Cuyahoga Valley National Park preserves a lush river valley that is home to both natural and historical sites. Among the thousands of acres of forests and wetlands are a network of hiking and biking trails. Visit a covered bridge, ride a train through the heart of the park, learn about the Ohio and Erie Canal, and photograph the waterfalls. In this article, we cover 14 things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Cuyahoga Valley lacks the big wow factor that you find in so many other national parks. This national park has an urban feel to it, since it sits between Cleveland and Akron. Small towns, houses, and markets share space with the national park, and at times, it feels more like a city park than a national park.
Before our visit, Tim and I were scratching our heads, wondering how Cuyahoga Valley got national park status. But during our time here, as we toured the historical sites and the thriving wetlands, we learned that this park preserves part of US history, some of which is unfortunate but has changed for the better.
Water pollution in the Cuyahoga River made national headlines in the 1960’s, which started a wave of environmental activism that reaches well beyond the borders of this park.
A visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park is not just about hiking to a viewpoint or taking a scenic train ride. It’s also about how changes can be made in how we think about and treat the environment we live in, and how these changes can have positive and dramatic effects on our natural areas.
Interesting Facts about Cuyahoga Valley
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is located in northeast Ohio. It sits right in between Cleveland and Akron, forming an oasis of forests, wetlands, and outdoor recreational areas.
The Cuyahoga River forms the backbone of the park. This river heads north through the park, before reaching Cleveland and emptying into Lake Erie.
Cuyahoga means “crooked river.” For hundreds of years it was used for transportation and during the 20th century it helped power the industrial revolution in northeast Ohio.
In the mid to late-1900’s, the Cuyahoga River was notorious for being one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. It actually caught fire 13 times, the most recent being on June 22, 1969. This fire, along with air pollution in the US, an oil spill in California, and growing awareness about the harms of environmental pollution, helped spark Earth Day. Earth Day officially began 10 months after the Cuyahoga River fire, on April 22, 1970.
The pollution in Cuyahoga River also helped to establish the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since the 1970’s, laws were enacted to prevent the dumping of cyanide and other pollutants into the Cuyahoga River. The water quality has improved and wildlife has returned to the area.
Cuyahoga Valley was designated as a national recreational area in 1974 and officially became a national park on October 11, 2000. In 2019, it had 2.2 million visitors, making it 13th most visited national park in the US.
Map of Cuyahoga Valley
Below is a map of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As you can see, it is long and narrow, running in a north – south direction.
The Cuyahoga River runs through the center of the park. The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath and Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad both run alongside the river.
Boston Mill Visitor Center is centrally located within Cuyahoga Valley National Park. On a quick visit, the top things to see and do are centrally located within the park, between Brandywine Falls in the north and Beaver Marsh in the south.
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each point of interest. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Best Things to Do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Below is a list of things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. With the exception of the towpath and the railroad, which run through the entire park, this list is in geographical order, starting in the north and ending in the south.
Later in this guide, I list our top six favorite experiences, for those who are short on time or just want to hit the highlights.
1. Bike, Hike, or Run along the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail
The Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail is an 87-mile graded gravel path that runs alongside the Cuyahoga River. On this path from 1827 to 1913, mules pulled boats up and down the Ohio and Erie Canal. This trail follows that same historical route.
For local Ohioans, this is a popular spot to ride bikes or go for a run. As a visitor, you can walk a short stretch of the towpath, as an out and back walk. You can also rent bikes and cycle part of the towpath.
One of the best things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is to combine a bike ride along the towpath with a ride on the scenic railroad. Cycle one way along the towpath and then take the train back to your starting point.
If you need to rent bikes, Century Cycles is open 7 days a week and they are located in the Peninsula area of the park.
2. Go for a Ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs from Rockside Station (in the north) to Akron (in the south). There are numerous ways to experience this railway.
You can ride the train round trip, which takes three and a half hours. If you want to hike or bike along the towpath point-to-point, you can use the train to return to your starting point. This ticket is called the Hike Aboard or Bike Aboard and tickets cost $5 one-way.
There are also quite a few themed rides. Take your pick from Murder Mystery Rides to Ales on Rails to Superhero themed rides (great for kids!), Dinner on the Train, and more.
For full details on train schedules, pricing, and special events, visit the official website.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: The train runs all year but the daily schedule varies by season. Before planning your point-to-point hike, bike, or run, confirm that the train is operating on the official website.
