Traveling north from West Virginia, we crossed the Ohio River and proceeded along the wildflower-studded highway to the Cleveland area. We stopped in at Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Boston Store Visitor Center to watch the park film and talk to a ranger about suggested hikes for our multi-day stay in the area. This park celebrates the Ohio and Erie Canal built in the 1880s, the people who settled and farmed here, and the impetus for Earth Day after the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. Scattered throughout the park are historic sites of people and places in existence here before the park’s creation in 1974 (as a national recreation area, at least; it didn’t become a full-fledged national park until 2000). Even today, several working farms exist in the park, raising crops and selling their sustainably grown products.
We arrived on Father’s Day, a delightfully warm Sunday that brought out locals walking and cycling on the canal towpath, which stretches some 20 miles through the park and then some to connect Cleveland to Akron. And the park wasn’t just buzzing with people. At one picnic area, we had to shout over the sounds of the cicadas that zipped from place to place and landed in our hair and on our picnic table. This year being the hatching year in a 17-year cycle, the cicada population had exploded.
In the evening we went to the Happy Days Lodge for a chamber music concert performed by the Cuyahoga Valley Chamber Players and presented by the nonprofit Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The concert took place in the Great Hall, a timber and sandstone building constructed in 1938-39 by the Civilian Conservation Corps for a children’s camp. We loved the setting and relished the opportunity to do something that up to this point we had sorely missed during Project 100 — attending a live music performance. The musicians, especially flautists Jane Berkner and violinist Linda Nagy Johnston, were top-notch.
The next day we packed in three hikes. First we took a ranger-guided walk along the towpath from the Ira Trailhead to the Beaver Marsh. Although we didn’t spy the beavers themselves, we could see where they had dammed a stretch of the canal to create an open-water pond. Each year the beavers continue their work creating habitat not only for themselves but for otters, muskrats, frogs, turtles and a host of birds.
We continued north on the towpath past a few of the farms, seeing a great number of frogs and turtles as well as blackberry bushes that were just starting to fruit out. The berries hadn’t yet ripened, but the ranger had mentioned that here — as in Assateague National Seashore with crabs and clams — the National Park Service allows visitors to collect fruits and nuts for personal consumption. Even on a weekday, many people were out jogging and biking the wooded towpath through the countryside.
Our next stop was the Ledges Trail. The looping walk takes in the Ritchie Ledges, remnants of sand and pebble sediments that formed the Sharon Conglomerate, which then eroded into rock shelves, overhangs and caves. One of those, the Ice Box Cave, is closed to public access to help stop the spread of White-nose Syndrome in the local bat population. Even with the cave off-limits, we loved hiking through the forested trail, the rock formations and the boulders. Here, as in New England, the retreat of glaciers 14,000 years ago left enormous rocks strewn upon the landscape.
We ended the day with a picnic and hike at Brandywine Falls. We followed the Gorge Trail that led down to the creek at the bottom of the 65-foot falls. The bridge crossing over the creek downstream had collapsed, so in order to loop back around we had to pick our way through the thick woods to find a stream crossing. I tried my best to avoid the poison ivy in the area, but Hector soon pointed out an angry red rash developing above my sock line. It figures. On the first day of this trip warm enough to wear shorts (since Miami back in March), I had to run into poison ivy. Back to pants for me!
On another day we went to the Kendall Lake area of the park to hike several loop trails — Cross-Country, Lake and Salt Run. They undulated through shady forest punctuated by an occasional sunny meadow. The cicadas drowned out the sounds of any birds that might have been calling, and the ground was pockmarked with the holes from which the cicadas had emerged after their 17-year sleep.
In the early evening we drove over to Howe Meadow for a free outdoor concert co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Hey Mavis, a local folk-bluegrass-Americana band that is making a name for itself on the national stage, performed until just around dusk. The weather was perfect for a picnic on the lawn. People of all ages — from the little kids who danced and played in the open field behind the stage to elderly couples in their lawn chairs — came out to enjoy the show. Howe Meadow is just one of numerous venues throughout the park for music, theatre and art events. Lucky Clevelanders (and Akronites) have such a fabulous national park in their backyard!
They are also lucky to have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We spent an entire day at this veritable temple to the gods of music, relishing the excellent exhibits on the history and evolution of rock and its various subgenres. We loved the collections of clothing, guitars, sheet music and other fascinating memorabilia from some of the biggest names in rock and roll. Short videos on performers inducted into the Hall of Fame from 1986 to 2016 play throughout the museum, and a special feature on the long-running TV show American Bandstand was well worth viewing.
When five o’clock rolled around and the security guard told us it was time to leave, we kicked ourselves for not going on a Wednesday when it stays open until 9 p.m. There were too many fascinating facts and anecdotes to learn — as well as musicians’ personal effects to see — in just one day.
Afterward we walked around the marina next to the Rock Hall to avoid rush-hour traffic. Downtown Cleveland around the Lake Erie waterfront positively crackles with cool sites worth checking out.
Next to the Rock Hall, we had great fun with the large plastic frogs, swallows, snails, wolves and meerkats that were part of a temporary art installation on the lawn outside the Great Lakes Science Center. The colorful critters were a production of the Italian art studio Cracking Art.
We drove over to the West Side neighborhood for dinner at Great Lakes Brewing Company at the recommendation of our friend Alyssa, a former local. Not only was the beer flight marvelous, the spent-grain barley soft pretzels with Stilton cheddar dip were hands-down the best soft pretzels I’ve ever had. They put the pretzels in New York’s Central Park to shame.
We had heard that the nearby West Side Market is a great place to stroll and find unique local items and ingredients for ethnic dishes. Sadly, it was closed the day of our visit, but we will return to Cleveland one day. Although our visit was brief, this small yet vibrant city impressed us immensely with its friendly people, pleasant neighborhoods, fun-loving vibe and proximity to the cultural and natural jewel that is Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This place really rocks!