9 things to see and do in Ohio's only national park

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9 things to see and do in Ohio's only national park

When you think of national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite come to mind. All in all, there are 59 federally protected areas designated as national parks. 

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Ohio is home to one of those special places – Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s a large swath of rural land along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland to the north and Akron to the south. Unlike at many national parks, there’s no entry fee for CVNP. Small communities dot the area, so access to the family-friendly park is very easy. The Boston Store Visitor Center is located in Peninsula, about halfway between the northern and southern ends of the park. 

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If you didn’t know that Ohio had a national park, don’t feel bad. CVNP received its official designation in 2000. Despite its relatively young age as a national park, it’s a popular destination. In 2015, it was the 11th most visited of all the national parks, according to the October 2016 issue of National Geographic

If you haven’t been to CVNP, it’s an easy drive from Dayton and a great way to celebrate Ohio’s natural beauty and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. 

A girlfriend and I recently spent a day and a half hiking and walking almost 14 miles in and near the park. Here are the highlights from our weekend adventure: 

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

1) BRANDYWINE FALLS: A roar of water cascading 65 feet into a gorge is among the most popular features in the park. The falls is open each day from dawn to dusk. A boardwalk lets you get closer to the falls. Expect to feel the spray. The falls is located at 8176 Brandwine Road, Sagamore Hills Twp., Ohio. 

The Ledges Overlook at sundown.

2) THE LEDGES OVERLOOK: One of the most popular vistas in the entire park, the overlook provides a view of the valley facing west. People gather there in the late afternoon to watch the sun go down. 

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs through Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

3) CUYAHOGA VALLEY SCENIC RAILROAD: The easiest way to get an overview of Cuyahoga Valley National Park may be from the train, which runs from Akron all the way up to Rockside Station in the city of Independence, where you’ll be able to see Lock 39, part of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The round-trip train ride takes 3 hours. The railroad offers special events throughout the year, and all of them are extremely popular. When planning your trip to the national park, visit the railroad website and purchase your tickets well in advance. 

Lock 39 along the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail outside Independence, Ohio.

4) OHIO AND ERIE CANAL TOWPATH TRAIL: Once used by mules to tow boats through the canal, today the towpath is enjoyed by walkers, hikers and cyclists. The towpath is flat, smooth and family-friendly, able to accommodate strollers and wheelchairs. From April through October, cyclists and pedestrians can pay a one-way ticket ($9 for cyclists; $3 for pedestrians) on the railroad to return to their point of departure. 

A footbridge goes over a creek along the Buckeye Trail, just outside Peninsula, Ohio.

5) THE BUCKEYE TRAIL: Looping around the entire state of Ohio and covering 1,444 miles, the Buckeye Trail crosses through some of Ohio’s prettiest country, including CVNP. You’ll know you’re on the Buckeye Trail because of the blue blaze marks on trees and poles. One blaze means the path is easy to figure out; two blazes mean there’s a change of directions, with the top blaze offset and pointing to where the path goes. If the blue blazes aren't offset, it means to pay attention because the trail isn't obvious at that point.

Eggplant fries at Fisher's Cafe & Pub Restaurant in Peninsula, Ohio.

6) DINING: You’ll find lots of dining options in and near the park. CVNP operates Trail Mix Boston and Trail Mix Peninsula, where you can grab a quick prepackaged sandwich, chips and other snacks, ice cream and beverages. You’ll also find lots of restaurants in the valley’s quaint communities, such as Fisher’s Café & Pub Restaurant in Peninsula. 

Yum Yum Sweet Shop in Peninsula, Ohio.

7) SHOPPING: For souvenirs of your visit to CVNP, probably the best place to stop is the Trail Mix shop in Peninsula, which has a nice variety of apparel and keepsakes. For a special treat, stop at the Yum Yum Sweet Shop a few blocks away. It offers a unique assortment of frozen treats, soda pop and chocolates made in the area. If you like ice cream, try Pav’s Creamery Cookie Monster. If chocolates are your thing, you might like Honadle’s hand-dipped Oreos. 

Blue Hen Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is easily accessible from a trailhead outside Peninsula, Ohio.

8) BLUE HEN FALLS: If you don’t mind a short and fairly easy hike from the trailhead, go see Blue Hen Falls. It’s not nearly as large as Brandywine Falls, but it’s still a lovely spot. Enjoy viewing the falls from the trail, or hike down a path off the trail that takes you to the edge of Spring Creek. 

And a bonus … 

Buttermilk Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is off the beaten path.

9) BUTTERMILK FALLS: If you want a bit of an adventure, when you reach Blue Hen Falls, you’ll see a sign that says “End of Trail.” It’s unmarked, but there’s an obvious path that leads to Buttermilk Falls, which is less than 1 mile from Blue Hen Falls. Be forewarned that it involves crossing Spring Creek a few times, so waterproof hiking boots are recommended. Also, it should only be hiked when the water level is low, which makes autumn the ideal time. The payoff is a beautiful little waterfall that washes down a shale boulder. When you approach it in sunlight, it looks like liquid silver. 

Want to go? 

WHAT: Cuyahoga Valley National Park 

WHERE: Between Cleveland and Akron; Boston Store Visitor Center is located at 1550 W. Boston Mills Road, Peninula, Ohio. 

INFO: Cuyahoga Valley National Park or 330-657-2752.

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