Strike out on a winter adventure

CVNP hiking trails beckon

Article and photos by Stephanie Fellenstein Published:

There is no need to spend the winter locked in the house when the Cuyahoga Valley National Park sits so close by.

With snow-covered trails, sparkling waterfalls and snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals, winter is the perfect time to check out what the park has to offer.

And Park Ranger Brady Bourquin says there is nothing better than a day with snow on the ground and blue skies.

"Winter gets a bad rap," he says, adding that the gray overcast skies that Ohio is famous for in the winter tend to keep people home.

But why stay home when there is so much to see and do just down the road.

The birth of a National Park

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park covers almost 33,000 acres.

The 51 miles of park land includes a large chunk of the Cuyahoga River, sandstone ledges, 70 waterfalls and 186 miles of trails, according to the park website. The park also helps visitors learn about the Ohio & Erie Canal and is home to several re-established farms.

The land was designated a national recreation area in 1974 by then-president Gerald Ford. Key to the process were Ohio Congressmen Ralph Regula, John Seiberling and Charles Vanik as well as other representatives and elected officials at the local, state and national level.

Bourquin helps put the pieces into place.

"With the creation of Gateway (New Jersey) and Golden Gate (San Francisco) National Recreation Areas in October 1972," he explains. "There was a push to create a similarly accessible national park experience in the middle of America so that urban dwellers in the mid-west would be able to have access to green space without needing to travel across the country to do so."

And there is plenty of history floating around the valley to add another element to the park experience.

"Because this is a young park [CVNP officially became a national park in October 2000], people are still around who grew up in the area," Bourquin says.

He remembers an elderly woman coming to one of the park sites. She came in and asked if Bourquin had ever been in the building that now houses the park headquarters. When he said yes, she described a back bedroom.

"I told her that room is now my boss' office. Then she said that had been her grandparents' house and she was born in that bedroom," he says, adding it's fun hearing the park's history firsthand.

Hitting the trail

It is a mid-December day and fat snowflakes swirl through the air for a couple minutes. The snow doesn't stick and fall leaves still litter the ground.

Bourquin sets off from the Boston Store and quickly picks up the section of the Buckeye Trail that leads to Blue Hen Falls. He describes this particular hike as "strenuous with lots of elevation change culminating in a beautiful waterfall at the turnaround point." The total hike is 3.25 miles round trip.

The Buckeye Trail is a 1,444-mile trail that follows the interior shape of the state. Approximately 30 miles of the trail pass through the CVNP starting in the Bedford Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks and ending at the southern end of the park.

"A majority of this is "rugged" trail with some small stretches overlapping with the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail north of Station Road and south of Peninsula," Bourquin says.

There are plenty of other choices available for a winter hike other than Blue Hen Falls, Bourquin points out.

"It's like a choose your own adventure," he says, but does add that Blue Hen Falls is very popular during the winter.

Looking for a family-friendly hike? Bourquin suggests the 2.2-mile Ledges trail.

"It's relatively flat with 'spokes' off the center part," he says, adding there are many opportunities to get back to the parking lot.

Plus Ledges Field, near the Ledges shelter off Truxell Road, is perfect to play in or to try out cross-country skiing. The field is near the Winter Sports Center where the park rents showshoes and cross-country skis.

For the more serious winter hikers, Bourquin recommends any part of the aforementioned Buckeye Trail.

"Boston to Peninsula is about 4.25 miles," he says. "But really any point is beautiful with good climbs. It's isolated."

And then for the average hiker, the perfect match is the Oak Hill Trail, Bourquin says.

"It is more intense than the Ledges Trail and is about a 6-mile loop."

Hints for the hike

No matter what trail park visitors choose, Bourquin says to be prepared.

The first step, he says, is to dress appropriately -- layers, wind breaker and appropriate shoes.

Next, plan ahead and check the weather.

Third, let someone know where you are going, in case something happens along the way.

Finally, take plenty of water, a few snacks and a cell phone. Bourquin points out that a lot of calories are burned in the winter.

"A great way for folks to start their adventure is to stop in at one of the visitor centers to get up-to-date weather and trail conditions as well as maps and ideas of what they may encounter along the way," he says. "Stopping in to the visitor center also covers the 'telling someone where they are going' side of things. That way, we -- the national park service or other managing agency -- have an idea of where folks are going to be over the course of the day."

Bourquin unzips his own backpack. It is filled with lightweight jackets, waterproof mittens and gloves, hats, water, a first-aid kit, snacks, hand warmers, plus a cell phone.

"I over pack my bag," he says. "I need to be ready for any emergency that may befall not just myself and my group, but also any visitors we may encounter along the way."

Bourquin says he and other rangers hope they never have to use most of their supplies.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time it is an exercise in caution," he says. "It's that one time. That's what we're here for."

A park for all seasons

CVNP offers something for everyone year-round.

"Not only does this place belong to the public, it is an oasis of green space in an otherwise urban area," Bourquin says. "We take great pride in accessible, exciting, scenic trails. It is part of the American experience, visiting the national parks.

Bourquin mentions a woman from New Philadelphia who had always wanted to visit a national park, but thought she would have to travel out west to do so. Then she discovered CVNP and brought her family to visit.

"We can provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some," he says. "And can enhance the experience for others."

And the best part, Bourquin says, "CVNP is always open." v

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