Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga Valley National Park


Natural Features & Ecosystems

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a surprise for many visitors, as most people do not expect such an array of natural features so close to the city. Twenty-two miles of the Cuyahoga River, fed by more than 190 miles of perennial (permanent) and ephemeral (temporary) streams, flow through the park. The Beaver Marsh and other wetlands, many lined with cattails and thick with duckweed, provide a home for many of the park’s reptiles and amphibians and help filter pollutants from the water.

Bounding many of the rivers and streams are steep valley walls topped by deciduous forests and open meadows. Several waterfalls are tucked away in the midst of the forests, hidden from view until you round a bend. Brandywine Falls is the largest, with water rushing over the 65-foot falls to meet the boulders below. Water formed another of the park’s outstanding geologic features—the Ritchie Ledges. Here, visitors wind along the base of a towering sandstone rock formation, eventually arriving at an overlook that provides a remarkable sunset view of the Cuyahoga Valley and its striking natural features.


Cuyahoga Valley National Park is contained entirely within the Cuyahoga River watershed, which takes on the shape of the "v"-shaped river. The Cuyahoga River begins in Northeastern Ohio’s Geauga County as two bubbling springs that join about 10 miles to the south near Burton. The river flows to the southwest, through thick forests and past rich farm fields, until it reaches the more populated urban areas near Akron, Ohio. At this point, the river hits an east-west continental divide and turns sharply northwestward, forming the bottom of the "v." The Cuyahoga then flows through CVNP—alongside remains of the Ohio & Erie Canal, through the Historic Districts of Peninsula and Boston, and under the historic Station Road Bridge. The river reaches its terminus in downtown Cleveland, 100 river miles from its source, but only 30 miles as the crow flies.

The Cuyahoga River watershed drains over 810 square miles of Northeastern Ohio. Thirty-seven named tributaries and many unnamed streams, totaling over 1,100 stream miles, enter the Cuyahoga throughout its course. Within CVNP’s portion of the watershed (about 6.5 percent of the total watershed), perennial (permanent) and ephemeral (temporary) streams total over 190 miles in length. Some of the larger tributaries (e.g., Tinkers Creek and Furnace Run) drain areas larger than 50 square miles, while most others range between 2 and 20 square miles.

Land use maps show a landscape as diverse as individual tributaries. Forested areas cover much of the watershed, about 56 percent. Agricultural lands and urban open space account for 22 percent, while wetlands, rivers, and streams are found on 16 percent. Urban areas cover 6 percent of the watershed.

Though the Cuyahoga River watershed makes up less than 2 percent of Ohio’s land area, nearly 15 percent of Ohio’s population lives within the watershed. Most of this population is found along the lower Cuyahoga. Though a few small communities are located in the park, Akron and Cleveland, the urban centers at the southern and northern ends of the park, contain most of the watershed’s population. This high concentration of urban areas, along with heavy industrialization along its banks, stresses the lower Cuyahoga, which has been troubled by pollution since the 1800s.

Rivers and Streams

The Cuyahoga River is the central natural feature of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Twenty-two of its one hundred miles run the length of the park from south to north. The river is fed by more than 190 miles of perennial (permanent) and ephemeral (temporary) streams.

Known internationally as the "river that burned," the Cuyahoga River is on the rebound. Where at one time no living thing could survive, now there are spawning fish and rare insect species. Today the river looks like a river should; it no longer flows in colors of the rainbow. Instead, the river flows lazily past forests, fields, and towns, occasionally erupting in white ripples where rocks and pebbles interrupt its flow. The Cuyahoga is not completely healed, however. Even today, combined sewer overflows, runoff from fields and parking lots, and sediments continue to impair the river’s water quality (see water quality section for more information). Throughout Northeast Ohio people are looking out for the river, as government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and volunteers work together to return the Cuyahoga to an acceptable state. Someday, visitors to the park will once again be able to recreate safely on the river.

Park streams, tributaries to the Cuyahoga, are diverse in character. Some are so small they flow only in times of heavy precipitation and remain unnamed to this day. Many are gently flowing streams wandering through forested ravines. Others are more assertive, flowing rapidly toward the Cuyahoga and sometimes dropping suddenly over scenic waterfalls. At over 28 miles, Tinkers Creek is the longest of the Cuyahoga River’s tributaries.

Where there is water, there is life. Streamsides are lush, with water-loving vegetation and colorful spring wildflowers surrounding flowing waters. These areas provide excellent habitat for park wildlife. Insects and amphibians thrive in moist, shaded conditions. Birds and mammals take advantage of easy access to food and water.

Wetlands, Marshes and Swamps

National parks, including Cuyahoga Valley NP, protect wetland areas throughout the country. Healthy wetlands provide many environmental benefits, including improving water quality by filtering out nutrient loads and pollutants before they reach rivers and streams and moderating floodwaters. Wetlands provide habitat for a diversity of plants and wildlife and often serve as important stopover areas for migrating birds. While large wetland complexes serve an important ecological role, small isolated wetlands can be considered just as crucial for maintaining regional biodiversity (e.g., as important breeding areas for salamander metapopulations). In addition to their ecological significance, wetlands exhibit a variety of educational, recreational and aesthetic values.

Despite their importance, wetland habitats in the United States have declined dramatically since European settlement. Wetland habitats in Ohio decreased in area by 90% since the 1780s, mostly due to draining and filling for agricultural use.

Because development and urban sprawl continually threaten the wetlands that remain in northeastern Ohio, CVNP wetlands are valuable both as park and regional resources. A recent park-wide wetland inventory found more than 1,200 wetland areas encompassing approximately 1,700 acres in CVNP. Most of the wetlands are small, with only 190 larger than one acre and only 35 larger than 10 acres. Additional small wetlands may yet remain undetected.

Wetland types found in the park include marshes, wet meadows, scrub/shrub wetlands, and forested wetlands. Small emergent wetlands occurring in isolated depressions fed by surface water are most common. Small wetlands are also often found at the head of small, intermittent drainage ways, adjacent to ponds, or as seeps where groundwater flows out of a hillside. Many wetlands are partially or completely forested or include a shrub component. The largest wetlands are located within the Cuyahoga River floodplain and include emergent, shrub, and forested areas.

In addition to providing habitat for many plants and animals, special characteristics exist in some wetland areas. Vernal pools, temporary wetlands found during the rainy spring season, serve as breeding areas for many amphibian species. Potential roosting trees for the endangered Indiana bat exist in some of the wetland areas. Two great blue heronries are located in wetland areas along the Cuyahoga River.

Wetland systems in CVNP have been greatly affected by many years of disturbance and land use changes within the Cuyahoga Valley. The Ohio & Erie Canal, railroad and road beds, dredging of stream channels, utility corridors, filling and grading activities, topsoiling, landfills and gravel pits, and drainage for agriculture have all profoundly influenced the current configuration of this large wetland system. Not all human-caused disturbances have resulted in a decrease in wetland area. Instead, some, such as watered remains of the Ohio & Erie Canal, have increased the size of wetlands.

Humans aren’t the only living things that influence wetlands. By damming free-flowing waters, beavers have affected the size and distribution of wetlands throughout the park. The Beaver Marsh, created by beavers that built a dam along remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal, offers visitors the chance to explore a wetland first-hand. Walking along the Topwath Trail boardwalk over the marsh, you can sometimes see beavers venture out of their lodge to search for food or repair the dam. Other animals, including Canada geese, northern watersnakes, and muskrats, are often seen taking advantage of the food, water, and shelter offered by this and other wetlands throughout CVNP.