A Local’s Guide to the Best Things to Do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio

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I've lived nearly my entire life in the northern half of Ohio – and a large portion of those years more specifically in northeast Ohio. And while many people overlook this part of the state, I have come to love the mix of urban areas AND natural spaces that this part of Ohio has to offer.

Northeast Ohio was once one of the most prosperous parts of America. When the Ohio & Erie Canal was completed in the 1830s, the city of Cleveland grew to be one of the largest (and richest) cities in the United States. But Ohio has never been *just* about it's cities.

I'm a big fangirl for Ohio cities like Cleveland – but I'm perhaps an even bigger fangirl for the parks and green spaces around it, including Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Station Road Bridge in CVNP

This (FREE) national park should not be missed if you're coming to Ohio!

Cuyahoga Valley: Ohio's only national park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) is the only national park in the state of Ohio. It stretches between Cleveland and Akron, following the Cuyahoga River through some beautiful sections of deciduous forest. 

It was first established in 1974 as the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, and then was designated as a national park in the year 2000.

Cuyahoga Valley is somewhat unique in that it's more of an “urban park” because of its location; entrances are not far from the highway, and most people living in northeast Ohio are less than an hour's drive away from it.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Welcome to CVNP!

Add to this the fact that CVNP is free to visit, and you get a park that is easily accessible and often visited by locals. In fact, the National Park Service lists Cuyahoga Valley as one of the most-visited national parks in the United States because of this – but don't worry; it's not a park that ever feels crowded.

These days, people head to the 50-square-mile park for outdoor activities like hiking and biking, taking advantage of the miles and miles of trails that take you through scenery that varies from marshy wetlands to mossy limestone ledges. There are even a few waterfalls!

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Brandywine Falls

Living so close to Cuyahoga Valley National Park now, I've become quite proud and protective of it. My husband Elliot and I are members of the CVNP Conservancy, and we take our bikes (or our hiking shoes) to the park as often as we can.

And now I'm on a mission to make sure other people fall in love with “my” park, too.

Virginia Kendall Ledges

Top things to do at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Visiting CVNP so often, I've developed some favorites when it comes to places to see and things to do. Whether it's by car, foot, bike, or train, here are all of my must-dos for a visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

(And you can fit all of these into one day if that's all you have!)

(Note, I'm focusing on things to do in the spring, summer, and fall in this post, but you can also read about Cuyahoga Valley in the winter here.)

1. Hike Virginia Kendall Ledges

There are miles upon miles of hiking trails within Cuyahoga Valley National Park (over 125 miles of them, according to the National Park Service), but my favorite trail by far is the trail that takes you around the Virginia Kendall Ledges.

This 2.2-mile trail is a moderate one, taking you through a forested landscape dotted with gigantic limestone boulders, caves, and mossy cliffs.

Virginia Kendall Ledges at Cuyahoga Valley National Park
On the Ledges trail

This is one of my favorite places in the park to take photos! It looks different in every season.

Virginia Kendall Ledges at Cuyahoga Valley National Park
The Ledges are seriously cool!

The trail here takes you down into a small valley and back up again, ending at an overlook that's a popular spot to watch the sunset.

The hike is moderately difficult and is unpaved and uneven, so be sure to wear proper footwear!

Other hiking trails I really like within the park include:

  • Buckeye Trail to Blue Hen Falls
  • Deer Run Trail (located in O’Neil Woods Metro Park)
  • Furnace Run Trail (especially in the spring to see wildflowers)
  • Oak Hill and Plateau trails (which includes hiking through a pretty hemlock grove)
Hike through blankets of bluebells in the spring on trails like Furnace Run

RELATED: The Best Hiking Trails in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

2. Visit Brandywine Falls

There are a handful of notable waterfalls within Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but the most famous is definitely Brandywine Falls.

This 65-foot-tall waterfall is easy to reach from a large parking area via a wooden boardwalk, and is great to see in every season.

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Brandywine Falls in autumn

There's also a longer trail you can hike here to see the waterfall from a few different vantage points, depending on how much time you have and how much of a challenge you want.

If you're interested in some of the other waterfalls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park that you have to hike to, I can also recommend Blue Hen and Buttermilk falls, as well as Great Falls of Tinkers Creek, which is located within Bedford Reservation.

Buttermilk Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Standing atop Buttermilk Falls
Great Falls of Tinkers Creek
Great Falls of Tinkers Creek

3. Bike the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail

Since CVNP runs along the Cuyahoga River, this means that the river's history is also now part of the park's history. Back before the days of airplanes and reliable railroads, goods were transported throughout northeast Ohio using a canal system. 

Today, the path that mules used to use to tow boats up the historic Ohio & Erie Canal in the 1800s has been turned into a multi-purpose hiking and biking trail.

Elliot on the Towpath Trail
Biking the Towpath Trail in summer

The Towpath Trail is one of my favorite places for a bike ride, since it's mostly paved, mostly flat, and so very scenic. Elliot and I like to start in Peninsula for many of our rides since there are some shops and restaurants (shoutout to Winking Lizard!) near the trailhead.

