A nice ride for Father’s Day at Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Last year we spent Father’s Day in Acadia National Park where we hiked and I got to eat a lot of lobster. This year we decided to take a ride…a ride to Cuyahoga Valley National Park for…a ride…and no lobster.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is known for something that is not very common in the National Park Service system of parks…its towpath. That towpath makes for some special experiences that you won’t find in many other places. There’s the “bike and hike” where people hike on the trails and bike on the towpath…and then there is the real unique activity – the “bike and ride” where people can bike on the towpath in one direction and then take a scenic ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad back in the other direction.
Oh, yeah, what is a “towpath?” Well…a towpath is a path along or beside a river, creek, or canal that was originally used as a pathway for horses or mules pulling barges with passengers or goods.
This towpath is the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail where from 1827 to 1913 mules pulled canal boats up and down the Ohio and Erie Canal. The trail pretty much follows that exact path, and there are still the canal “locks” that remain along the way.
The towpath is currently 90 miles long from its northernmost point in downtown Cleveland to its southernmost point in New Philadelphia…and will be 101 miles when finally completed.
We had traveled multiple times, a nine-hour drive, to visit Erin at Ohio University in Athens. Once we even drove back AND forth in the same day – 18 hours – to bring her and Ziggy back to school. So the seven-hour drive for a quick getaway didn’t seem that daunting. We hadn’t previously gone to Cuyahoga when visiting Erin because it’s not close to Athens. But, then neither is where we live in the eastern part of New Jersey. But the Park is basically a straight shoot on Interstate 80 from Northern New Jersey and all the way through the entire State of Pennsylvania, right to the Park where it actually bisects the Park…well it goes over it.
Erin lamented over the boring ride on the interstate while driving from Milwaukee out to Utah…a lot of nothing. Well I-80 isn’t exactly a thrill, and except for a few areas, very few, there isn’t much to find off the exits. There ARE a number of places where you are obviously driving through mountains…it’s like that along the route in New Jersey. But as we got into the western part of Pennsylvania, we crossed expansions that were really high up. And at one point – about 112 miles east of the Pennsylvania/Ohio border – we came across a sign that said the elevation was 2,250 feet, the highest point on I-80 east of the Mississippi River.
We got to the area late Saturday and we were surprised to see very little, in fact, nothing promoting the Park or indicating that we were even close. We actually arrived to see what appeared to be a desolate area along the highway…nothing much around.
We eventually found the Park entrance…well I don’t know if it IS an ”entrance”…because there really IS no “entrance” as there are none of the usual booths to buy a ticket, or present your National Park Service membership.
We took a little time to drive around…got the lay of the land…but we still had to get some accommodations for the night.
We were really hoping to get a roadside motel but the few places we saw were not the kind of places we were hoping for…rather…they appeared to be more along the lines of the “hourly rate” motels or, on the other end of the spectrum, long stay…REALLY long stay…places. Just not the kind of places that make you feel nostalgic…more like they make you feel skeeved.
There happened to be a La Quinta Inn (operated by Wyndham) right near where we found the roadway into the Park, in Macedonia. The clerk said we could have the last room available for the two nights and offered us a discount knocking $25 off the rate. But he said because of a computer issue, he could only run my card for the first night, to come back in the morning after breakfast and he would run my card for the second night.
The place looked a bit rundown, there were stains all over the floor, all over the carpeting…there were scrapes on the wall, torn wallpaper, and the dresser in the room was all broken up…the veneer was peeling off of it like there had been a flood. But what the hell…it wasn’t a sleazy hotel and we got a discount, right?
We checked in and quickly ran across the street for dinner at place called Taco Mexicanos. We love Mexican food and have been to many places. And this place…was not very good. The food was blech and the margarita tasted like poison. It was awful. But there was always breakfast in the morning and it was going to be free. Free is good and always makes it just a tad better.
