Cuyahoga Valley is one of our park system’s most underrated National Parks. Though the trails, ski area, and river get plenty of traffic, the park receives underwhelming reviews simply because of its location.
Nestled just 20 miles south of Cleveland, this Ohio National Park site offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Though close to urban and metropolitan areas, solitude is plentiful in Cuyahoga Valley. From skiing and hiking to biking and train riding, this National Park is an excellent escape from the city and shouldn’t be missed.
In this complete guide to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I’ll share the top hikes, where to stay, when to go, the best things to do, and more!
Complete Guide to Exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park
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Quick Facts About Cuyahoga Valley
- Location: Ohio, USA
- Established: 1974 (National Recreation Area); 2000 (National Park)
- Size: 32,950 acres
- Annual Visitors: 2,860,059 (2023)
- Fee: FREE
- Visitor Center: Boston Mill
Fun Facts About Cuyahoga Valley
This park is home to over 900 species of plants.
“Cuyahoga” is a Native American word meaning “crooked river.”
The Cuyahoga River runs for 85 miles and feeds into Lake Erie.
Brandywine Falls, located in the park, is Ohio’s tallest waterfall: 65 feet tall!
The lowest elevation in the park is 590 feet at Cuyahoga River. The highest elevation is 1,164 feet at Brush Road.
Top Hikes in Cuyahoga Valley
The five trail areas of Cuyahoga Valley National Park are Ledges, Brandywine Falls, Everett, Kendall Lake, and Wetmore. Each area contains a series of trails while some trails are stand-alone and aren’t in a designated section.
Furthermore, there are metro parks sprinkled within the park’s boundaries, each housing its own trail system. Refer to the individual area maps to see what trails are in which section of the park.
The distance from the north end of the park to the south end is roughly 20 miles, so it wouldn’t be impossible to hike trails in different sections all in one single day.
Brandywine Gorge Loop
- Distance: 1.5 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation Gain: 160 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
This 1.5-mile trail begins at the Brandywine Falls Trailhead. The path begins in the direction of the falls and then veers to the left before the popular boardwalk. If you take the boardwalk, you will be going to the falls overlook, which is the main attraction for many tourists. The loop takes you down into the gorge, over a creek, and back up the other side. You will eventually make your way onto the boardwalk to get a vantage-point view of the falls.
If you want to hike longer and avoid the crowds at Brandywine Falls Trailhead, consider beginning your hike in the Boston village by parking at Boston Mill Visitor Center, Boston Trailhead, or Stanford Trailhead. From the Boston Mill Visitor Center, you’re looking at a roundtrip hike of 5.7 miles. From the Boston Trailhead, your roundtrip hike will be about 5.5 miles. From the Stanford Trailhead, your hike will be about 3.8 miles; the Stanford Trail will eventually meet up with the Brandywine Gorge Loop.
Blue Hen Falls (Optional: Add Buttermilk Falls)
- Distance: 2.4 miles (Blue Hen Falls only)
- Type of Trail: Out & back
- Elevation Gain: 508 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
The Blue Hen Falls and Buttermilk Falls Trail is 3.9 miles, out & back. I use the term “trail” loosely for the Buttermilk Falls portion since it is not technically an NPS-constructed trail. The trail to Blue Hen Falls – an official NPS trail – is about a mile.
Many people don’t find this waterfall to be very impressive, so over the years, visitors began venturing beyond the trail limits and eventually discovered another waterfall, Buttermilk Falls. Once you reach the end of the trail at Blue Hen Falls – there will, quite literally, be a sign that says “end of trail” – continue to hike about a half-mile and over three creek crossings until you reach Buttermilk Falls.
Since so many people have recently trampled past Blue Hen with the intention of seeing Buttermilk, a slightly worn “path” has been made naturally by excessive foot traffic. The path dumps you off at the top of Buttermilk Falls; the view is much more impressive from the base of the falls, but it is quite difficult to get to due to the slippery rocks. Proceed with caution.