3. Canal Exploration Center
For those with an interest in history, visit the Canal Exploration Center. Learn about what life was like for those who lived and worked along the canal from 1825 to 1876. There is also a fully operation lock (Lock 38) where you can learn about how a lock works.
Lock demonstrations take place on weekends during the summer months. For hours of the Canal Exploration Center, click here.
LOCATION: The Canal Exploration Center is located in northern Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It is located near Tinkers Creek and the center has its own railway station.
4. Tinkers Creek Gorge Scenic Overlook
This is one of the most accessible viewpoints in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Tinker’s Creek has been carving out a gorge for thousands of years. This gorge is listed on the Registry of National Landmarks, so we didn’t want to miss seeing it.
The view is nice…you overlook a lush valley covered with a thick, deciduous forest.
But is it worth a long drive north just to see this?
Probably not, at least in my opinion. However, this is located a short drive from the Canal Exploration Center, and you can quickly and easily combine the overlook with the next item on our things to do list.
LOCATION: Gorge Parkway in the Bedford Reservation area. The overlook is simply labeled “Overlook” on Google Maps and we have it labeled on our map above. The parking lot is located next to the viewing platform. A visit here lasts about 5 minutes.
5. Visit Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls was a wonderful surprise for us in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Tim and I knew nothing about it before our visit, I just happened to notice it marked on Google Maps as we were driving out to the Tinkers Gorge Overlook, so we decided to check it out.
To get to the falls, it’s a short walk on boardwalk trails and stairs. Then follow the dirt path next to the creek. The best viewpoints are right from the riverbank and in the creek. There is a nice platform overlook, but the overgrown trees unfortunately hide the view (at least during our visit in 2021).
LOCATION: Gorge Parkway in the Bedford Reservation area. Park at the Bridal Veil Falls Parking lot, cross the street, and follow the boardwalk trails to the waterfall. It is a 0.25 mile walk from the parking lot to the viewing platform. A visit here lasts 15 to 30 minutes.
6. Deer Lick Cave and the Bridle Loop Trail
Distance: 3.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Total Ascent: 460 feet | Time: 1.5 to 2.5 hours
This hike follows along a horse trail. The entire trail is located within the deciduous forest, so it is cool and shady during the warmer months.
The highlight of the hike is Deer Lick Cave, a small cave that is tucked away in a large cliff.
This loop hike is great for those who like the idea of walking a quiet, low-traffic trail. We saw very few people on this hike. The views don’t change a whole lot on the loop, other than the quick visit to the cave, so it does feel monotonous towards the end of the loop.
If you want to visit Deer Lick Cave without doing the full loop, you can park on Meadows Road (GPS coordinates: 41°18’33.4″N 81°36’37.7″W) and hike the Bridle Trail out-and-back to the cave.
View from the parking area on Meadows Road. The trailhead that leads right to Deer Lick Cave is across the street from the parking lot.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: There are many trail junctions and intersections on this hike. I recommend following the Deer Lick Cave and Bridle Loop Trail on All Trails.
LOCATION: Brecksville Reservation. We parked at the Meadows Picnic Area and hiked the loop from here. You can also park on Meadows Road (GPS coordinates listed above) and hike the loop from here.
7. Take a Photo of Brandywine Falls
Without a doubt, a visit to Brandywine Falls is one of the best things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This is one of the most iconic views in the park.
Brandywine Falls is a 65-foot waterfall. The National Park Service says it is the busiest spot in the park and we saw more people here than at any other sight in Cuyahoga Valley. If you have plans to visit on the weekend, it might be challenging to get a parking space.
There are two different ways to see Brandywine Falls. The quickest option is to walk out on the boardwalk trails to the viewpoint, snap your photo, and then head back to your car. Or, hike the 1.5 mile Brandywine Gorge Trail. This trail loops through the deciduous forest, crosses over top of the falls, and then you end on the boardwalk trail and overlook, before returning to your car (if you do this in a clockwise direction).
The Brandywine Gorge Trail is nice, but if you are short on time, or not all that into hiking, you don’t miss anything by skipping it. The highlight is the view from the boardwalk platform…just be prepared to walk down, and then back up, quite a few stairs.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: We did this at 8 am. Since we were here early, parking wasn’t an issue. However, at this time of day, photographing the waterfall can be challenging, since you are also facing directly into the sun. If you are here on a cloudy day, no worries. But if your goal is to take a great photo of Brandywine Falls, consider visiting later in the day, when the sun is higher in the sky.