We got up early with a plan to get a lot in since we were on limited time. The breakfast, while FREE, was NOT good and there was very little to choose from. There weren’t even just plain eggs…only cheese omelets. Not doing well in the food department so far. We had to get moving but I had to see the clerk first…and it turned out it was the same guy who checked us in the night before. Did he sleep there?
He had told me the night before that he just had to run my card as a second transaction. I didn’t understand that but I let it go as what he described as a computer glitch. But…he changed his story…and now he was telling me that I had to pack everything up and leave the room I was in to go into another room because the room I was in was already booked for someone else.
When I pushed back, he said that if I could wait 30 minutes, he would have another room cleaned for me to move into. First, I still would have to pack everything up. Second, people aren’t checking out until, maybe, 11 and that’s not 30 minutes, that’s three HOURS! He kept insisting that I had to change rooms and, after Melissa and I caucused off to the side, I told him that there was no way I was moving to a different room. We didn’t want to waste any time so we quickly packed our things, threw it all back in the car, and started our day.
The Brandywine Falls Trail which is actually called the Brandywine Gorge Loop is a 1.5 mile loop that circles a deep ravine carved by Brandywine Creek. But you really don’t have to do the loop to get to the main attraction which is the Brandywine Falls. There is a “boardwalk” that is part of the loop that leads to stairs that takes visitors to two observation “decks” where you can take some nice pictures. But going straight to the Falls without the “hike” takes all the fun out of it, right?
The trail, or loop as it is referred to, is partly a boardwalk, partly on the side of the main road, partly bordering the nearby bed and breakfast property, partly a wooded path with some raised tree roots, and partly the rock beds along the creek. It’s partly a little bit of everything. It was an easy, family and kid-friendly trail with some nice views of the 60-foot Falls, and the water flowing in the creek.
What wasn’t so easy were all the steps that, once you went down, you had to climb back up. The loop had over 40 steps that you had to climb if you went counter-clockwise (go clockwise to avoid the up part) and over 60 steps to climb back from the observation deck in at the lower part of the Falls.
After seeing the Falls from the higher observation deck along the loop, we went back to take the steps down to the lower observation deck to take some pictures. The Brandywine Falls is presented as the “feature” of this National Park. We love waterfalls and we have seen a lot of spectacular falls in other parks. Brandywine Falls was nice…worth the short hike…and worth climbing the stairs. But it wouldn’t be the site that created that “wow” moment.
The thing we just HAD to do was the bike and ride. I mean, where else can you do that? After all, I did schlep the bikes over 400 miles. But everything I had read made it unclear as to what it entailed…where do you start…where do you finish…where do you pick up the train…HOW do you get the train…what do they do with your bikes?
We went to the visitor center at Boston Mills. And it was there that a Park Ranger explained to us how the Scenic Train runs, what the schedule is, and how you flag down the train when you want to board at one of the stations along the way. There are a few “main stations” where you can board and disembark, however, there are also some stations that are not usual stops and you have to literally flag down the train by waving both arms in the air to get the train to stop for you. We also discovered that the train was temporarily not running north of Boston Mills, and was only running south beginning at Peninsula, a small town about 2.5 miles down the road.
After looking at the stops along the route, we decided to unload the bikes and leave the car at the Boston Mills Visitor Center, and ride the 2.5 miles to Peninsula, stop, get lunch, and then ride another four miles on to Indigo Lake the next stop along the route.
The towpath was a nice, level, scenic ride and changed landscape along the way. The towpath is VERY popular and there was a LOT of traffic in both directions. There are a few bike rental companies and a lot of people obviously took advantage of the services. I have to say that the riders were very courteous and were very communicative and knowledgeable about the rules of the road. I have biked the Henry Hudson Trail, and others, in New Jersey and the majority of the time I find the riders being not only completely unaware, but downright reckless. It was the complete opposite on the towpath here.
While we were riding along the creek on the one side, there was a bog or swamp for a good part on the other side with a LOT of turtles and frogs in it, and snakes slithering from it…as I ran over one that I didn’t see quite soon enough.
