Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Cleveland and Akron, Ohio is not one of the “big name” US National Parks, but it features beautiful fall colors. This post shares the best spots for autumn foliage, leaf peeping, a fabulous fall hike to a waterfall, and the current operating status of CVNP. (Updated September 23, 2020.)
Let’s start with what you need to know about modified operations at Cuyahoga Valley National Park if you’re planning on visiting for the popular fall colors season in 2020. As of September 23, Ohio has a travel advisory for visitors from states with positive testing rates of 15% or higher (right now, that’s only Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi, and Alabama) with the recommendation that they voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days.
Everyone else is free to visit Ohio and Cuyahoga Valley National Park without restriction. Currently, the only operational changes at the park are that Boston Mill Visitor Center is open with reduced capacity and hours, loop trails are one-way (clockwise direction), and physical distancing is encouraged to reduce congestion and spread. Otherwise, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is open as normal.
Cuyahoa Valley National Park is rather unassuming. There is no defining or awe-inspiring geographical feature, and although there are a few waterfalls, a railroad, and the Everett Covered Bridge in the park, there’s really nothing all that distinctive about it.
On paper, it pales in comparison to the National Parks in the American West. Or so I thought until I moved to “the American West.” You see, my first and only visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park occurred approximately two years ago, when I made a weekend trip there from Indiana.
I’ll admit that I was a bit underwhelmed at the time. Cuyahoga Valley lacks the grandeur of places like Yosemite National Park or other mountainous parks of the West–parks I longed to visit and explore at the time. Honestly, my impression at the time was that, while it had its own beauty, it was as if it was made a National Park because someone in Ohio had some pull.
However, I now find myself longing for the fall colors of the Midwest, and eager to return to Cuyahoga Valley National Park…
As for my visit, it was somewhat impulsive. I had visited Acadia National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park the two previous weeks during the peak of their leaf peeping seasons, and had great times at both of those parks.
I was thirsty for more peeping action. (That sentence is either really dirty or really dorky depending upon your perspective.) I read some reports from Cuyahoga Valley, and fall colors remained.
After work one Friday, I jumped in my car and didn’t stop until I was at Silver Springs Campground.
This was one of the only campgrounds open after mid-October, which was bizarre since Ohio has a strong leaf peeping game, and this could be prime season if they marketed themselves as such. I set up my tent in the dark, and crashed for a few hours before heading out to Beaver Marsh for sunrise.
I don’t know what I was expecting of a marsh at sunrise–perhaps a killer action shot of a beaver annihilating some trees with a fiery sky behind the voracious beast–but it was a mundane, beaver-less scene. Well, except for the sky, which was alive with color.
Once I realized that the marsh’s name was blatant false advertising (perhaps it’s BYOB?), I high-tailed it to my backup location, Everett Covered Bridge–a great spot for fall colors and the most iconic photography location in the park. I was surprised by the number of joggers, especially for this unseasonably frigid morning.
Jogging, walking, and cycling all appeared to be popular activities in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I wouldn’t exactly call the urban areas between Akron and Cleveland that abut Cuyahoga to be bustling metropolises, but it’s clear that the locals treat this their city park, of sorts.
I could see why, as the trails were nice, offering scenery that easily put other parks to shame.
During the weekend, I did plenty of walking/hiking along these trails, from the trails frequented by joggers looking to stay fit to those used by hikers in search of tranquil spots.
These led me to various spots within the park, from the paths along the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad to the “secret” path that led back to Buttermilk Falls, my favorite area of the park for its solitude. I was there for over an hour and never saw anyone else.
I also made my way to other, easier to find spots for which Cuyahoga Valley National Park is known, such as Blue Hen Falls and Brandywine Falls, just to name a couple of places.
In retrospect, the hikes out to these waterfalls rank among the best fall colors experiences I’ve ever had. While they may not offer a single ‘stunning’ scene, it’s a scenario where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
In the end, no place should simply be reduced to its highlight reel of top spots, and when viewed as a whole, Cuyahoga National Park is actually a charming and beautiful park. It may not have iconic peaks, majestic wildlife, or a jagged coastline, but it does have its own unique offerings. This is especially true in fall, when the leaves turn a spectrum of different colors, and the hiking trails around the park are awash with these colors.
That’s the thing about the National Parks–they all bring something special to the table, and that isn’t always going to be epic in nature. Sometimes, it’s “simply” a breeding site for birds once on the verge of distinction, like Pinnacles National Park.
Other times, it’s a respite from the cities of the Midwest, that showcases the natural beauty of those areas of the country. The National Parks aren’t solely highlight reels of the geography of the United States. They also offer a survey of the natural diversity that makes this country so great. It took me a while to realize that, but I finally did, and in the process, I grew a greater appreciation for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Now, I yearn for a chance to get back to my roots in the Midwest, and to revisit this National Park that I once dismissed, as there’s unquestionable beauty in Cuyahoga, even if it doesn’t manifest itself in iconic mountains. Frankly, between the hikes, waterfalls, and covered bridge, this is one of the most photogenic fall colors spots in the Midwest. I hope this post has inspired those of you visiting Ohio to take the opportunity to appreciate what Cuyahoga Valley National Park has to offer.
Are you a fan of Cuyahoga Valley National Park? If so, where are your favorite places and things to do in CVNP? Do you agree that each National Park brings something special to the table, or was I right in my initial assessment? Any questions? Share any thoughts you have in the comments!