National Park Number: 1 of 59
Moving is terrible. Moving in New York City is THE MOST TERRIBLE. And since we decided to start our trip the night of David's last day of work, the kids and I were shipping boxes, filling a storage unit, cleaning the apartment, and packing the car for our trip west by ourselves. In the pouring rain. With head colds.
I thought I was going to die. And I was actually fine with that, because it sounded very restful.
But we made it out of the city that night, stayed somewhere in Pennsylvania, and got to Cuyahoga Valley by lunch the next day. In our keyed-up, overwhelmed, tired state, there could not have been a better national park with which to start our trip.
Named for the twisty Cuyahoga river that runs through the middle of the park (Ka-ih-ogh-ha is the Mohawk word for crooked), Cuyahoga Valley began its park life as an urban National Recreation Area in 1974 and was made a National Park in 2000. It stretches 22 miles between Akron and Cleveland, and has gorgeous landscapes, wetlands and forests, deer, coyote, beaver, and over 100 bird species. But our favorite part of the park was the way the area was and is influenced by people. Its location makes it super accessible for urban dwellers, and its history as the location of the Ohio-Erie Canal means it's full of history from the development of the area.
For us, it was a perfect start because it was easy. It's free, right off the interstate, the hiking was kid-friendly and many of the major sites can be viewed from the excellent scenic railroad that runs the length of the park. There is even a candy store in Peninsula, a little town smack in the middle of (though technically not a part of) the park.
We started with a solid, super-fried lunch at Fisher's Cafe and Pub in Peninsula, then set off for the visitors' center to get the lay of the land. Cuyahoga's major hiking/walking path is the Towpath Trail, and it runs right next to the visitors' center, so we started our wandering there. A park ranger gave us a heads-up about some peregrine falcons nesting under the I-80 bridge that passes right over the trail, so we walked around there, keeping an eye on the falcons and trying to spot other birds.
We were definitely at Cuyahoga in the off-season; in the late spring, summer, and fall, there are all kinds of activities: a farmers' market, farms to visit, outdoor concerts, catered meals on the train, etc. And I imagine the scenery of the park gets really stunning with wildflowers and changing leaves in other seasons. But we actually really enjoyed the early spring atmosphere. The park was quiet, the birds were active, the waterfalls were enormous, and the bare trees were like sculptures. There's also something wonderful about spending time outside right when things are starting to come back to life.
We ran around at Brandywine Falls during sunset and it was gorgeous. It had been raining throughout the week, so the falls were raging. The ranger said it was about as big as the falls get during the year.
One of our favorite things was hiking the 2.2-mile Ledges trail. The rain made the colors vibrant, everything smelled amazing, Margi took a little pack-nap, Graham was a champion, and the mossy rock formations were beautiful.
On our hike, we came across these guys driving RC cars around the rocks. We stopped to talk and found out they all met on a Facebook group and they get together here about once a week to play around. Talking to them was, weirdly, sort of revelatory for David and I. I guess we normally think of the parks as being full of sort of crunchy, hike-y, sporty, outdoorsy people. And here we realized that, obviously, the parks are for everyone and are used by everyone and have something very crucial to offer anyone who takes advantage of them. Maybe the stereotype of the typical park-goer is unique to David and I, but I think it might be a pretty common perception, and I wonder if changing that, even for just a few (LAWMAKERS, for instance), could change the way we conceive of the necessity of protected public lands.
We boarded the Scenic Railroad in Peninsula and rode to the Canal Exploration Center. On the way, we learned lots of interesting tidbits about the park from the volunteer train guides, rode past marshes and fields, and saw a nesting bald eagle. (One of the tidbits we learned: a while back, park rangers found an eagles' nest that had fallen out of a tree. Since they generally leave the nests alone, they were excited to have this one at their feet to study. They were wondering, for example, what the parks' eagles generally ate. The first thing they discovered was 12 cat collars [and our guide was quick to point out, that was just the ones wearing collars.])
One of our favorite moments from the park was talking to one of our train guides as we walked to the Canal Exploration Center about his life and his years volunteering at the park. He told us that when the park was converted to a National Recreation Area, there were lots of people living inside, so the government offered them varying amounts of money for leaving their houses immediately or in a specified number of years. Once the homes were vacated, the NPS basically just left them to go back to nature. You can still find old foundations and remains of houses throughout the park, in areas that otherwise seem like untouched nature.
We were also inspired by our guide friend because he retired super young after making a lot of money as a computer engineer in Cleveland, bought a small house, and spends his time volunteering and hanging out with his wife. His goal is to spend more years retired than he spent working and he's three years away from achieving it. Somehow we just encountered the coolest and most interesting people in Cuyahoga Valley.
For its size, its proximity to the city, and its general lack of the epic wildness I usually associate with National Parks, Cuyahoga Valley is sort of a strange little anomaly of a park, but many of the reasons it's different were reasons we loved it. There's something particularly special about a park that can be accessed and enjoyed so frequently by so many people. Plus . . . birds! Forests! Mossy rocks! And I haven't been to a better-smelling place in a loooooong time. Two thumbs up for this one.