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Cuyahoga in One Day

[Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Apr 13, 2019]

I woke up just before sunrise and just before my alarm. The faint light of the rising sun was making its way through my window.

I was ready to explore Cuyahoga National Park, which preserves the rural landscape along the Cuyahoga river between Cleveland and Akron. Being adjacent to two large urban areas makes Cuyahoga somewhat unique, which explained why I was seeing homes right outside and sometimes inside the park boundary on my drive in yesterday. Although the park is managed by the National Park Service, there are areas within that are managed as city parks or other entities. One such example as is the Towpath Trail – the 87-mile trail that connects Cleveland and Akron and runs right through Cuyahoga Valley national park.

Cuyahoga started out as a national recreation area in 1974 and was designated a national park in 2000. It is the only national park to start out as a recreation area. The name comes from the Iroquis tribes and is believed to mean “crooked water.”

I had picked my bed and breakfast partly due to its proximity to Brandywine Falls, one of the major attractions in the park. The falls were literally across the inn, and a 1.3-mile loop trail allowed for an easy stroll around the gorge. Since breakfast was not served till 9 am, I had plenty of time to explore the trail.

Since I approached from the inn and not from the parking area on the other side of the falls, the first thing I saw was the top of the falls, which was somewhat unique. I am used to hiking up to the base of falls, not hiking down from the top. From the top of the falls, I could see the parking area and the viewing platform for the falls.

Since it was still early in the morning, I saw only a couple of people on my way down to the viewing platform. I realized that the falls face west, which meant that the rising sun to the east was right behind them, making pictures somewhat difficult. I still managed to take a few good ones, I think! The rocks at the base of the falls were formed 300 to 400 million years ago. Brandywine creek and its “bridal veil” cascade began about 10,000 years ago.

Reading the placards along the way, I finally learned a little bit about the history of this area. Brandywine had actually been bustling village in the mid 19th century, A man named George Wallace built a sawmill here, harnessing the power of the river. He transferred the property to his son, James Wallace, who built the house that is now the Inn at Brandywine Falls in 1848. Other than the inn, only a few hidden foundations like this one remain of the village of Brandywine.

Cinder block ruins from the last industry in Brandywine village. It was a restaurant appliances factory that burnt down in 1937.

The boardwalk leading up to the falls also made for excellent pictures. It reminded me of the boardwalk at Congaree National Park, which I visited last year.

Once I left the falls area, I set out to complete the gorge loop trail. It was a pleasant walk and I had it all to myself.

Back at the inn, I enjoyed some coffee in the kitchen. The other guests were also up and in the kitchen. There was a couple from California and a mom/daughter duo from Illinois. Meeting other travelers at B&Bs is part of the fun! We ate in the dining room, where Katie told us that the portrait hanging on one of the walls was of the aforementioned James Wallace, the guy who built this house. We were admiring the buffet cabinet she used to serve breakfast, and it turned out she had found it all the way in England!

I checked out a little after 10, and headed for the other popular trail in the park – Ledges Trail.

The beginning of Ledges Trail

This 2.2-mile loop was known for three things – the Ledges Overlook, the sandstone cliffs and the Ritchie steps. The name comes from a farmer who once owned this land.
The overlook is the easiest to get to, since it’s a short walk from the parking lot. It’s a popular sunset viewing spot and a fall-leaves viewing spot in the fall, but today, on a hazy day with the sun trying to peak through the clouds, the view was not that impressive. I encountered several people here, and one of them was kind enough to take my photo. 

Continuing the loop, the trail took me down to the ledges. They were very impressive and fun to take photos of.

I did find a rock to prop my camera on, so here is another photo of me that’s not a selfie.

I was starting to encounter more people on the trail now. I also started seeing offshoots from the ledges trail and I was glad to have printed a map of this trail for reference, since I knew I wouldn’t have had a chance to go by a visitor center yet. I finally got to the Ritchie steps. They were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program that operated during the Great Depression (1933 – 1942) to provide employment for unmarried men. Their work can be found all over America’s national parks. The stones from these steps were quarried from the same ledges and fitted into a natural break in the formation.

I returned at the parking lot about an hour after I started. This gave me another hour to make it to my last stop in the park – the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad! Yes, you read that right – this park is so unique, there is even a railroad here. It is based on a track bed and rails originally laid down around 1880. Ownership eventually passed to the National Park Service, which now partners with private entities to operate the railroad. There are multiple stops along the way and multiple ways to experience the railroard – the full 3-hour excursion, a half-loop (my choice), a bike-and-ride combo (e.g., bike the towpath one way and take the train back, not available until later in April) and special wine and beer excursions. I chose the half loop because I didn’t want to sit on a train for 3 hours, then drive three hours to Detroit where I was supposed to drop off my rental car. My boarding station was in Peninsula, OH, a village of 565 people based on the 2010 census that sits right in the middle of the park.

On the way to Peninsula, I finally managed to stop by a park sign and take a photo! 

Once in Peninsula, I meandered into the gift shop next to the train depot. A very helpful lady saw me getting my national park passport stamped, and made sure to let me know I can get a special stamp on the train! That was, by far, the best part of the train. I am sure it’s nice during summer and fall, but with the barren trees right now it was underwhelming. We were passing neighborhoods and little towns, which I did not expect but now understand given the park’s location and history. Alas, it was nice to sit and relax for 90 minutes. The train went to Akron, sat there for a good 10-15 minutes, then went back to Peninsula. All I have to show for it, besides the stamp, are a few photos from the train depot and a hyperlapse of the train’s arrival.

On my way out of the area, I stopped by the Boston Store visitor center, got my last stamp, then headed for the Detroit Metro airport to drop off my rental car. The guy at the rental desk in Cleveland had offered me a toll pass, but since the difference was only going to be 10 minutes, I didn’t get it. I didn’t know this at the time, but this meant that I had to take the scenic route, skirting the south-western edge of Lake Erie as I made my way to Michigan. Once again, the universe delivered my preferred experience without me even asking – I would have picked this route even without the toll business. I went through small towns and bridges and marshes and had great views of Lake Erie for quite a few miles. It was much more interesting than the interstate.

I dropped off the car and took a 20-minute Lyft to my hotel in Ann Arbor. I am attending pre-conference training tomorrow, then have 2.5 days of sessions. I am presenting twice – once by myself and once with a co-worker. I will have opportunities to explore Ann Arbor in the evenings, so there will be more to write about.

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