Cuyahoga Valley National Park may not be a household name, but it is one of America’s 10 most popular national parks. Ohio park saw almost 3 million visitors last year, that was more than bucket list destinations like Bryce, Glacier and Grand Teton. But it wasn’t always a place people wanted to visit.
“The Cuyahoga River that infamously caught fire many times, the last time in 1969 down in Cleveland, that river runs through this park and it’s named after that,” said Pamela Barnes, the park’s community engagement supervisor and public information officer. “We’re about to turn 50 years old in 2024, and we’re working to restore this valley … People who left the area, who came back, might be like, wow.”
Here’s what you should know about visiting Cuyahoga Valleythe latest national park in USA TODAY year series.
Why is Cuyahoga Valley National Park unique?
“It’s like the epicenter of the modern environmental movement in the 20th century,” Barnes said. “After that global story told about the Cuyahoga River came the Clean Water Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. So this park really has a restoration story … going from a river you don’t want to be near to a river we’re inviting people to enjoy.”
One place where the change is particularly clear is the Marsh Beaver.
“That’s right in front of you the story of restoration because you’re looking at a marsh that supports over 200 species of birds, both resident and migratory,” Barnes said. “And that swamp used to be a scrap yard, like a car junkyard.”
Where is Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is about 7 miles from Akron and less than 20 miles from Cleveland.
“It’s in the middle of these two urban areas, and it feels like a green island in the middle,” Barnes said. “It’s 33,000 acres, 125 miles of trailsand something for everyone, which can be surprising in an urban area.”
The closest major airport is Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, which is a few miles closer than Akron-Canton Airport.
Does it cost anything to go to Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
Cuyahoga Valley National Park does not charge a fee admission fees or reservations are not required.
What is the best time of year to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
Summer is the most popular time to visit, but the Cuyahoga Valley is truly a year-round park.
“It’s a great fall, if you go to the ledges overlook,” Barnes said. “You can just see the colors across the valley. It’s just bright, vibrant colors.”
After winter, the trails open up to cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing is available at two privately run ski resorts within the park’s boundaries.
“We have snowshoes that people can borrow for free,” Barnes said. “We also have really beautiful sledding hills.”
She said the spring is popular for bird watching and hiking.
“A lot of people like to walk year-round, but some people find that they might want to stay inside in the winter,” she said with a laugh.
How many days do you need in Cuyahoga Valley National Park?
Visitors can easily spend a full day or a weekend in the park. In addition to places like ledges and the Beaver Swamp, visitors will want to see the park’s picturesque waterfalls.
“Obviously the waterfall is the most popular Brandywine Falls, and the great thing about it is that it’s accessible to anyone,” Barnes said of the 60-foot waterfall. “It’s just a short walk down a wooden path to a fully accessible viewing area.”
Because there are several areas within the park footprint that are not actually part of the park, Barnes recommends that travelers stop at the park. Boston Mill Visitor Center at the beginning of their journey.
“Supervisors can help you customize your visit,” she said.
What Native American tribes were in the Cuyahoga Valley?
The park says that the Native Americans gave the park’s namesake river “Ka-ih-ogh-ha” or crooked.
Paleoindians the first came to the area at the end of the Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, according to the park. Over thousands of years, they were followed by the Ardaic and Woodland people.
The valley is long lasting Native people they are called the Whittlesey people. The park says it’s not entirely clear why they left the area in the 1600s, but “they were gone before the first (European) explorers went through the Cuyahoga Valley.”
The park notes that several tribes came to the valley in the 1700s, after being forced out to their own lands, including the Ottawa, Ojibwa and perhaps Mingo, but by the early 1800s they were pushed out.