8. Hike to Blue Hen Falls
Distance: 2.8 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Total Ascent: 560 feet | Time: 1 to 2 hours
Hiking to Blue Hen Falls was our introduction to Cuyahoga Valley National Park…and it was tons of fun.
During our drive to Ohio, we learned that the trail to Blue Hen Falls was going to close the very next day, for much needed trail restoration work. Blue Hen Falls was a hike we did not want to miss.
So, at 8 pm, Tim and I started our hike. We did this super fast. Not only did we have limited daylight but the mosquitoes were out in full force.
This trail is moderately strenuous. It’s always either going up or down…nothing too bad, but there are very few flat sections. And be prepared for one long staircase…you will go down this on the way out to the waterfall and have to climb back up it on the second half of the hike.
But it’s worth it. This is a beautiful waterfall and it is very fun to photograph. Just make sure you pack insect repellent.
IMPORTANT: Blue Hen Falls is closed starting May 24, 2021 for trail restoration. This closure is expected to last 120 days. Get updates on the NPS website.
LOCATION: Boston Mills. Park at the Boston Mills Visitor Center. Cross Riverview Road and follow the signs to Blue Hen Falls.
9. The Ledges Trail
Distance: 2.6 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Total Ascent: 300 feet | Time: 1 to 2 hours
We had lots of fun hiking to Blue Hen Falls, but the Ledges Trail is our favorite hike in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
This is a beautiful hike, and it is a much different experience from the other hikes that we did in Cuyahoga Valley. For most of this hike, the trail follows right along massive walls of moss-covered sandstone, aka the Ledges. As the trail loops around these massive rock walls, the view is always changing, which helps keep things interesting.
There is something very cool about hiking alongside these massive walls, exploring the alcoves, and scrambling over boulders.
LOCATION: The Virginia Kendall area of the park. Park at the Ledges Trailhead parking lot and this hike is done as a loop.
10. The Ledges Overlook
According to the National Park Service website, this is the most popular overlook in the park. From this rocky ledge, you look out over the park. Here is the view in May but I imagine it would be spectacular in autumn.
LOCATION: On the Ledges Trail. If you have plans to hike the Ledges Trail, it includes the Overlook. If you don’t want to hike the entire loop, you can still get here. Park at the Ledges Trailhead parking lot and walk southwest across the grassy field. At the southwest corner of the field there is a trail leading into the woods. Follow this trail to the overlook. It is a 200 yard walk from the parking lot to the overlook.
11. Kendall Lake
This pretty lake is worth a quick visit. It is located very close to the Ledges Trail and it only takes a few minutes to see it.
For those who want to explore more, there are several trails that start here. Hike the loop around the lake (1 mile round-trip) or add on the Salt Run Trail (3.25 mile loop). We hiked the Salt Run Trail and found it to be on the boring side. For the entire loop, you are in a forest. It’s pretty but it does get to be monotonous. I recommend hiking the loop around the lake or simply enjoying the view from the parking lot.
LOCATION: Virginia Kendall area of the park, just a few minutes drive from the Ledges trailhead.
12. Everett Covered Bridge
In the 1800’s, Ohio had over 2,000 covered bridges. The Everett Covered Bridge is the only remaining covered bridge in Summit County.
What is the purpose of a covered bridge? In the early to mid-1800’s, bridges were constructed of wood. The large wooden planks that form the floor of the bridges were hard to replace, so they were protected with roofs and hard sides. In the late 1800’s, covered bridges fell out of style, once bridges were constructed with iron.
LOCATION: Park at the Everett Road Covered Bridge Parking Lot on Everett Road. It is a short walk on a paved path to get to the bridge.
13. Visit a Farmers Market
Two farmer’s markets sit almost side by side in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Both were closed during our visit, so I can’t speak from experience, but I have heard great things about Szalay’s Farm and Market.
Szalay’s is more than just a market. On weekends, they sell prepared foods like grilled sandwiches, corn on the cob, and ice cream. In the fall, see if you can find your way through their 3-acre corn maze.
Szalay’s is open from early June through October. Get updated hours of operation on their website before you go.
Just down the road from Szalay’s is the Howe Meadow Countryside Farmers Market. Every Saturday from early May through October, you can shop from more than 50 farmers, artists, and chefs. Learn more here.
14. Beaver Marsh
Beaver Marsh is a great example of how cleaning up an outdoor space can bring back animals and restore a natural area to what it once was.
