Explore Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park on the National Park Scenic Excursion Train

It’s hard to believe that one of the United States’ most visited National Parks, 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP), is located next to two really dense northeast Ohio cities, Cleveland and Akron — because the park couldn’t feel any more different from these bustling urban environments. 

Etched by 22 miles of the serpentine Cuyahoga River and brimming with lush forests, undulating hills and sweeping meadowlands, Cuyahoga Valley — one of only six national parks in the Midwest — puts visitors in close contact with lush native plants and abundant wildlife. Though it’s part of the metropolitan area, the park feels utterly rural and provides the full range of nature’s soothing powers. It’s also historically important due to its rich connections to African American history and its Towpath Trail, which tracks the iconic Ohio & Erie Canal (which follows the route of the historic Ohio & Erie Canal that opened up transportation from Cleveland to Portsmouth in 1832).

A Unique Way to Experience CVNP

There are over 125 miles of trails in the park, so there’s plenty of ways to explore its varied ecosystems by foot and bike. But one of the best and most relaxing ways to see the natural wonders is by train aboard the National Park Scenic Excursion. Following in the area’s longstanding history of providing urban dwellers with a leisurely way to relieve the pressures of city life and escape from its industrial impacts, this rail trip is an utterly unique approach to park exploration and an opportunity to time travel to the heyday of train travel — the tracks were originally laid in 1880 to transport coal.

While Amtrak offers train packages that take travelers to several spectacular U.S. National Parks, there are few options for exploring national park interiors by rail. Yet, that’s exactly what the National Park Scenic Excursion is designed to do, and, on it, you can get up close and personal with CVNP’s natural treasures in surprising ways due to its flexible boarding approach.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The National Park Excursion Route

The train offers a one-of-a kind vantage point, transporting passengers along the length of the park between the cities of Independence and Akron and running parallel to the rushing Cuyahoga River and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. The train affords awesome views of these key features and their surroundings.

Once polluted to the point of burning, the sycamore-rimmed river has been cleaned up and now teems with steelhead trout, smallmouth bass and northern pike along with 38 other species. Look down and you’re likely to see great blue herons feeding along the banks; look up and you may see Bald Eagles in flight. Other wildlife you may see during your journey: beavers, turtles, deer, otters and various birds.

Much of the wildlife hangs out at Beaver Marsh, a lovely wetland area that’s also been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society because of the 50 bird species that nest and congregate here annually, among them waterfowl, wrens, sparrows, cardinals and orioles.

Train Schedule, Stations, Seating and Ticket Information

Starting in May, the train will operate Friday-Sunday and round trips run three-and-a-half hours. In June, the schedule is Wednesday-Sunday.

The train offers a variety of comfortable seating options, from coach ($7.50 for a 4 pack) to table car ($10 for a 4 top) to executive class ($17.50 for a 4 pack). You must purchase tickets in groups of four or six.

Purchase tickets online at cvsr.org or by calling customer service at (330) 439-5708.

There are four boarding stations: Rockside Station in Independence, OH; Boston Mill Depot in Peninsula, OH; Peninsula Depot in Peninsula, OH; and Akron Northside Station in Akron, OH.

Explorer Program: Hop On and Off, Bring a Bike and Hike

One of the coolest aspects of the rail trip is the ability to hop off and on the train at various points to explore more thoroughly. To take advantage of this, purchase an Explorer Pass (a season-long pass for $50) or one-time pass (the one-way price depends on the activity/equipment option you elect) that lets you bike, kayak, hike or run, then ride back, or vice versa.

For example, you can pedal or hike the Towpath Trail going in one direction, then hop aboard the train to go in the reverse direction with your  bike or kayak. Train personnel will help you load it. You can rent a bike by the hour at Century Cycles in Peninsula, right near the Towpath.

Hop-off/hop-on stations include the above boarding the stations as well as four additional non-scheduled stopping points where riders must flag down the train (by waving their arms over their head): Canal Exploration Center in Valley View, OH; Brecksville in Brecksville, OH; Indigo Lake in Peninsula, OH; and Botzum in Akron, OH. 

Covid-19 Safety Info for the train: The train is currently running at 50% capacity and has implemented social distancing and frequent sanitation practices. Masks are required to ride the train.  

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

More Great Sites to Explore in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Blue Hen Falls

A half-mile round-trip walk will take you to Blue Hen Falls, a 15-foot waterfall that’s edged in soaring trees.

The Brandywine Gorge Trail & Brandywine Falls

The trail requires a modest skill level and is full of dramatic geological beauty — follow it into a ravine featuring water bars, ponds, the Brandywine Creek, rocky ledges of sandstone and shale, and a wealth of moss, lichens and old-growth forests containing hemlock, white oak, black locust and maple trees. But the trail’s main highlight is Brandywine Falls, a 65-foot waterfall — a true stunner and one of the park’s absolute must-sees (the upper deck is wheelchair accessible).

The Ledges

This is a hot spot for hiking through extraordinary sandstone cliffs, playing in the field and taking in a sunset at the scenic cliff ledge overlook and massive rock staircase – the big payoff whether you access it from the moderately difficult 1.8-mile Ledges Loop Trail or from the parking lot (which is a lot easier). But even without the overlook, the steep trek is rewarding. You’ll see canopies of hemlock, moss-covered rock formations, ferns and petroglyphs from the 1900s that will make it hard to believe you’re in the vicinity of Cleveland-Akron.

The Historic Village of Peninsula

Peninsula is located in the center of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just a 45-minute drive from downtown Cleveland. Its downtown historic district is loaded with charm. Stroll along the main street, which is lined with art galleries, shops and restaurants and ogle the buildings, many of which date back to the 1800s and are in great condition. The village is a great place to balance out your nature adventure with some small-town shopping and dining experiences.