Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park sees more than 2 million visitors each year

Cuyahoga National Park along the Cuyahoga River has waterfalls, hills, trails, and exhibits on early rural living. The Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail follows the Ohio and Erie Canal, where mules towed canal boats. The park has numerous historic homes, bridges, and structures, and also offers a scenic train ride.


There are clues in the rocks to how the Cuyahoga Valley was formed

The Cuyahoga Valley hasn’t always been here. Time, water, weather, ice, and shifting continents created it. How and when did it happen? There are clues in the rocks. And if you know how to find those clues, you can learn a lot about how a place came to be. This is what geology is all about.

In geological time the Cuyahoga Valley is just the latest chapter in a long interesting story of how northeast Ohio came to be. Millions of years of soaking seas, rushing rivers, and glaciers formed, erased, and reshaped the land into the rock ledges, gorges, waterfalls, and snaking river found today at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP).

Oldest is Deepest

Rock clues to the history of the Cuyahoga Valley can be easily found in some of its most scenic sites, like Brandywine Falls and Tinker’s Creek Gorge. These are places where rock that was once deeply buried is now in plain sight. Rushing water and scouring weather cut into the rock, like a knife into a cake, leaving the layers easy to see-and read. Reading the clues in rock layers can be like traveling back in time.

Rock layers are laid down, or deposited, from the bottom up. The park’s deeply buried layers are old, and the dirt you walk on is young. The rock layers under the soil, called bedrock, get ever older as you go deeper down. How old exactly? Some of the visible bedrock in CVNP is more than 400 million years old. This is long before dinosaurs-or reptiles of any kind-roamed Earth. It was even before plants had flowers.

An ancient sea covered what’s now northeast Ohio 400 million years ago. Big toothy fish and sharks swam there. Silt, mud, and other sediments washed into the salty waters and settled onto the sea floor. Over time the weight of the stacked layers of sediments crushed and squeezed them into a dark gray rock called shale. Fossils of ancient shelled creatures called brachiopods and other invertebrates are found in CVNP’s shale layers.

Because it’s made of sediments, shale is a type of rock called sedimentary. Another kind of sedimentary rock, sandstone, is also common bedrock in the uplands of the Cuyahoga Valley. The sandstone formed after the shale, so lies above it. Billions of grains of sand deposited into river deltas eventually cemented into CVNP’s sandstone. Sometimes the tan colored sandstone still has water ripple marks, like a sandy streambed frozen in time.

The youngest bedrock in CVNP is also the park’s showiest. It’s called conglomerate, a kind of sedimentary rock made up of cemented together pebbles and sand. The 300-million year old pebbly conglomerate at Ritchie Ledges is a hiker’s delight. Enormous blocks of the orange and yellow rock have broken off and make you feel like you’re walking in the rock garden of a giant. A closer look shows clusters of round holes that look like honeycomb. The holes are left behind when water filters down through the conglomerate and unglues and washes out the pebbles.

Erosion and Deposition

The rock history of the Cuyahoga Valley is missing quite a few chapters. While very old 350-million-year-old rocks are common, newer 150-million- or 50-million-year-old rocks are hard to come by. You won’t find any rocks from the dinosaur days, for instance. What happened to these rock layers? Erosion erased them. An ancient ancestral river carved out the original Cuyahoga Valley many millions of years ago. Its flowing waters helped erode away the rock layers before the Ice Age arrived.

The Ice Age started about two million years ago. Glaciers bulldozed northeastern Ohio at least four times before the Ice Age ended 10,000 or so years ago. Glaciers are giant moving mountains of ice, some a mile thick. As a glacier moves, it pushes the tons of scraped-up rock, sand, and clay ahead of it like a bulldozer. As glaciers slid down into northern Ohio, the glacial deposits buried the landscape and filled in the ancient river valleys. Glaciers completely buried the original Cuyahoga Valley with rock, sand, and clay deposits.

When the glaciers melted, their water sometimes created lakes—including Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga Valley town of Peninsula was also a glacial lake 50,000 years ago or so. Melting glaciers also left behind the sand and rock they were pushing and carrying. You can see some odd out-of-place rocks in CVNP that the glaciers carried down from the north and left behind. There are boulders of granite—a kind of volcanic rock—here and there. These so-called glacial erratics are reminders of an icy time past.

A New River Valley

The Cuyahoga Valley didn’t start to look like it does today until after the glaciers left. Lake Erie itself only settled into its current home 4,000 years ago. Once free of the ice sheets, the Cuyahoga River went to work. The young river washed out glacier leftovers, re-carved old valleys into steep ravines, and cut through bedrock.