Towpath Trail in CVNP
Towpath Trail in late autumn

And, if you don't have a bike of your own, you can rent one from Century Cycles in Peninsula. (They even rent e-bikes now!)

4. Visit the Canal Exploration Center

Speaking of the Ohio & Erie Canal, if you want to learn more about it and its history, the best place to do that in the park is at the Canal Exploration Center in Valley View.

Canal Exploration Center and Lock 38

Here, you can hear stories of people who lived and worked along the canal in the mid-1800s, including John Malvin, a free Black canal boat captain. You can also learn about the mules that used to pull boats along the canal, and see how the canal locks work (they even do demonstrations of Lock 38 on summer weekends).

You can also get on the Towpath Trail here, or hop on the CSVR. Which brings us to the next thing you can do…

5. Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
The CVSR train at Peninsula Station

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is unique in that is also has a railroad running through it. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is extremely popular with park visitors, especially during the autumn when the park bursts into fall colors.

The railroad operates scenic rides, themed trips (such as their popular North Pole trip in the winter), and even has a Bike Aboard program where you can load up your bike, ride the train one way for a few stops, and then bike back to where you started for just $5. (You can also do this with kayaks, or just with your hiking shoes.)

The CVSR even brings in the historic Nickel Plate Road Steam Locomotive No. 765 for a couple weekends each summer.

If you want a scenic sightseeing ride through the park, book a “National Park Scenic” trip, either with a stop at historic Hale Farm or a stop for lunch in Peninsula. These are half-day trips with assigned seating, and you cannot get off the train at will.

If you want to be able to get on and off the train, you'll want to do the Bike Aboard or Hike Aboard option, where you ride the train one way and bike/hike the other. This option is best for people who want a taste of the train, but who don't want to spend the whole day riding it.

Bike riders waiting at Brecksville Station

6. Shop at Szalay's

If you live in northeast Ohio, chances are you've heard of Szalay's Sweet Corn Farm and Market. During the summer months, this farmer's market is a great spot to either visit on its own, or to ride to on the Towpath.

Shop for colorful fresh produce and canned goods inside the rustic market barn, or grab a snack (grilled sweet corn is a must in the summer) and relax in the outdoor eating area, which features fun glider tables.

Szalay's Market in Ohio
Szalay's Farm Market

In the fall, Szalay's goes all-out with a fun, family-friendly corn maze, plus thousands of pumpkins for sale!

This farm market has been around since 1931, and to me is an absolute must-visit.

Pumpkins at Szalay's in the fall
So many pumpkins at Szalay's!

FAQ about visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Here are some other things to know before you visit CVNP:

Where is Cuyahoga Valley National Park?

The park is in northeast Ohio, roughly following the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron. It covers about 50 square miles.

The park is is mostly run by the National Park Service, but there are a few sections of the park that overlap with Cleveland and Summit County metroparks, too.

What season is best to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park?

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is open year-round!

The most popular seasons to visit are summer (when hiking trails are shaded and the train is running) and fall (when the forest gets painted in yellows, reds, and oranges), and these will be the busiest times in the park.

But you can also visit in spring (when trails can be muddy but there are lots of wildflowers blooming) and winter (when there can be snow, but the park is usually quiet).

If you live nearby, visit in all four seasons to see how different it looks!

Brandywine Falls in winter

In winter, there are also fun things to do like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing and tubing.

RELATED: Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the Winter: Your Ultimate Guide

How much does it cost?

It's $0! There is no entry fee to enjoy Cuyahoga Valley National Park or any of the connected metro parks.

How long should I spend at Cuyahoga Valley National Park?

You can see all the highlights at CVNP in 1-2 days. (If you want to do all the things I listed above, I would dedicate one day to doing some hikes and visiting waterfalls, and another day to the train and Towpath Trail.)

RELATED: Ultimate 1 Day Cuyahoga Valley National Park Itinerary

Where should I start?

The official visitor center for CVNP is at the Boston Store Visitor Center on Boston Mills Road. Here you can pick up park maps, get suggestions from NPS Rangers, and view a couple small exhibits on the park.

Boston Mill Visitor Center at CVNP
Boston Mill Visitor Center

Can I rent a bike?

If you want to hit the Towpath trail but don't have your own bike, check out Century Cycles near the Peninsula trailhead/train depot for rentals.

How do you take the train?

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad departs for scenic rides through the park anywhere from 2 to 4 times per day from June to October (and on weekends from January-May). The Peninsula Depot is the most popular place to board the train.

Where can I stay in Cuyahoga Valley National Park?

The park is large and covers a handful of cities; you can base yourself in Akron, Hudson, Peninsula, or even Cleveland. There are some places to stay within the park, too, like the Inn at Brandywine Falls and the The Inn at Blue Hen Falls.

If you're interested in an Airbnb or other vacation rental, check out this historic house in Peninsula, or this modern home in Brecksville.

And CVNP finally has a cool camping option now, too, at Valley Overlook. Along with primitive camping sites and some furnished 4-season cabins, they also offer luxurious glamping tents!