It was a nice ride. But after doing a hike already in the morning, and the temperature rising to 85 degrees, the heat was…well…it was hot. Reminder: Melissa doesn’t like the heat.
We rode what turned out to be 2.8 miles to Peninsula and we needed to refill our water bottles and get something to eat. As it turns out, there was a place that a lot of people talk about – the Winking Lizard –was right there but there was a 45-minute wait and it was “bar” food. We went across the way and we found Fisher’s Café & Pub – another “bar” but they had a really good menu with some nice choices for both food and local beers.
After lunch we headed back on the towpath for the next four-mile part of the ride. It was hot…and sticky. And, again, reminder: Melissa doesn’t like the heat. And I am calculating that even when we FINISH THESE FOUR MILES…and take the train back to Peninsula…we will still have to ride the 2.8 miles BACK TO THE CAR. And…AND…as we hadn’t ridden our bikes in a while…our seats (asses) were not used to riding and we were both kinda…KINDA…hurting?
When we actually got to the station at Indigo Lake…well…I went to put my hand on Melissa’s shoulder….”Don’t touch me…I’m hot.”
Where the HELL IS that train? We actually had to wait about 20 minutes for the train to arrive at Indigo Lake. I waved it down, albeit wrong, I admit that, because I only waved one hand instead of two. The people working on the train took our bikes from us and loaded them onto a freight car and we hopped on a passenger car and paid $5 each for the ride back to Peninsula. It really was like taking a step back in time. And we probably would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t so hot, sticky, and irritated, and seeing some of the area that we hadn’t already seen from our bikes.
When we got back to Peninsula, we stopped in at the NPS store and got some locally made ice cream, as we both really needed something cold before heading back on the towpath to ride back to the car.
By the time we got back to the car at Boston Mills, we rode over 10 miles…something that normally would be nothing for us to do, but after a hike, the heat, not riding for a while, we were feeling it.
We were hungry for dinner, and we needed to wash up, but we first had to find another place to stay. When in doubt, the old standby – the Hampton Inn. We found one three miles away in Stow, and it turned out to be, believe it or not, $40 LESS than the La Quinta Inn and it was pristine.
We went directly across the way for a quick dinner at a place called Rockne’s which looked like an Applebee’s or a TGI Friday’s…but with a more diverse menu. Right next door, we found a great place for breakfast too – Garrett’s Mill Diner – a great place with some very cool offerings on the menu and FREE COFFEE TO GO! Definitely a place for locals and the food is really good and the prices very reasonable.
We wanted to get in one more hike before we left for home on Monday. There were two other falls that we were told about – Blue Hen Falls and Buttermilk Falls. But thanks to Will who I encountered as a member of a Facebook group…we instead made our way to the Ledges Trail on his recommendation.
Turned out that it was one of the most amazing trails we have trekked. We love waterfalls, but this was amazing.
There are all kinds of rock formations that create walls, alcoves, and, well, ledges. How did these rock formations…well…form? It was like being in a lost world…a sci-fi movie…it didn’t seem real. The landscape changed along the trail so there was always something different, something new. Even the way the rocks appeared – some with obvious water or moisture erosion, some with green moss, some with trees…TREES…with roots growing on and around the rocks. There is even an area that appears almost to be a separate almost room…that is cold…hence…it is called the Ice Box.
The trail loop is listed as 1.75 miles. However, it’s a bit deceiving because it’s a ½ mile walk from the parking lot to get TO the loop and BACK from the loop. So tack on an additional mile or so. And when someone is hot…and reminder…Melissa doesn’t like the heat…well…climbing to the lookout from the path wasn’t the best idea.
“Well…let’s go to the lookout! And it had better be fucking breathtaking!”
Actually…it WASN’T breathtaking…the view was the tops of trees off in the distance. The trek along the path…the Ledges Trail…THAT was breathtaking…and the highlight and truly “don’t miss” of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Thank you, Will! All in all, it made for a nice Father’s Day ride.