The Author standing in front of Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga National Park.

Roadtrip Day 2: Cuyahoga Valley NP and Cleveland, OH

Saturday, September 16, 2023
Cuyahoga Valley National Park Visitor Center
The Ledges Trail at Cuyahoga
Brandywine Falls at Cuyahoga
Cleveland, Ohio

After fueling up myself with a scrumptious egg sandwich Nicol had cooked up for us, fueling up my car at an overpriced gas station across the street from her place, and topping myself off with a local latte from a beautiful little nearby coffee shop, it was time to drive on—especially if I wanted to get any hiking in today.

I had originally not given much thought to visiting National Parks, since the black & white part of my brain figured what would be the point if I couldn’t spend a week at every location, hiking every trail and seeing every sight? But thankfully my youngest sister, who has quite a bit of experience with our Parks system, convinced me to make the effort. Of course she’s right, so at her suggestion I purchased the “America the Beautiful” National Parks annual pass, and my attitude went from “I could take it or leave it” to “Gotta collect ’em all!” Hence my Day 2 destination being Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Photo of the author in front of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park sign.
The guy who took this pic fully utilized his Dad Joke powers to get me giggling.

Being funemployed and on this trip, I had completely forgotten that it was a Saturday, and another gorgeous late Summer day on top of that, so the Visitor Center parking lot was packed. I squeezed into a temporary spot and went to see what the deal was, patiently waiting in lines to chat with the park rangers and to give them money in the gift shop.

If my memory serves me, the only other National Parks I’d ever been to were Acadia in Maine back in high school and of course Independence Hall in Philly. At the time, I didn’t really think of those two visits as explorations of National Parks, but simply “interesting places I happen to be in.” So, I had no idea that there is an entire industry and procedure catering to hardcore parks-system explorers.

When the kindly park ranger found out this was but my first stop on a cross country roadtrip, she immediately suggested I get the Passport. At first I thought she meant the America the Beautiful access card I mentioned above, but no, there are guidebooks to collect “cancellations” or stamps with the day’s date, as well as “stamps” or stickers with pictures or info. Apparently it’s a 3rd party organization that puts them out with proceeds going back into the National Parks System. Well, if I wasn’t jazzed about hitting the parks before, I definitely was now—gamification works!

Photo of a bluegrass band playing at the Cuyahoga Visitor Center.
Oh, there were also these bluegrass musicians in a pavilion near the Visitor Center, which was nice.

I didn’t really know anything about Cuyahoga Valley NP, but I had heard of Brandywine Falls before, so that’s what I thought I’d quickly check out before moving on. The ranger was quick to steer me away from the Falls though—at least for the moment—since that parking lot was already full, it was close to the road and so easy to do later in the day, and because she recommended another nice hike in a different part of the park. Newly energized to explore the park, I took her advice.

The trail is called The Ledges, and according to the map it looked fairly short (~1.5 miles) and quite easy (not much elevation gain), so I had low expectations for anything other than a nice hike through the woods. But I was quickly reminded (not for the first or last time) to keep an open mind and stop ass-u-me-ing. The geological formations the trail skirted were fantastic! It was a joy to jog the nice single track trail through dappled sunlight, periodically stopping to ogle in wonder, touch history through touching the stone, and smell the deep age of this portion of the Appalachians when shimmying through a crevice.

Photo of the author about to eat a donut.
Mmmm, day old Pittsburgh donuts made the perfect snack lunch while enjoying the views from an overlook.

The people are also a wonderful part of the exploration—during my punctuated jog-and-stop hike I passed a lot of the same groups multiple times, including the young family who took my picture at the visitor center. You begin to feel a bond with those you encounter, thanks to the shared experience of nature. It makes me appreciate programs that get kids from urban centers and tough socioeconomic backgrounds out into nature, something we could use a lot more of in this country.

One hike done, I found myself checking my watch, as I knew I still had the drive to Cleveland and exploration to do there as well. But the Brandywine Falls beckoned, especially since they were the original reason I came to Cuyahoga at all.

