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 grew up in bath Ohio in the seventies so I was at that Park before it was a park all through the valley. I remember when I was a kid there was a toboggan run at Kendall Lake it was open at night because it had two stealth fries he went down at the bog and run and ended up on the lake it was awesome it’s been long gone

    I need to get back there, things have really changed. I grew up in C.F. but moved to Colorado in 1974!!!!!!!!!!!

    Interested in canoeing..any information on this???

      Good question! There are no organized trips or places to rent canoes or kayaks inside the park itself, and the national park service does not maintain the river at all for recreational use. You can technically bring your own canoe/kayak, but there are parts of the river through the park that aren’t easily navigable. You CAN rent kayaks and paddleboards at other nearby spots, though; you can consult this post for some ideas in Akron and Cleveland: https://clevelandtraveler.com/water-sports-cleveland/

    Thanks Amanda for the updates to this blog. This is our second visit now and we enjoyed the pond views at Oak Hill. Hadn’t realized that there were many things named after Furnace Run, so we first wound up at the Furnace Run Metro Park (which was nice too!), before visiting the Furnace Run trail loop near the Everett covered bridge.

    I found your blog through a search for this very thing. My boyfriend and I are visiting next weekend. He’s not a big hiker or lover of nature but he’ll go along with it because I am, so we’re going to spend one day in CVNP, stay at the Fairfield in Independence for the night, and then do some neighborhood wandering in Cleveland the other day. I always want to do a million things and but we’re from Pittsburgh so at least we can easily come back another weekend.

    I am heading to the park this Monday June 28. I will be bringing my bike. I would like to ride 10-15 miles max as I plan to hike and only have one day but want the most scenic bike route. Thoughts? I can bike in one direction and ride train back it appears? Penisula? Any great ideas as I will be coming from cuyahoga falls akron area. thanks so much.

      It looks like this season the railroad is only operating Wednesday-Sunday, so if you’re visiting on a Monday, the Bike Aboard program on the train will not be available. But you can certainly just do an out-and-back ride on the Towpath Trail, which stretches the whole length of the park. This map shows you where the Towpath trailheads are inside the park: https://www.ohioanderiecanalway.com/media/1281/canalwaynorthernsummit.pdf

      Peninsula is a great starting point with parking at Lock 29 and support with the nearby Century Cycles. I’d recommend heading south and check out Beaver Marsh and stop at Szalay’s if you’d like. Fridays are a little less hectic at Szalay’s but you’ll still have their foot booths open. Bike aboard or ride back if you’d like and you can grab a post-ride meal at Fisher’s or the Winking Lizard. For just refreshments in Peninsula, consider the Trail Mix shop at the trailhead or the Crooked Kettle nearby.

    If you take the train, can you get off at various stops and get back on without paying a fee each time?

      Not exactly. They run train tours that last a few hours, and on those you cannot get on/off the train (unless you book the tour that includes a stop at Hale Farm). The other option, though, is to ride the train in just one direction for a few stops, and then bike/hike back. This just costs a few dollars, but the train travel is only in one direction, and you don’t book a specific seat.

    Thanks for pulling together highlights online. There aren’t that many guidebooks out there covering CVNP (will check again before we travel). Looking forward to visiting one of the few driving distance NPs from Chicago.

      Happy to be able to help!

        I am planning on visiting Cuyahoga Valley in the fall, 2021. I will be bringing my dog (cockapoo). Will he be allowed on the train and if not are there daily boarding facilities at the park or nearby? Thank you!

          Pets are not allowed on the train, I’m afraid. I don’t know much about dog boarding nearby since I don’t have a dog myself, but there are many towns within a short drive of the park you could look at, including Hudson, Macedonia, Northfield, and even Akron. I’m sure there are day boarding options!

    I love this park too! FYI the ledges are sandstone not limestone and the towpath trail is crushed stone not paved.

      Parts of the Towpath trail are paved! But you’re right about the ledges – they are indeed sandstone!

    I’m going to hike the Valley late October this year. I am bring my Border Collie with me. Which trails do you recommend for hiking with a dog? Which should we avoid?
    Appreciate your input. I cannot wait to go.

      I know you can take dogs on most of the trails in CVNP, including the Towpath Trail, as long as they’re on a leash. So it just depends on which trails you’re interested in! The Ledges Trail at Virginia Kendall Ledges is my favorite shorter trail, and is fine for dogs. The Towpath Trail is a good option if you want something flat and mostly paved.

    where to stay while making a visit to the park?

      There are two suggestions at the very end of this post that are within the park. Nearby, you could look at towns like Hudson and Twinsburg, or even go as far as Akron or the Cleveland area if you have a car and don’t mind driving a bit.

    My mom always said there was so much to see in Ohio that we didn’t need to travel far away. We would take one day trips on the weekends and see so much! Part of those trips landed us at the CV parks. Now we have taken our kids there. We have done all that you have listed here. I am grateful for the fond memories of riding our bikes up the towpath to see the falls and then resting on the train back to Szalays. I grew up on a produce farm that is no longer operating, so seeing Szalays still prospering warms my heart! We run into so many friends that come there to just relax on a glider and listen to the musicians. Thanks for highlighting our area!

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