Can you camp at Cuyahoga Valley National Park?

The only camping currently available within the park is at Valley Overlook (which offers tent sites, glamping tents, and furnished cabins). There are several other private and state park campsites within driving distance, too. Refer to this list for suggestions from the National Park Service.

Have you ever been to Cuyahoga Valley National Park? If not, does this post make you want to visit?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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89 Comments on “A Local’s Guide to the Best Things to Do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio

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  1. I’ve been going to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park all my life and growing up and being part of the Boy Scouts this place offers endless beauty. I remember as a kid going on many adventures at camp Manatoc and Camp Butler that it holds close to my heart. There is a place in our hearts that is seldom traveled that is hidden and unknown that leads us to a secret place. (Chief Luther Standing Bear 1839 to 1938) I think for us Ohioans I think that’s the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As an adult I revisited this park and I’m on a personal journey myself as an artist walking the trails and capturing the beauty of this park in my work which is my personal journey. My name is Dave and if you ever see a young man on the trail standing off to the side painting a picture that is me. Happy hiking and God bless the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

    I’m glad I found this post! I’m in Cincinnati with a weekend to spare…and your post totally convinced me to visit CVNP!

      Awesome! I don’t think you’ll regret it – it’s a lovely park!

    Thank you for the wonderful introduction to CVNP…. we’re from NJ and we going to be visiting Akron in the next week for a softball tournament. We love to hike and bike! We will definitely visit the park at least once, hopefully twice. I am particularly appreciative of the tip on where to rent bikes as we would like to ride the tow path.

    Absolutely loved this article and excited that I found your blog. My husband and I travel often to Europe. We enjoy exploring around on our own and have hundreds of pictures. However, I am an avid biker as well. we live in the Pittsburgh and always looking for new areas to explore.

    Keep it coming.

      Well if you’ve never been over this way to CVNP, I highly recommend a visit!

    Coming to Ohio from the UK in July ’19 and staying in Peninsula (in the Silver Fern B&B) for 4 nights. Cannot wait, it all looks so beautiful. Hopefully we will get the time to tick off this top 5!

      You can definitely tick off all these things in 4 days! Hope you have a great time!

    Thanks for promoting CVNP. I too have lived in NE Ohio for most of my life and didn’t come to appreciate the gem in our backyard until more recently. I first “discovered” the Towpath and found it is a great place to run. If you’re training for a race, they have water fountains at “just the right” places. Recently my running pals and I expanded our adventures to the trails. I had NO IDEA there were so many amazingly trails. The park is really a great place for all to enjoy. The Towpath is very accessible. For people who have to make a bit of a drive to get there, Peninsula is a wonderful place to meander about; stop in the shops, go for breakfast at Fisher’s on the weekends. Or the Winking Lizard for lunch or dinner. And don’t forget the dozen or so farms nearby. http://www.cvcountryside.org/farm-countryside-initiative-farms

      The Towpath is so great! As are all the other trails and sections of the park; I still haven’t seen it all!

    As a fellow travel blogger, I really enjoyed this article. I’m thinking of visiting
    Cuyahoga Valley this November.

    Success! – Cuyahoga is now on our list, thanks to your blog (which I accidentally stumbled upon!) – I have been to Acadia, Joshua Tree, Arches, Canyonlands, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Bryce, Zion, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Rocky Mountains..now we’re looking forward to Cuyahoga! We’ll hopefully remember to keep you posted when it materializes as it’s your credit 🙂

      Cuyahoga Valley is underrated as a national park, so I’m glad it’s now on your list!

    I too was a terrible Ohioan when I lived there. I didn’t visit Cuyahoga National Park until after I had moved out of Ohio, started loving national parks, and realized I should visit the one in my home state. You did a great job of giving others insight on such an awesome place! Unfortunately, I only visited once in the freezing winter, but I’ll definitely use this post when I make it back there!

      I think we all tend to overlook the things that are in our own backyards! I highly recommend visiting again sometime in the summer or fall!

    Great article, Amanda! Cuyahoga has been on my list for few years now. And after reading your article and seeing your pictures, I know, I need to find time to visit it this year. Especially, that I’m so close (Detroit suburbs).

      Absolutely! It’s one of my favorite national parks because of how accessible it is, and because there’s so much you can do!

    Hey! This is wonderful! Just went to Brandywine Falls and Blue Hen Falls in the last few weeks. It was an amazing experience. Planning to go check out the Virginia Kendall Ledges next! Thanks for the amazing post and all the info! 😀

      The Virginia Kendall Ledges are my favorite! And fall is a really great time to go.

    My husband and I visited Cuyahoga National Park last year on our way back to NJ from Oregon. I was very impressed with the amount of greenery which cooled down the park. We always stop at one Ranger Station in every park we stop in. I do the park passport program which allows you to stamp your book at every park and if you wish you can purchase the stickers for the parks. We are not hikers or bikers but we do drive thru any park we run across. I call Cuyahoga the GEM park. It is truly beautiful to drive through. It is a true GEM to visit.

      I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much, Kathleen!

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