiked and ended up turning around between stations to ensure that we didn’t miss the oncoming train, as it was a three hour wait for the next one. We arrived at the station with about 10 minutes to spare. In all, we hiked 8.5 miles along the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail. 

At the train station waiting for the train
Flagging down the approaching train
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway departs the Canal Exploration Center where we disembarked

We couldn’t leave Cuyahoga Valley National Park without one last stop to visit Brandywine Falls. The 65 foot tall waterfall is the second highest in Ohio, and the observation deck provided several vantage points to view the cascading water. We left Cuyahoga Valley National Park with a real sense of the history of the canal and an appreciation for the restoration and natural beauty of the river.  

Brandywine Falls

Our travels take us north to reach the next park on our journey, Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. 

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