Recent conversations have gone a lot like this.
So what is your next park?
Coyahoga. Or Cooyaga. It might be Cuhaga. (Not really sure how to say it.)
Where is that?
Somewhere near Cleveland. (Turns out Cleveland is in Ohio. Learn something new every day)
What is there?
I’m not really sure. (I assume not mountains but it seems geography isn’t my strong suit)
It’s a park?
Look, it’s on the list so I’m going.
So that is how I came to find myself in Ohio. I made a commitment to see them ALL. When Outdoor Magazine ranks Cleveland as the 6th least outdoorsy city in America, and in another article, Cuyahoga falls under the “Best of the rest” category, my expectations were fairly low. The park literally begs for context. How in God’s name did you manage to get into this beauty contest?
The park is urban to say the least. There is no fee to get into the park because major thoroughfares crisscross the park. It acts like a large sieve for those that somehow missed the exit for the Ohio Turnpike. City and county parks, including baseball fields, golf courses, and ski areas, coalesce with the national park so that to the visitor, it is one large park. On the official NPS map, it shows both county and national park as one continuous green space. In spite of this, the ranger has no idea what to recommend immediately outside of the park boundaries that only they seem to know or appreciate. She tells me with no shame that “The falls are beautiful but they are outside of the park so I haven’t seen them.” They are literally across the street. A scenic train runs the length of the park but apparently is only available on every other Tuesday when the sun shines on the north shore. There are many historic homes which have been restored as exhibits. Some homes have not. Some are still residences. It is really hard to tell the difference. I can only imagine that this makes for some very awkward encounters, which was later confirmed by yet another ranger.
The valley (perhaps a generous use of the term) is a study on how Mother Nature and man trade off control of the land. Like most American stories start, the Cuyahoga River was a major Native American thoroughfare. Then the settlers arrived and wanted to ship their goods to the rich people in New York. The problem is that this crooked river goes back and forth for miles and the impatient white men decided that it would be faster to just make a straight canal from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. So they dug one right next to the river that was put to use for a whopping 30 years before newer technology took over. On second thought, Apple has an update every 3 days so 30 years isn’t too bad. Mother Nature rolled her eyes and took over the canal. Still civilization continued to encroach and made the river so toxic it was flammable at one point. To get revenge beavers built a dam, which flooded an automotive dump yard. It is now a spectacular marsh supporting a surprising variety of species. There is a serious battle being waged for this piece of land and it is far from over.
The area became a National Recreation Area in 1974 and a National Park in 2000 thanks to the effort of two congressmen in particular. It would be worth the time to check out other key issues or appointments being determined around those times. I can only imagine the political votes traded back and forth for Cuyahoga, a la House of Cards. The park is a testament to their commitment to keeping green space easily accessible to all. It breaks up the urban sprawl so characteristic of Phoenix or Houston. Ultimately my conclusion is that the reason that no one knows what it is all about is that the park itself can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. A historic site? A municipal park? An amusement ride? A nature preserve? I walked away with the sense that Cuyahoga National Park is the child of the participation award generation. They showed up and did a lot of work so they we gave them national park status, regardless if they displayed the best of what America has to offer.