Cuyahoga Valley National Park: A River on Fire

The first time I heard about the Cuyahoga River was during my high school years. I was into Christian Rock music at the time and smitten with a little known band called Adam Again.

Adam Again released a song in 1992 called River On Fire that particularly captured my imagination. It was a haunting love song that repeated the phrase “Cuyahoga river on fire” several times. I loved that song and listened to the cassette tape over and over.

The next time I heard about the Cuyahoga River was while I was researching our current adventure. Daniel and I are visiting as many National Parks as possible so if course we had to stop by Cuyahoga River Valley National Park. My only point of reference for the area was the Adam Again song. I was curious to learn more about the river that caught on fire.

The Cuyahoga River in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Polluted History

The Cuyahoga River used to be so polluted that it caught on fire… not just once but 13 times. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the river became an unfortunate casualty of the manufacturing boom taking place in nearby Cleveland.

The first time the Cuyahoga River caught on fire was in 1868. More fires occurred over the years until the last fire in 1969 finally caused a public outcry. The event drew nationwide attention and helped to spark the nascent American environmental movement.

Cleanup efforts began in earnest after that point, aided by new legislation such as Clean Water Act. Cuyahoga River Valley was established as a National Recreation Area in 1974 to further preserve and protect the area.

In 1985, the park acquired the Krejci Dump. The area was so polluted that it was designated as a superfund site. Over 371,000 tons of contaminated soil and debris were removed before restoration of the area was completed.

The Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation area was finally elevated to National Park status in 2000. Today it’s a gorgeous little park and an inspirational example of ecological restoration.

Brecksville-Northfield Bridge

The Ledges Trail

Daniel and I began our visit at the Boston Mill Visitor Center. I asked the ranger for recommendations and he suggested the Ledges Trail. The hike loops around a shelter that was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and provides views of mossy sandstone cliff formations. The CCC also carved a flight of stairs along the trail during the same time period.

Daniel and I hiked around the Ledges Trail on a Monday afternoon and I was blown away at the incredible rock formations. It felt like we had wandered into some sort of fairy land. Although advertised as 2.2 miles, the hiking distance was closer to 3 miles according to my hiking app (including starting and ending at the parking lot).

The Ritchie Ledges
Another photo of the Ritchie Ledges
The Ledges Trail
This stairway was constructed by the CCC in the 1930s
I loved the tree roots growing over top of the ledges. Magical!
The Ledges are so cool! I took like a bajillion photos.

Brandywine Falls

One of the biggest points of interest at Cuyahoga Valley National Park is Brandywine Falls. At over 60 feet in height, the waterfall is one of the prettier ones that I’ve seen recently. It also is incredibly popular, especially on the weekends. We were eager to miss the crowds and visited the waterfall on a Monday.

All I could think of while viewing the falls was the mythical Brandywine River. The Tolkien nerds out there will recognize Brandywine River as a location from The Lord of the Rings.

Brandywine Falls
Brandywine Falls viewing platform
Daniel hikes the short boardwalk trail to Brandywine Falls
Brandywine Falls as viewed from the upper platform

Long Trails in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Although only 50 square miles in size, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has a ton of great trails. Of particular interest to me are two long tails that traverse the park.

The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is the most prominent long trail in the park. At over 90 miles in length, the Towpath Trail follows the same path where mules used to pull boats up the Ohio & Erie Canal. The Towpath trail traverses the entire length of the park along the Cuyahoga River and is a great way to experience the area.

The other long trail in Cuyahoga Valley National park is the Ohio Buckeye Trail. At 1444 miles in length, the Buckeye Trail winds around Ohio reaching into every corner of the state. I couldn’t find any trail markers or signs for the Buckeye Trail in the park (but then again I didn’t look very hard).

This section of the Ohio Buckeye Trail follows along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail
Pedestrian bridge along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail

River on Fire by Adam Again

Interested in hearing the song that sparked my initial interest in the Cuyahoga River? Check out the song “River on Fire” by Adam Again, available below.

Where are we now?

We are in Cuyahoga Valley National Park!

Dates: October 3-6, 2020
Great American Road Trip Status: Days 90-93
Starting Location: Sandusky/Bayshore KOA
Ending Location: Streetsboro/SE Cleveland KOA
Miles Traveled: 122
Total Trip Mileage: 6059.9

2 thoughts

  1. Hey Unicorn! This is a blast from the past. I grew up in Akron, not far from the Cuyahoga River and spent so much of my youth exploring and adventuring with my friends in what now is the national park. The ledges trail still looks unchanged! The river catching on fire was in the news there in the 60s. That reputation extended well into the 70s when they finally began to clean up the river. When I was a kid, the water smelled like chemicals and detergent. There was always oils scum and islands of foam floating on the water.

    I’m so happy that this area is now protected with national park status!

    1. That’s awesome Arrow! It’s such a lovely area now. I’m glad we got a chance to see it after the cleanup was completed.

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