Billing: Peace in the (Cuyahoga) Valley

Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Northeast Ohio is beloved by Cleveland and Akron-area outdoor enthusiasts but doesn’t seem to have a stellar reputation among the average national parks fan.

If the expectations are set incorrectly, I can understand a little. There’s no equivalent to something like Yosemite’s Tunnel View, Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road or Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring to be found in Cuyahoga Valley.

But if expectations are set correctly, Ohio’s lone national park is a wondrous place with an important restoration story.

And a place to encounter a combination of rodents (the cute kind) that you won’t find anywhere else.

I was up in the Akron area for the third consecutive June two weeks ago while covering Russia’s state baseball run. Like the last two years, I spent all my free time inside the park.

It was especially welcome this year. Since early May, I had either been tied to the desk, or when not, running around like a chicken without a head. I don’t believe I visited Tawawa Park for the entirety of the month, and I was aching to get into a forest.

Cuyahoga Valley provides plenty wooded areas along with wetlands, grasslands and, of course, the Cuyahoga River.

The river is famous for catching on fire multiple times around 50 years ago, including most famously in 1969. That fire caught national attention at a time when pollution was a major concern.

Cuyahoga Valley was designated as a National Recreation Area in 1974, and a cleanup effort began. It’s largely been a success story: river otters, which are very sensitive to pollution, live in bodies of water in the park.

The towpath trail that follows an old canal path through the park is a highlight, as is a train that runs through it (though one section is currently closed due to reconstruction).

My main focus the last three years has been the famous Ledges trail and surrounding areas in the southern side of the park, including the Beaver Marsh and Kendall Lake. The Ledges is a trail through a rocky area with cliffs, while Kendall Lake is picturesque with lots of wildlife. The Beaver Marsh is a former dump that was cleared, and beavers turned it into the marsh. A section of the towpath runs through it, and there are lots of birds in the area.

I spent all my time in this section two weeks ago on the hunt for black squirrels. Those familiar with Northeast Ohio are likely familiar with that color variation of the eastern gray squirrel; it’s prevalent in the area.

We don’t have them around here, and outside of the areas around Lake Erie in Michigan and Ohio, they are rare in the United States (though historical reports suggest they were once the most prevalent form of the eastern gray squirrel). I assume Cuyahoga is one of few, if not the only, National Park Service site where they’re easily seen.

I recalled seeing them in previous trips to the park, but in the last year, taking pictures of squirrels has become a hobby. Given that there’s not much variety of wildlife in Southwest Ohio, and that I don’t much care for deer, opossums or raccoons, squirrels are what is left.

And they’re cute.

That’s not an opinion; that’s fact.

I spent one entire morning in the area around the Ledges shooting chipmunks, which are in abundance and scurry over fallen trees and on rocks.

There were no black squirrels in sight, so I stopped at a visitor’s center and asked a friendly volunteer ranger about the best areas to see them. She gave me some ideas and then went to ask a staff ranger for more suggestions.

I could see her talk to the staff ranger about 25 yards away in a gift shop as she explained my request. The staff ranger looked over at me and with somewhat-disgusted facial expression gave the volunteer ranger a one-word answer I couldn’t make out.

The volunteer walked back to me and said, “Yeah, they’re everywhere.”

Despite being “everywhere,” it took me until about mile No. 8 of walking that day to finally find one. It was in a trail near the Ledges called Pine Grove.

I got my picture when a squirrel ran a little up a tree, turned around, chirped and wagged its tail at me. It’s a defensive behavior I’ve seen before, including in one of the albino squirrels that live on the Courthouse Square.

The black squirrel experience capped off that day, but I saw two other remarkable sights the following morning before heading for home. The first was a nice sunrise while at the Beaver Marsh. My solitude while watching was interrupted once, when a beaver about 20 yards dove, or slapped its tail, or did something to create a lot of waves and noise.

The second sight was near the parking lot at Kendall Lake, as I watched a great blue heron successfully hunt a rat, or vole, or mole (or some kind of rodent of the ugly variety).

Cuyahoga has plenty going for it. If rodents aren’t your thing, it has what I would believe has to be the highest concentration of waterfalls in the state. Brandywine Falls and Great Falls of Tinkers Creek are both relatively accessible waterfalls and among the state’s best.

While there may be no real grand view in Cuyahoga Valley, it’s a great place to find some peace and appreciate restoration efforts.

And see both black and gray variants of eastern gray squirrels, along with fox squirrels and red squirrels, and a plethora of chipmunks. Reason enough for me.

Reach Sidney Daily News editor Bryant Billing at 937-538-4822, or follow @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook or @TopBillingSport on X (Twitter).