Ohio's Only National Park is an All-Season Recreational Wonderland

Cuyahoga Valley may be the only national park in Ohio, but it packs quite the punch.

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga National Park, Ohio
Photo: ShriramPatki/Getty Images

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

The photo itself was actually from nearly two decades back, but it launched Cuyahoga Valley into the ongoing conversation around the country’s environmental issues and eventually helped lead to reforms like the Clean Water Act. While once the Cuyahoga River bore almost no signs of life, now the surrounding area consists of a range of diverse habitats including forests, prairies, marshes, and swamps home to a variety of wildlife. 

Green Heron sunning itself on a log in algae-covered water in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

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Over 50 years after the TIME photo ran, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has become a vital natural refuge for nearby urban populations in Akron and Cleveland. It’s one of Ohio's most impressive natural landscapes and, of eight national sites in the state, the only one that’s been given the distinction of National Park. People flock to Cuyahoga Valley to kayak the river, fish the ponds, or hike the lush rolling hills, misty forests, and over 100 miles of magical trails.   

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
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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 Public Information Officer told Travel + Leisure. "It's the reason people originally settled in Cleveland."

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 $5 to put their bike on the train and hitch a ride back.

Brandywine falls in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

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Eventually, the Towpath Trail will extend all the way from Cleveland to New Philadelphia for 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 100 waterfalls that streak across the ravines and rolling hills of the valley. Nearby, spectacular sandstone cliffs sit mostly undiscovered, deep in the forest.

"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."

A misty early morning shot of Cuyahoga Valley National park

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Not only are there ample wildlife and landscapes to explore in the park (from picturesque Brandywine Falls to its misty marshes), but there’s no bad time to visit. The park blooms with a colorful blanket of wildflowers in the spring, shades of green in summer, and a blaze of fall foliage in autumn (it’s well known for its prime leaf-peeping).    

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Winter, Skiing
Courtesy of NPS/Ted Toth

But the park's most unexpected feature has to be its 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.

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

And Ohioans are grateful. This conveniently located national park has become a much-needed respite from city life where anyone can find gorgeous natural habitats any time of year.

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