I sweatily hopped back in my car and drove the 15 minutes to the Falls, but the “Lot Full” sign was still out. While waiting to see if any cars drove out, I made lots of U-turns on the narrow country road, driving back and forth and inadvertently exploring some of the side roads near the park—lots of very gorgeous and clearly expensive homes and properties in that area. Eventually I saw a car leave, then darted in to claim a spot.

…And of course I ended up hike/jogging the mile and a half trail around the Falls also. I just can’t help myself—nearly every hike I’ve ever done ends up turning at least partially into a trail run. Nature energizes!

The Falls were crowded, but not unpleasantly so. The river was also fairly low, so it the views were more about the geology and nature of the area than the majesty of running water. Even without a thundering flow, the Falls themselves were quite beautiful and certainly worth the visit. As the Ranger had mentioned, they literally are just a few meters from the road and not far from the parking lot, so if you are ever in the region, stop by!

Onward to Cleveland! Which is only about 35 minutes North-northwest of Brandywine Falls.

The AirBnB I stayed in was located in the Ohio City neighborhood. I’d originally picked it since the price was decent and it appeared to be walkable to several breweries as well as downtown. Turns out, Ohio City seems to be the primary hotspot, at least for the younger crowd. It was hopping when I began wandering at around 5:30pm, and was even more raucous when I returned home later that night.

I quickly tasted my way though Nano Brew (decent), Market Garden Brewing (pretty good), and Hansa Brewery (classically delicious brews with Eastern European food), which is where I sated my hunger with a massive beef goulash and some potato pancakes. Interestingly, it was already apparent here in Cleveland that I’d escaped the East Coast Zone of Inflated Prices—both food and drink were noticeably cheaper here than I am used to.

Finishing dinner around dusk, I’ll admit there was a part of me that wanted to just head back to the AirBnB and crash, maybe writing a bit. This trip is a marathon, not a sprint, right? But…with so much to see and so little time I quickly overcame the moment of doubt and got excited to explore some more.

I had chatted with the bartenders at Market Garden, including about the fact that Cleveland seemed to have even more than its fair share of microbreweries, and they agreed—one even said the local market was currently “oversaturated with brewpubs.” Not the worst problem to have. But given my limited time I wanted to focus on the best ones. One bartender told me that his local favorite was Brick and Barrel, which was also an industry hangout apparently. It was in a less-traveled area between several main bridges, so I got lost once or twice while navigating to the Irishtown Bend neighborhood.

The beer at Brick and Barrel was the best I had in Cleveland for sure, but the place was fairly empty, especially for a Saturday evening. I chatted with some locals who said it had been packed earlier in the day since there was a rowing Regatta on the Cuyahoga River (basically just outside the bar), but it had emptied out early. The local regulars and bartender were debating where everyone was.

Photo of the Pavilion across the Cuyahogo River.
I could hear lots of cheering and music during my walk, and it turns out Cake was playing the Jacobs Pavilion that night. Looked like a fantastic venue from across the river!

I decided to push on to one more recommended brewery, Noble Beast, that happened to be across downtown, about 2 miles away. If you didn’t already know this about me, you’ll soon find out, dear reader—I love walking explorations of cities. So the distance (and the knowledge that I’d be walking that amount and more to get back home for the night) was no problem. Plus, I figured there’d be plenty of good Saturday Night People Watching to be done along the way!

Boy, was I wrong :/

I got to Noble Beast all right, but was kinda depressed by the time I got there since the streets were empty—literally I went blocks without passing a single other person in either direction. The bartenders at Noble Beast were actually as surprised as I was, just like those at Brick and Barrel, as it was quite an unusual state of affairs. It couldn’t all be the Cake concert (see photo above), or any single sportsball game. Sorry, Cleveland—the emptiness turned me off a bit. Ah, well. Not everywhere is going to blow one’s mind with awesomeness all the time. I soon made my way back home and was asleep by 11.

But, I made the most of my empty downtown wanderings by seeking out and enjoying one of my other favorite things (outside of beer and trails): Public Art! And so I’ll close out today’s post with a sampling of sculpture and murals that I passed during my wanderings of Cleveland….

Day 2 Distance: 134 mi (216 km)
Total Trip Distance: 482 mi (776 km)

Up Next: A slower day of travel from Cleveland through Toledo to Indiana Dunes National Park.