Beaver Marsh was once a salvage yard. In the 1980’s, volunteers of the Sierra Club removed the old cars and materials from the area. Around the same time, beavers built a dam across the Erie and Ohio Canal, which caused flooding. Wetland plants flourished, wildlife returned to the area, and this is now one of the best places in Cuyahoga Valley to spot wildlife. Keep a lookout for beavers, great blue herons, and otters.
LOCATION: Park at the Beaver Marsh Parking lot on Riverview Road. To get to the viewing platforms, take the Ira Trail from the parking lot and turn left onto the towpath. It takes between 5 and 10 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the boardwalk overlooks. Overall, it is a 0.75 mile round-trip walk from the parking lot to the viewing platforms.
Top Six Things to Do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
To narrow down the long list of things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, here are our top 6 experiences:
- Hike the Ledges Trail
- See Brandywine Falls
- Visit Beaver Marsh
- Hike to Blue Hen Falls
- See the Everett Covered Bridge
- And if you like waterfalls, visit Bridal Veil Falls
We were not able to ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad or visit Szalay’s Farm and Market, since they were not open/operating during our visit, but I think these would also make great additions to your to do list.
How Many Days Do You Need in Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
One day is all you need to see the highlights of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This gives you enough time to hike a few short trails, photograph the waterfalls, and visit the Everett Covered Bridge and Beaver Marsh. If you get your timing right, you can have dinner on the train or take a Murder Mystery or Ales on Rails train ride.
LEARN MORE: One Perfect Day in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
If you have two days in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, spend one day visiting the highlights listed above, exploring the park by car. On day two, bike the towpath in one direction and return to your starting point on the train.
Best Time to Visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park can be visited all year. Late spring and fall are wonderful months to visit, when the days are warm and the nights are cool. If you want to capture the park ablaze in fall colors, plan your visit for mid to late October.
Summers can be warm and humid. The average daily highs for July and August are in the mid-80’s.
Winters can be very cold and in January the high temperature can struggle to get above freezing. Expect snow, frozen waterfalls, and low crowds, making it a beautiful time to visit Cuyahoga Valley if you don’t mind chilly temps.
We visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park the last week of May. Ohio was in the midst of a heat wave and the high temperature during our visit ranged from the mid to high 80’s.
Rainfall doesn’t vary much month to month. On average, northeast Ohio gets 8 days of rainfall per month, with slightly higher amounts March through May. After a few days of rain, the trails can get very muddy, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
Mosquitoes in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. If you have plans to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park from late spring through early autumn, don’t forget insect repellent! We came unprepared and ended up with quite a few mosquito bites, and this was just from a one hour hike to Blue Hen Falls. The mosquitoes were the worst at the waterfalls and on some of the hiking trails (notably Salt Run and the Bridle Trail).
Where to Stay
One of the most unique things about Cuyahoga Valley National Park is its urban setting. Sure, it lacks the solitude and remoteness that can make other national parks so appealing, but at the same time, there is an abundance of hotels and restaurants to choose from, and you will have cellular service, no matter where you are in the park.
Inside the Park
If you want to stay at a lodge inside of the park, you have two options. The Stanford House offers moderately priced rooms and it is centrally located within Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The Inn at Brandywine Falls is a bed and breakfast that offers six luxuriously renovated rooms. It is located near Brandywine Falls.
There are no campground or RV sites inside of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Backcountry camping is prohibited.
Outside of the Park
Outside of the park, there are many hotel options in the towns along the eastern side of the national park. Staying somewhere between Twinsburg and Stow is ideal, as it limits how much driving you will need to do to get into and out of the park.
The hotels with the best reviews are located in the Stow-Akron area. This is where we stayed and it worked great. Within 15 minutes we could be at the top sights inside of the park, with lots of great dining options between Hudson and Akron. Tim and I stayed at the Staybridge Suites Akron-Stow-Cuyahoga Falls, but the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Akron Stow, Hampton Inn Stow, and the Home2 Suites by Hilton Stow Akron also get very good reviews.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park can also be visited on a day trip from Akron or Cleveland, if you happen to be visiting one of these two cities.
Plan Your Visit
Park Hours: Cuyahoga Valley National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Entrance Fee: There is no fee to enter Cuyahoga Valley National Park. You can support the park by donating to the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Get updates on road conditions and trail closures, as you plan your trip and just before your visit, on the National Park Service website.
If your visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park is part of a bigger road trip through Ohio, check out the Cleveland Traveler for ideas on how to spend your time in Cleveland.
If you have any questions about the best things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
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Planning a visit to the US national parks? Visit our Guide to the National Parks to learn more about the parks, with important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.
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