Guest Column: Cuyahoga Valley National Park by its numbers

Jennie Vasarhelyi
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
The Beaver Marsh wetland is one of the most biologically diverse habitats in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is close to home, so may feel as familiar as your backyard. Yet, the Cuyahoga Valley is so special that it has earned national park designation. Stories of the park by its numbers help explain why it earned this designation and what it has to offer.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is one of 423 places in the National Park System. The system is diverse and includes national parks, battlefields, monuments, lakeshores, historic sites, and more. All share a focus on protecting the natural, scenic, historical treasures of this country and making them available for public enjoyment today and in future generations.

The park is located less than 30 miles from almost four million residents of Northeast Ohio and within one half day's drive of over 27 million people. This proximity makes the park relatively easy to access in terms of time and cost. The proximity is not accidental. The park was established in 1974 when the National Park Service established areas that brought "Parks to the People." Visitation numbers reflect the success of this focus, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic stimulating increased interest. In 2020, the park was the seventh most visited national park with 2.8 million visitors.

The park encompasses 33,000 acres along 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River, a size rarely seen in a metropolitan setting. Combine the size with the emphasis on preservation and close-to-home proximity, and you get numerous opportunities for discovery.

The park has significant plant and animal diversity. At last count, the park protects over 1,167 plant species, as well as 241 species of birds, 65 fish, 41 mammals, 19 amphibians, and 20 species of reptiles. The National Park Service’s emphasis on protecting habitat contributes to diversity. Species can find the food, shelter, water, and space needed for their survival. Wetlands, for example, support species diversity. Nearly 1,600 individual wetlands cover over 2,000 acres within the park.

The valley’s geographic position and topography also contributes to its biological diversity. The valley sits at the transition between the Appalachians and Great Plains. This east-meets-west location means that species from either region may be found in the park. The valley's rugged topography adds to the diversity. The uplands, dry valley slopes, moist ravines, and valley floor all support a different mix of species. Monarch butterflies and many of species of birds pass through in spring and fall, adding to diversity.

Threats to the park’s natural resources are also captured through numbers. For example, nearly 20 percent of the park’s plant species are not native but have been introduced from other parts of the world. Ecologists consider 50 of these species as invasive, posing a serious threat to native plant communities by out-competing native plants.

Despite the threats to natural diversity, the park still offers a refuge for plants and animals that are struggling to survive outside of protected areas. The Indiana bat is a federally listed endangered species, and the northern long-eared bat is a federally listed threatened species.

While nature is a big part of the Cuyahoga Valley experience, the park also preserves many historic structures, reflecting the long human history of the valley. The park’s historic resource inventory includes 400 structures, 34 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, and seven historic districts. These structures reflect the history of settlement, transportation, agriculture, industry, and recreation. Notable historic structures include the Ohio & Erie Canal, which opened through the valley in 1827. The park protects the remains of 16 locks that were part of this water-based transportation system. The valley’s rural landscape is preserved through the Countryside Initiative, a program through which the National Park Service leases historic farms. Currently 10 farms are part of the Countryside Initiative.

This plethora of resources makes the park a great place for discovery. The park’s wonderful trail system, with over 200 miles of trails within park boundaries, wanders through the valley’s natural habitats and past its historic structures. Twenty miles of the Towpath Trail, which follows the historic Ohio & Erie Canal, is a central trail that is open to bicycles. Each trail offers a different view of the valley.

Park rangers are available to aid you in your discovery of the park. Start your visit at Boston Mill Visitor Center (6947 Riverview Road; Peninsula 44264) and look for staff information stations at select trailheads. For more information, visit us online www.nps.gov/cuva or call 440-717-3890.

Vasarhelyi is Supervisory Program Manager of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.