Today the Cuyahoga is a slow-moving, mature river surrounded by a wide valley in most places. Many of the streams and creeks that empty into it are young, however. Their fast rushing water has carved out many of the park’s rocky waterfalls and amazing gorges.

Cuyahoga Valley geology created a wide variety of landscapes. These provide habitat for many different kinds of plants and animals. The gorges and ravines are wet, cool homes for salamanders and moss, for example, while drier woodlands thrive on sunny valley slopes. People, too, have long taken advantage of the Cuyahoga Valley’s rock history. Settlers built quarries to dig out the over 320-million year old Berea sandstone for stone blocks and grinding wheels. You can see buildings in the park today made from the tan gritty stone. The shaping, carving, and reshaping of the Cuyahoga Valley throughout its geological history is part of what makes it such special place.

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Native American History

Home of the Hopewell and Whittlesey cultures

Paleo-Indian hunters armed with spears likely followed mastodons and other Ice Age mammals into the Cuyahoga Valley about 13,000 years ago, becoming its first people. After the Ice Age, a forest of oak, elm, and maple trees filled the valley. Groups of Archaic Indians hunted the valley’s deer, wild turkeys, elk, and bear. They fished the river and streams and also gathered hickory nuts, walnuts, berries, seeds, and other plant foods.

These early inhabitants of the Cuyahoga Valley didn’t live in permanent villages. They moved around, following game and gathering the foods in season. The Paleo-Indians probably lived in movable shelters that could be packed-up after days, weeks, or months in a particular camp. These tents may have been constructed of tree branches covered in animal hides, probably from deer. Later Archaic people lived in structures made of wooden posts.


More recent American Indian cultures in the Cuyahoga Valley did build long-term villages—and much more. The Hopewell culture is famous for its mound building. The Hopewell weren’t a tribe or a group of people who lived in the same place. Hopewell was a culture, like how Western culture is today. Wearing jeans and listening to pop music is common in many places around the world. It’s not limited to any one country or a single group of people. Western culture has spread to many places, like Hopewell culture did thousands of years ago.

The major Hopewell culture was to the south where villages were larger, more numerous, and occupied for a longer period. Hopewell culture reached Northeastern Ohio about 2,100 years ago. By this time, people here lived in scattered small villages in the valley’s fertile floodplains. They grew foods like squash, as well as hunted, fished, and gathered fruits and nuts. Elaborate trade networks developed among distant groups. The network reached from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The tribes traded raw materials such as obsidian from the Yellowstone National Park area, mica from the Great Smokey Mountains, and jade from Mexico. Archeologists have also found ocean seashells from the Gulf Coast and Michigan copper in excavations of this period. Hopewell artists crafted beautiful tools and decorative objects from these exotic materials. These materials from faraway places are evidence that the Cuyahoga River was a trade route for American Indians.

Hopewell peoples are most famous as builders of large earthworks and mounds made of piled-up soil. In southern Ohio, Hopewell peoples constructed complex groups of geometric structures used for ceremonies. In Northeastern Ohio, the Hopewell culture influenced the building of mostly small mounds and structures. Hopewell earthworks in the Cuyahoga Valley are in places like Everett Village where national park archeologists found evidence of house posts and cooking hearths.

We do not know why Hopewell groups left the area, but it seems to have been deserted for a time except for seasonal hunters.

Whittlesey and Other Late-Prehistoric Tribes

The Whittlesey culture shaped the lives of American Indians in the Cuyahoga Valley between the years 1000 and 1600. The Whittlesey people lived mostly in small, scattered villages in long, multi-family homes made of wood poles. Unlike the Hopewell, they didn’t have a complex trade network. They lived off the local landscape, hunting with bow and arrows, and growing fields of corn, squash, and beans.

South Park Village is a Whittlesey site across the Cuyahoga River from the Towpath Trail in the northern part of the park. It was a year-round village for hundreds of years. Archeologists have found pieces of decorated pottery and arrowheads of many sizes there. Animal bones, seeds, and shells found at the site tell us that the villagers ate river mollusks, deer, beaver, elk, ducks, acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, grapes, and chokeberries.

Historic Tribes

As far as we know, Whittlesey villagers never encountered Europeans. They were gone before the first explorers passed through the Cuyahoga Valley in the late 1600s. Why they left and where they went is unknown. Some historians think they were pushed out by neighboring tribes fighting in the “Beaver Wars,” a conflict over who would control the beaver pelt trade with Europeans. A newer theory is that many died from European diseases that spread with trade goods from more eastern tribes. Whatever happened, no one lived in northern Ohio between 1650 and the 1730s. The Seneca (part of the Iroquois Confederation) probably send hunting parties though here, but the Cuyahoga Valley was otherwise empty of humans.