PLEASE NOTE: The trail to Buttermilk Falls isn’t an official NPS path, and the land is owned by Boston Mills Ski Area. At the moment, the owners don’t seem to mind that hikers are venturing to this waterfall, and they haven’t posted any “No Trespassing” signs. If signs are eventually posted, or if you are told to exit the premises, please follow the rules. As always, respect the trails no matter who owns them.
- Distance: 2.3 miles
- Type of Trail: Loop
- Elevation Gain: 209
- Difficulty: Moderate
The Ledges, located in the southeast section of Cuyahoga Valley, is probably my favorite area in the park. Vibrant green moss clings to the damp rock, the air cools in the cave-like slots, and the rocky unpaved path makes scrambling through the ledges a true adventure.
The 2.3-mile Ledges Trail circles a plateau of moss-ridden rock formations. You will squeeze in between tight rocks, cross wobbly bridges, descend stony, mismatched steps, and take in sweeping views at the valley overlook.
Where to Stay in Cuyahoga Valley
Lodging (Inside of the Park)
Lodging (Outside of the Park)
Camping and overnight car camp stays are prohibited inside the park. Consider camping outside of the park or lodging within the park.
Getting Around Cuyahoga Valley
The park acreage is divided between federal, non-federal, public, and private land, so be sure to always watch for marked road and trail signs. Stay inside the park boundaries and don’t venture onto private property.
Cars, bikes, and pedestrians are all allowed to enter the park at no charge. Train rides are available for a fee from Rockside Station to Akron.
→ READ NEXT: Ohio Road Trip: 8 Stops For Outdoor Adventure 🚗
When to Visit Cuyahoga Valley
Since this park is free and close to metropolitan areas, Cuyahoga Valley sees some of the highest traffic of any National Park site in the country. To avoid thick crowds, visit between November and April. October is a popular month for leaf peeping, and May through August are popular for waterfall hikes and train rides. Hiking in winter pretty much guarantees that you will see fewer people.
If you are planning a visit in the summer months, avoid congested areas like Brandywine Boardwalk and consider hiking down to the quieter Brandywine Gorge area. The metropolitan sections of the park, such as Viaduct Park, Bedford Reservation, and Brecksville Reservation, are also worth a visit if you want to avoid crowds.
Best Things to Do in Cuyahoga Valley
Aside from hiking (you can refer to the best trails above ⬆️), here are the best things to do in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Ride the Train Through the Valley
The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad runs from Rockside Station to Akron, passing by historic and scenic sites along the way. Take a round-trip ride or hike or bike the Towpath and use the train to take you back to your starting point. The schedule varies by season so be sure to go online before planning your adventure. Hop on board for a relaxing and enjoyable way to see the park as it weaves through the Cuyahoga Valley and along the Cuyahoga River!
Bike the Ohio and Erie Towpath Trail
Rent a bike or bring your own and cycle the historic trail! This Ohio and Erie Canal route is the same path that mules walked to tow canal boats loaded with goods and passengers. The trail makes connections with various natural and historic sites as well as the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The Cuyahoga Valley section of the Towpath Trail is 20 miles long but continues an additional 67 miles beyond the park and onto the Ohio and Erie Canalway.
Ski, Snowboard, or Snow Tube at the Boston Mills Ski Area
First-time skiers can learn the ropes with beginner private or semi-private lessons while experts can ride the lift and ski down the mountain in style.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly winter activity, the resort’s polar blast snow tubing offers a variety of adrenaline-pumping routes for personalized fun tailored to your adventure level. Restaurants, bars, lodging, restrooms, a ski school, and a ski and rental shop are all part of this legendary resort area. Plan your trip now!
Canoe or Kayak the Cuyahoga River
Bring your own canoe or kayak and paddle along the Cuyahoga River! 22 of its 100 miles run the length of the park from south to north. Paddle lazily past lush forests, hiking and biking trails, and quaint towns. Visit this NPS page if you want to plan a paddle; the article shares current hazards, safety tips, rules, regulations, and tips for a fun and safe river adventure!
Discover Your Next Adventure
Where to next? I’ve got some suggestions!
- Nelson-Kennedy Ledges State Park
- Hocking Hills State Park
- Ohio Road Trip
- Indiana Road Trip
- Indiana Dunes National Park
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