Fewer than 100 national parks exist in the country. But there’s one about 50 minutes from Canton — the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The park is located between Akron and Cleveland and features an array of trees, flowers, wildlife and other attractions, including waterfalls, trails, ravines, meadows, farms, ponds, historic sites and many other highlights.
Time seemed to stop on a recent autumn afternoon at the picturesque Blue Hen Falls.
A creek snaked through thick wilderness and trickled and tumbled rhythmically over jagged rocks black with wetness.
Sunlight leaked through a canopy of trees. The temperature was pleasantly cool and the glen where the water flowed was a comfortable mixture of soft light and shadow. A steady wind shook leaves off branches and sent them drifting to the water or hillside.
Remote and serene, Blue Hen Falls is among the many jewels awaiting visitors to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The site also is an example of how the urban world intersects with nature. As the waterfalls played a song, the hum of highway traffic filtered through the maze of trees.
The state’s only national park is unique among the roughly 60 in the country — only a few of which are considered urban parks.
And late October is an ideal time to witness the vibrant fall colors of the Cuyahoga Valley.
The national park is nestled between Akron and Cleveland. The park boasts 33,000 eclectic acres and a patchwork of metro parks as well as national park sites.
Park boundaries stretch from the F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm in Akron in the south to the Bedford Reservation in the north. The land is wedged between Route 8 to the east and Interstate 77 to the west. Tucked within are a sprinkling of houses as well as historic sites and the charming village of Peninsula.
From downtown Canton, the southern end of the national park is about 50 minutes away. Think of it as a candy store of the great outdoors. With free admission. Upland forests. Deep woodlands. Multiple waterfalls. Hemlock gorges. Sandstone formations. Rolling hills. Wetlands. Farmland. A covered bridge. Miles of trails that wind through the woods, including the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Two ski resorts. And the Cuyahoga River that twists through the entire park.
SO MUCH TO SEE
Despite the commercial development that flourishes on Interstate 77 and Route 8, a visitor to the national park can feel a world away.
Park officials say the national park is well known to many Canton- and Akron-area residents, who are among the 2.8 million visitors annually. However, some area residents overlook the park or have not explored it fully, said Brady Bourquin, an interpretive park ranger.
“I would say not even a week goes by when someone visits the visitor center and says, ‘I grew up five miles from here’ or ‘I drive by here on my way to work,’ and I never really realized it was a national park until yesterday,” he said. “It’s something folks in this area are still learning and excited to learn about.”
Even repeat guests can experience the newness, said Tammy Mellert, of Euclid.
Page 2 of 4 - “You could be here a week and never see everything there is to see,” she said while photographing Blue Hen Falls. “There’s so much and it changes every single day.
“I’ve lived in Ohio for 20 years, and if you really want to see nature, come here,” Mellert said. “You won’t get this anywhere else, except the big parks out West. You might get it in the Smoky Mountains, but this is more accessible.”
Created in 1974 by an act of Congress, the area was first designated the Cuyahoga Valley Recreation Area before being renamed Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2000.
Stark County has a strong link to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Although the boundaries do not extend into the Canton area, former Congressman Ralph Regula, R-Navarre, was a champion for the preservation of the land, following the vision and efforts of Congressman John Seiberling of Akron.
The national park includes 100 full-time employees and about 50 seasonal workers, as well as more than 5,000 volunteers. The national park’s annual operating budget is about $10.8 million. The Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park functions as a non-profit partner. The group receives financial donations and maintains a membership program as well as endowments to support the park.
The Cuyahoga Valley does not wow a visitor with a singular site. And it obviously cannot compete with the grandeur of iconic parks such as Zion, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Denali and the Grand Canyon.
However, the Cuyahoga Valley is quilted with a subtle and quiet beauty. Pristine. Eye-catching. But not showy. The overall collection of flora and fauna is the badge it wears.
Autumn is a popular time to visit the national park. Curtains of color hug the roads that wind through the national park. Foliage paints the valley in vivid hues of gold, scarlet, lime green, fiery red, bronze and sunburst orange.
“I think it’s spectacular,” said Mary Pat Doorley, interpretive operations supervisor and public affairs officer at the national park, referring to October. “It’s beautiful. The park is so alive right now.”
But the park never closes, each season offering a unique vantage point of the unspoiled terrain.
“A hiker gets to see the size and scope of the park that is often hidden by foliage,” Bourquin said of wintertime. “Putting on a pair of snowshoes or cross-country skis lets the visitor experience the park trails in a way that is unparalleled during any other season.”
Highlights and popular spots include Brandywine Falls and the ledges in the Virginia Kendall Park area.
Brandywine Falls is considered far more visually impressive than the two-tiered Blue Hen. The 65-foot waterfall may be the crown jewel of the national park. Easily accessible, the viewing deck and tranquil setting are also a popular spot for wedding photos and ceremonies.
Page 3 of 4 - The ledges at Virginia Kendall also stand out. The ledges can be reached by hiking over rugged trails or by parking at a site closer to the attraction. There’s no better place to view a sunset at the national park.
“It has this kind of reverence when you get there,” Doorley said. “It’s literally a sanctuary. It’s so amazing. It’s peaceful.”
Another frequently visited spot is Beaver Marsh. The story behind its creation is as intriguing as the water and wildlife and vegetation there.
A salvage yard used to be at the site. The land was cleared to become a parking lot. Then the beavers took charge, damming the land to create the marsh. Now it’s a recommended spot to watch the mist rise off the water as dawn breaks over the valley.
CAMPING, MOONLIGHT HIKES, SLEDDING
Programs and activities abound at the national park, including hiking, biking and horseback-riding trails.
Ambitious hikers could cover about 20 miles from one end of the national park to the other, said Bourquin, the park ranger. Moonlight hikes offer the chance to experience the park under the cloak of darkness, including those scheduled for Oct. 29 and Nov. 28. If the moon is clear and bright, such hikes can be done without the aid of flashlights or lanterns.
“This park has something for everyone if you want to hike and if you want to bike and if you want to go somewhere that’s peaceful and meditative,” said Doorley, the park’s public affairs officer.
Camping is allowed on a limited basis. Back-country campsites are available along the Stanford Trail from late May through late October. Reservations and permits are required.
Activities and events in the park are as diverse as the surroundings. They include concerts at Happy Days Lodge, campfire stories about the history of the park, educational programs, the fall running series, a murder mystery dinner theatre at Sarah’s Vineyard Winery & Art Gallery, contra dancing, sledding at Kendall Hills, junior ranger activities, ghost walks, guided hikes, ranger presentations about wildlife and an array of other activities.
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad also runs through the park and has stations in Akron, Peninsula and Independence as well as other stops.
COYOTOES, HERONS, BATS
A wonderland of wildlife fills the river valley. Great blue herons and white-tailed deer are relatively common. About 100 coyotes live in the national park. More rare is the Indiana bat.
Other species include wood ducks, red fox, kingfishers and a variety of turtles. A pair of bald eagles nest in the Pinery Narrows area in the vicinity of the Station Road Bridge Trailhead. The American goldfinch, recognizable by its yellow feathers, occupies the national park year around.
Another common sight is for turkey vultures, peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks to soar overhead.
Page 4 of 4 - The national park becomes an amphitheater of the wild. The howling of a coyote. The hooting of the barred owl, which can be heard during the late afternoon and dusk along the Oak Hill Trail near Sylvan Pond. The call resembles the words, “Who cooks for you?”
On warm October days, the spring peeper, Ohio’s smallest frog, calls out in the wilderness.