American Indians briefly returned to the valley in the mid to late 1700s. American Indian tribes forced out of their lands migrated to Ohio. The Cuyahoga Valley had an Ottawa camp north of Boston. There was an Ojibwa settlement near Brecksville, and the Mingo tribe (the local name for the Seneca) may have had a camp near Ira. Many hunted along the Cuyahoga River in winter and early spring. Groups of men, women, and children canoed the river stopping along the way so the men could hunt on shore. At night they’d use the canoe as a shelter. By 1805 few American Indians remained in the Cuyahoga Valley. Treaties had stripped them of their lands and sent them to reservations in western Ohio.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Park History

How Cuyahoga Valley became a National Park

Western Reserve Pioneers
A new kind of people began coming to the Cuyahoga Valley in the late 1700s. Families from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other New England states had begun moving to the Western Reserve, including land around the Cuyahoga River. These New Englanders were not traders or missionaries. They were settlers looking to make a new life in the valley.

Moses and Polly Gleeson
Imagine leaving civilization for the wilderness. By 1818, a Moses Gleeson and his wife Polly Richardson Gleeson had moved to Bedford, Ohio, at wilderness edge. Like many who came to the new state of Ohio looking for a better life, Mr. Gleeson was a farmer and a business man, farming and trying his hand at sawmilling, then at the tavern business. A business associate convinced him to purchase the property located at Lock 38 as an investment, speculating on the potential of the new Ohio & Erie Canal. Moses Gleeson bought the structure on the canal, then added to it to open it as both a tavern and a store. Eventually hard times found that tavern, and the building became a store, a residence, and a blacksmith shop, among other uses. The Gleeson family remained prominent in the area and in Bedford and in time Americanized the name to Gleason.

For more of their story, visit Canal Exploration Center.

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The best things to do in Cuyahoga National Park

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.

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 nice parking area via a wooden boardwalk, and is great to see in every season. (Autumn so far is probably my favorite!)

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.

4. 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.

5. Ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad
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.

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Photo courtesy of NPS


This mixed forest landscape is a must-see 

Cuyahoga Valley National Park includes a diverse mosaic of natural vegetation types alongside various human-developed land uses. The park’s natural vegetation is composed primarily of mixed-mesophytic forest (approximately 80%), which is characterized by a variety of deciduous tree species growing in conditions that are neither too wet nor too dry. The oak-hickory association is the most widespread; others include maple-oak, oak-beech-maple, maple-sycamore, pine-spruce, and hemlock-beech associations. Several large semi-contiguous tracts of forest remain, but most forested areas are heavily fragmented.

Interspersed among these forests are other natural habitats, including older field habitats in various stages of succession, wet meadows, and other wetland habitats. Additionally, a variety of developed lands, including residential areas, golf courses, ski areas and other suburban lands, exist within park boundaries. Agricultural activity, once widespread, continues at low levels within the park.

Many different plant species are able to survive in the park’s diverse habitats. A walk though any field or forest provides visitors with the opportunity to see many of the park’s 943 plant species. In the spring, bloodroot and spring beauty blanket the forest floor, while late summer stands of goldenrod and wingstem line the roads with gold. The park’s diverse habitats support 21 state-listed rare plant species, including sedges, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and one tree species.

Nearly 20 percent of the park’s plant species are exotic (not native to the area). This high percentage is in part due to the longstanding history of human alteration of the Cuyahoga Valley landscape. Sixteen of these species are considered invasive, posing a significant threat to native plant communities. Visit the invasive plant species site here.
Exotic Plant Management Volunteer Program
Here is an opportunity for people of all ages to assist the staff of Cuyahoga Valley National Park in removing exotic, invasive plant infestations. Click here for more information.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Animal Life

The valley offers a diverse ecosystem

Surrounded by urban areas, Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 33,000 acres contain forest, field, river, and wetland habitats that offer food, water, shelter, and open space to wild animals. The park’s fragmented configuration and land use history have a strong effect on the types of wildlife found here.

The recovery of the lower Cuyahoga River over the past several decades is not only evident in the improvement in the aquatic assemblages that inhabit the river water, but in the terrestrial wildlife associated with the riparian habitat of the river corridor. Efforts to improve water quality and preserve wetlands have transformed a once heavily polluted river into an attractive place for wildlife.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

Hiking Trails

The best hikes in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

The Ledges Overlook
Location: Ledges Trail
Trailhead: 701 Truxell Road, Peninsula 44264
Distance: ~ 200 Yards
Elevation: Flat
Interest: This is probably the most popular overlook in the park and for good reason. This rock outcropping gives an unobstructed view across the valley facing west. From the parking lot, walk to the southwest corner of the grass field (the shelter is north of the parking lot). Sunsets offer some of the most impressive photos. Hike the 2.2 mile loop trail if you have the time.

