By SARAH JAQUAY
“Think of it [Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP)] as the pendant on our Emerald Necklace,” I explained to an author visiting the National Park that it might be described as Cleveland’s backyard or Akron’s front yard. And it wasn’t just any author.
It was Dan Kaercher, former editor-in-chief of “Midwest Living Magazine.” He was touring Ohio parks to research one of his three books about the Midwest, “Parklands of the Midwest: Celebrating the Natural Wonders of America’s Heartland.”
I was trying to explain the difference between the CVNP and Metroparks systems run by local counties. “Emerald Necklace” is a nickname bestowed on many municipal park systems designed by Frederick Law Olmsted or his son in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–most notably Boston’s. The Metroparks in Cuyahoga County are often referred to as Cleveland’s Emerald Necklace. The CVNP and Metroparks are both wonderful amenities, but they play vastly different positions. As anyone who’s hiked the CVNP’s Ledges Trail knows, the woodland views over the gaping Cuyahoga Valley and enormous limestone formations along the route are a totally different experience than heading to a neighborhood park with trails, picnic shelters and grills, plus perhaps even some basketball courts. In these pandemic times venturing beyond the hearth is a risk. So calculate carefully: If you want a nearby destination that feels like a complete departure from the usual landscape, spend some time in the CVNP.
“It’s 33,000 acres that are connected. So once you’re in, you feel far away from cities,” says Deb Yandala, CEO of the Conservancy for CVNP. She also notes the CVNP offers walking, hiking and biking trails for all levels of fitness. Even those trying to work off the “quarantine 15” can find places they won’t over extend such as the Towpath Trail–a popular, flat trail for walkers and bicyclists that’s part of the historic route of the Ohio & Erie Canal–the same path mules walked to tow canal boats loaded with goods and passengers in the 19th century. Indeed, President James Garfield once worked as a “mule skinner” — someone who drove a mule wagon along the Ohio & Erie Canal.
My favorite Towpath segment is located near the charming town of Peninsula surrounded by the CVNP. I usually rent a bike at Century Cycles (open for rentals again) and head south to be sheltered by a canopy of deciduous trees and see the Cuyahoga River at its most lovely, un-commercial part. I often stop at Szalay’s Farm & Market to buy a treat. Most of their produce isn’t local, but there are baked goods and other delights. The CVNP’s farmers market, Countryside Farmers’ Market at Howe Meadow, offers plenty of local produce and reopened on June 27.
Then I forge on to Beaver Marsh in a futile attempt to knock off a bucket list item: sighting beavers in the wild. It’s never happened but I know where they live. I’ve seen eagles, hawks and lots of deer. That was my pre-virus routine. Now I’ll only hike my favorite trails (Brandywine Falls and the Ledges) early or late on a weekday to avoid crowds. “There are lesser known trails such as Oak Hill, Tree Farm Trail and the Buckeye Trail for avid hikers,” Yandala explains. She’s partial to Oak Hill. If you’ve never been to the Park, Yandala suggests starting out at the new Boston Mills Visitors Center (kitty-corner from the ski area.) “Grab a map and get advice from a ranger about the best trails to hike.” Although the virus has cancelled ranger talks and group hikes this summer, Yandala says more rangers are circulating throughout the CVNP to answer newcomers’ questions. One of the main COVID-19 changes she wants visitors to be aware of is: Bring your own water; the water fountains are shut off and many restrooms are closed. Porta-Potties are available.
Food and amenities are also available near and inside the park. The Winking Lizard and Fisher’s Pub in Peninsula are open and offer patio seating and carry-out. Plus there are a number of picnic tables outside the CVNP’s Peninsula store, Trail Mix, where visitors can sample snacks from the store or enjoy packed lunches they’ve brought. If you’re an omnivore, order Fisher’s pub burger with eggplant fries (considered a vegetable) with a locally made craft beer at the end of one of your days exploring the Park.
Lodging in the CVNP has always been tricky. Most overnight stays are for groups at Stanford House and at the Environmental Education Center. Both are currently closed. There is, however, a charming bed & breakfast welcoming guests. The Inn at Brandywine Falls offers four rooms in the main house and two carriage suites with their own entrances in a converted barn. Owner Katie Hoye says Inn staff is serving breakfast (wearing masks and gloves) in the dining room, library and on the front porch to observe social distancing rules. Breakfast can also be delivered to your room. Hoye notes the Inn is following all of the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s “Safe Stay” guidelines.
So if you want a complete (and convenient) respite from the quotidian: Reserve a night or two at the Inn at Brandywine Falls. Pack your water bottles and take a bike or rent one. Then peddle or hike as much of the pendant on our Emerald Necklace, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as possible – preferably mid-week.
See www.cvnp.org for more information.