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There may only be one national park in Ohio, but it packs quite the punch.

Alex Schechter

In June 1969, a fire erupted on the murky Cuyahoga River, prompting national outcry, and leading TIME magazine to run a now-infamous photo of firemen battling thick plumes of black smoke rising from the slick, scum-clogged water.

Almost 50 years later, the Cuyahoga Valley has become a vital nature refuge for nearby urban populations in Akron and Cleveland. It's a place where people go kayaking and fishing, framed by lush rolling hills, forests, and more than 100 miles of trails. It also forms the heart of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the 11th most-visited national park in America, and one of Ohio’s most impressive natural landscapes.

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park tells an important piece of the human history of Ohio and the Erie Canal,” Pamela Barnes, the park’s Community Engagement Supervisor told Travel + Leisure. “It’s the reason people originally settled in Cleveland.”

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Visitors to the park are encouraged to hit the Towpath Trail, the park’s main thoroughfare. Mules once marched up and down this trail, harnessed to canal boats that they dutifully pulled. Now, it’s a favorite among hikers, joggers, birdwatchers, horseback riders, and bikers of all levels. There’s even a scenic railroad that runs parallel to the trail: During the summer, bikers can pedal one way, and then pay $3 to put their bike on the train and hitch a ride back.

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Eventually, the Towpath Trail will extend all the way from Cleveland to New Philadelphia‚ a total of 110 miles. Until then, there’s plenty to see and do right inside the park. Brandywine Falls, a 60-foot high fall, can be accessed off the trail. It's one of 70 waterfalls that streak across the ravines and rolling hills. Nearby, spectacular sandstone cliffs sit mostly undiscovered, deep in the forest.

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“It’s a little surprising, when you’re hiking back there,” noted Barnes. “You can find these perfect overlooks to watch the sunset, and you’re only 30 minutes from a major city.”

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The park’s most unexpected feature? It has its own winter sports center. Due to the park’s original designation as a National Recreation Area (it was founded in 1974, during the popular “Parks to the People” movement, which spawned similar sites in San Francisco and New York), visitors can rent sledding equipment, as well as snowshoes and cross-country skis. There are even two privately owned ski resorts located within the park’s borders.

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Because of this, Barnes explained, “we don’t really have a slow season; it’s kind of a year-round visitation.” 

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