Brandywine Falls
Location: Brandywine Gorge Trail
Trailhead: 8176 Brandywine Road, Sagamore Hills 44067
Distance: 1.5 Mile Loop Trail
Elevation: 160 Feet
Interest: The trail offers great spots to explore the creek and relax by the flowing waters. There is a bridge to the other side. The loop starts where the boardwalk, parking lot, and old gravel road meet. Brandywine Falls looks spectacular when covered in fallen leaves.

An Accessible Overlook
Location: Bedford Reservation – Tinker’s Creek Gorge Scenic Overlook
Trailhead: 1.5 miles east of Dunham Rd. on Gorge Parkway, Walton Hills 44146
Distance: Negligible
Elevation: Flat
Interest: Tinker’s Creek Gorge is a National Natural Landmark. This overlook will show you why. This viewing area is located next to the parking lot. Consider using the All Purpose Trail to do some exploring or combine this with a trip to Bridal Veil Falls (rough surface trail).

Blue Hen Falls

Location: Buckeye Trail
Trailhead: 2001 Boston Mills Road, Peninsula 44236
Distance: 0.5 Mile Loop
Elevation: 80 Feet
Interest: An overhanging plate of sandstone protrudes from the underlying shale. The small stream falls about fifteen feet from its edge. Enjoy a rest on the bench overlooking the waterfall because the hill back to your car is short, but steep. Continue north on the Buckeye Trail for an additional 2 miles to come to a beautiful creek bend surrounded by hemlocks.
Blue Hen Falls parking has been reduced. The park is working on a long term solution. Parking is prohibited along the road, and cars with be ticketed and towed. The lot often fills by 10 a.m. and requires an unmarked road crossing to the main trailhead. Please cross with caution.

I-80 Overlook

Location: Buckeye Trail
Trailhead: Boston, 1550 Boston Mills Road, Peninsula 44264
Distance: 1.5 Miles Total (out and back)
Elevation: ~150 feet
Interest: Head south on the Towpath Trail from the Boston trailhead. Turn Left onto the Buckeye Trail at the trailhead between the interstate bridges. Follow the trail into the woods and continue up the hill until you reach the fence overlooking I-80. Sure it is noisy but the view is great. A little cropping in the photo and you might just forget about the highway.

Old Carriage Overlook

Location: Old Carriage Trail (North end)
Trailhead: Station Road Bridge Trailhead 13513 Station Road, Brecksville 44141
Trailhead: Red Lock Trailhead 1175 Highland Road, Sagamore Hills 44067
Distance: 1.5 Miles one-way from either trailhead
Elevation: ~120 Feet
Interest: This is a neat spot that is worth the effort. Hike from either trailhead following the Towpath to the intersection with the Old Carriage Trail. There are two intersections for Old Carriage with the Towpath Trail. Be sure you are at the northern one because the trail is closed to through traffic due to bridge instability. A quarter mile up the hill there is a trailhead marked “overlook” to the left. The trail will end at a loop and a bench. Follow the social trail that leads down the hill from the bench. It ends at a steep break in the trees. Visit this spot after the leaves have fallen for a better view.

Tree Farm Trail View

Location: Horseshoe Pond/Tree Farm Trail
Trailhead: 2075 Major Road, Peninsula 44264
Distance: 2.75 Miles for the whole loop
Elevation: 80 Feet
Interest: Follow the Tree Farm Trail clockwise from the pond for a shorter trip to the view point. The trail will break out into a meadow with a nice view toward Peninsula and of the tree line to the southwest. Please respect private property by sticking to the trail. The tree rows belong to Heritage Farms and are not open to the public.

Tips For Hiking With Children
– Dress children in layers and bring clothing for changing weather conditions.
– Bring along a liter of water per person and a snack.
– Bring sunscreen and insect repellent. Avoid fragrant lotions that may attract insects.
– Choose a hike that is appropriate for your child; not too long. Keep your trip fun.
– Take frequent breaks when hiking with young children. It gives them time to rest and explore.
– Bring along a camera. Pictures will help them remember the experience.
– Take time to talk with children and encourage them to explore things along the trail.

Tips For Hiking With Dogs
– Keep your dog on a leash no longer than six feet.
– Keep your dog under control.
– Pick up your dog’s waste and carry it out.
– Plan for your pet’s needs by bringing along a bowl, water, and a snack.

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Photo courtesy of NPS

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