Yellowstone. Acadia. The Grand Canyon. When someone says “National Park” those names probably come to mind. We’re guessing “Between Akron and Cleveland” would not top that list, or even be on it. But that should change.
Cuyahoga Valley has only been a National Park since 2000 (it was designated as a National Recreation Area in 1974), and it’s one of the few this side of the Mississippi. Even better, it’s less than four hours from Cincinnati and is easily tackled in a day, so you can tack it onto your trip up north or squeeze it into a weekend.
Whether you’re into hiking, biking, kayaking, or taking a leisurely stroll, Cuyahoga has something for everyone.
Start your day at the Boston Store Visitor Center, where you can purchase souvenirs, pick up trail maps and pamphlets, and talk to rangers to get the inside scoop on the park. Bonus: entrance to this national park is free.
If you’re a sucker for a good backstory, head to the Canal Exploration Center in the northern part of the park. Standing at Lock 38, the center has served as a tavern, store, residence, and boardinghouse. Here you can buy goods reminiscent of the Canal Era and use touchscreens to navigate your way through the national canal system. (If you’re headed up on a particularly hot day, you can also use this stop as a midday sun reprieve.)
Looking to skip the indoors altogether? Park your car at the visitor’s center and head out on a trail. For cyclists, the Towpath Trail is most popular. A multipurpose trail, it follows the route of the Ohio & Erie Canal, and is level and hard-packed so anyone can use it–even wheelchairs or strollers. You can stretch your brain and legs at the same time here as many of the canal locks are visible from the path and the trail easily connects you to many other historic sites. Overestimate your fitness level and ride out too far? Hop on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s Bike Aboard! Service (also available to walkers or runners). For just a few dollars the train will take you back to multiple boarding stations, meaning you don’t have to miss out on any of the scenery for fear of being too tired.
The Towpath Trail is one of the best-known attractions at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), but we might love the hiking even more. With 125 miles of winding trails, it’s easy to spend the whole day in the trees. With multiple waterfalls and changing geologic patterns, you’ll feel worlds away from the city. Hike to Brandywine Falls, the park’s largest waterfall at 65 feet. The path is mostly covered by a wooden boardwalk, but the stairs on the way back up are not for the faint of heart–or quad. While it’s easily the most impressive waterfall in the park, it’s also the busiest. If people aren’t your thing (why else would you be in the woods all day?) the smaller Buttermilk Falls and Blue Hen Falls are nothing to scoff at, either. You can think of Blue Hen Falls as Brandywine’s little sister as the two have similar sandstone formations. Standing at just 15 feet, the area is more open to exploration and less crowded than Brandywine. Feeling really adventurous? Ignore the “end of trail” sign at Blue Hen Falls to hike an additional half-mile to Buttermilk. You’ll have to cross a few small creeks, so use caution, but it was pretty great being able to splash around in water without getting yelled at by our mothers. Unlike the other two falls, the 20-foot Buttermilk cascades down over steep layered shale cliff, making it distinct.
CVNP is relatively small, meaning that you can accomplish most of your list in a day. But perhaps the most stunning thing about it is that, despite the geographical location, it provides the same sense of peace and serenity as all those uber-famous parks out West. Sure, you’ll hear the freeway when you arrive at a new trailhead, but take two steps down that dirt path and you’ll forget about the rat race.
Once you run out of granola bars you have a few options for sustenance: family-owned Fisher’s Cafe & Pub or the Winking Lizard Tavern in Peninsula. Both stops offer American cuisine, but if a mom-and-pop shop is what you’re looking for, choose Fisher’s. It’s been a Peninsula staple since 1958, while the Winking Lizard has about 20 different locations to choose from.
Peninsula also offers a handful of other shops, mostly centered around home decor and rustic-chic finds, but be warned: the town isn’t as bike-friendly as the internet may lead you to believe. Cars go flying past, the shops are spread out, and the hills are definitely tough to get up. Exploring is still worthwhile, but you may want to use your feet instead of your wheels for this part of your day.
If you’re headed north–or hiked faster than you thought and have time to spare–stop at The Oak Barrel in Valley View, partway between CVNP and Cleveland. Opened in 2012, the gastropub serves New American food and boasts a huge selection of craft beer, bourbon, and whiskey. To round out your nature-filled day, most dishes are locally sourced, and you can taste the extra fresh flavor. While it’s a bit pricier than either of Peninsula’s restaurants, it’s worth it. Just ignore the dirty looks you might get for coming into a chic place dirty from a long day of exploring. You earned it.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, nps.gov/cuva
Fisher’s Cafe & Pub, 1607 Main St., Peninsula, (330) 657-2651, fisherscafe.com
Winking Lizard Tavern, 1615 Main St., Peninsula, (330) 467-1002, winkinglizard.com
The Oak Barrel, 5975 Canal Rd., Valley View, (216) 520-3640, theoakbarrel.com
This post has been updated.