My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be
– From “My November Guest”, by Robert Frost
The wind blew coldly from the north and passed through the branches above, rattling them about and echoing through the forest like distant drums; a harbinger of winter, unseen but forever marching forward just over the horizon. I pulled my jacket collar around my neck and pondered how strange this autumn had been. The foliage was late this year. Planning for a crisp mid-October trip, I waited and watched for an extra three weeks until the leaves began to change in earnest. The wait, however, proved worthwhile as dreary November weather kept the I-77 traffic around the Akron-Canton area relatively uncongested, especially for a Saturday. Sometimes the gray and bitter November shows its own unique virtues.
Every hiker knows that there is a brief period of time toward the end of the warm season, before the first significant snowfall, where leaves die and the trees come to life in funerary hues of gold and red. My destination, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, boasts some of the best views of fall foliage in Ohio. As a national park, Cuyahoga Valley cannot be compared to the majesty of Yosemite and Yellowstone, the breadth of The Grand Canyon or the Martian otherness of The Badlands, but it is uniquely important in its own right – historically significant, naturally wondrous, and unequivocally Ohioan. The park was established in October of 2000 but the land itself can trace its relationship with human occupants back over 10,000 years.
To early inhabitants, the Cuyahoga (meaning “crooked river”) was an anchor which provided drinking water, transportation and a reliable area for hunting and fishing. When the influx of European settlers crept westward into the land south and east of Lake Erie, they desperately wished to connect the Great Lakes with the Ohio River. Thus was born the groundwork for the Ohio & Erie Canal. The wish for such a canal first began to stir in the 1780s, not even ten years removed from the American Revolution. After nearly fifty years of planning and politicking, construction of the canal began in 1825. By 1832 the canal was completed, providing a trade route beginning near Chillicothe and ending at Lake Erie by way of the Cuyahoga Valley. The canal, and by extension the state of Ohio, prospered between 1832 and approximately 1860. Unfortunately, industrialism is a rapidly-growing beast and by the 1870s the economic strain of the American Civil War and the ever-increasing usage of railroads left the canal unable to support itself on trade alone. By 1913, 81 years after completion, transport along the Ohio & Erie Canal ended for good, leaving the rapidly deteriorating system an industrial relic.
The Cuyahoga Valley itself began to move from industry to conservation in the 1870s as the lush area allowed an escape from the ever-increasingly hustle and bustle of both Cleveland and Akron. By the early-mid 20th century, areas in and around Cuyahoga Valley became designated as part of the Cleveland Metroparks initiative. Unfortunately, the designation of parkland does not always equate to conservation, as by the 1960s the Cuyahoga River was one of the most polluted in the country with no less than thirteen fires being reported occurring on the river, the most destructive of which occurring in 1952. By 1969, after another burning of the river and increased national scrutiny, the United States Government under Richard Nixon created The Environmental Protection Agency and passed The Clean Water Act, curbing pollution and lessening the impact of industry across the entire country. The Cuyahoga River recovered over the next several decades and is substantially cleaner now than it was before.
The Cuyahoga Valley National park was established in October of 2000 and hosts over two million visitors every year. The park features the Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail, which is a 21-mile path that traverses the length of the park, following the route of the old Ohio & Erie Canal. This path crisscrosses other trails, including the state-spanning Buckeye Trail. The trail can be hiked, biked, or, for those wanting a more luxurious tour of the park, toured via train. There are many natural attractions around the park, including Brandywine Falls, the second tallest waterfall in the state. For bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts, the park is home to a wide variety of animals including beaver, fox, coyote, heron, peregrine falcons, and many others. For those who aren’t as into the outdoors, the area around the park houses shops, restaurants, and the Blossom Music Center and its many concerts and festivals.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park has a history as colorful as its foliage and is one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse parks in the entire state of Ohio, rivaling even the prehistoric beauty of Hocking Hills. I found the park impressive, even in the cold and muddy November, and I recommend it no matter the season. The US National Park System is top notch and Cuyahoga Valley is no exception. So the next time you find yourself heading up I-77 toward Cleveland, do yourself a favor and take a detour north of Akron. You’ll be glad you did.