Hit the Rails for the Best Cuyahoga Valley Experience

The nation's most-visited national park is also one of the best for leaf peeping. The fall colors in the Great Smoky Mountains arrive as early as mid-September at higher elevations and work their way down. Take a drive along Clingmans Dome Road or the Blue Ridge Parkway for a good look.
America’s national parks offer visitors inspiring and affordable ways to unplug and reconnect with nature. Although not every state has a national park, the National Park Service also oversees national monuments, national historic sites, and national rivers, among other areas. Some parks are iconic, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, and others are underrated and lightly visited. This list highlights 50 must-see destinations — the best the country has to offer. National parks often charge an entrance fee that grants seven days of access and costs up to $35 a vehicle. An interagency annual pass provides access to all the national parks and other federal fee areas for $80. Seniors 62 or older can buy a lifetime passes for $80 and annual passes for $20. Members of the military are eligible for free annual passes. Fee-free days also are offered occasionally during the year, including Sept. 22 for National Public Lands Day and Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

There are many ways to experience Ohio’s picturesque Cuyahoga Valley National Park—hiking, biking, canoeing—but the most evocative is a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

This line of historic train cars winds through 26 miles of the national park, which encompasses forests, waterfalls, and part of the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath, the park’s main trail. The 3.5-hour scenic train ride passes many of the park’s top attractions, including teeming Beaver Marsh and Indigo Lake, a popular fishing spot.

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Long before the national park was established in 1974, tourists came to the Cuyahoga River Valley area for carriage rides and boat trips along the Ohio and Erie Canal. In 1880, the short-line Valley Railway was established to carry coal from the Tuscarawas River Valley to Cleveland, Akron, and Canton. It also offered passenger service—and soon drew tourists lured by its bucolic views and slow pace. (“We have the finest picnic grounds in the state!” read an 1884 Valley Railway ad.)

After becoming part of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (the oldest in the country) and spending years in decline, the line was revived in 1972 as an excursion railway. The rails are now owned by the national park; the cars by the nonprofit, private CVSR.

All Aboard the Time Machine

In late September, the weeklong Steam in the Valley event offers visitors a rare treat: a ride aboard a historic “high-stepping, 14-wheeled, time machine.” That time machine is the Nickel Plate No. 765, a 400-ton steam locomotive built in 1944. Riders are encouraged to come in period clothes (1940s and ‘50s) for the special two-hour trip through the park. There’s a chance to step off the train mid-trip for the perfect (and exclusive) Instagram snap, natch.

This year, four new cars—well, new to this railway—will also make their debut during Steam in the Valley. Four restored California Zephyr cars are joining the CVSR fleet. These historic carriages—two Vista Dome cars, a sleeper car, and a baggage car—originated with the California Zephyr train (now an Amtrak line) that ran between Chicago and San Francisco beginning in 1949.

Other cars in the CVSR fleet include coach carriages built for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Canadian National locomotives, and the Paul Revere Parlor Car, once used by Congress members traveling between Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston.

a train crossing a bridge over a body of water: The historic, 26-mile Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad winds through the national park of the same name.

Before You Go

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers multiple trips most days. Check the schedule in advance for times. There are three stations in the park, and you can hop on and hop off during the day. You can also bring your bike aboard. Buy tickets in advance (recommended) or at the station. In addition to daily rides, the railroad also offers weekly dining trips and other special events. Download the CSVR Train Tracker app for an audio tour.

Nancy Gupton is a writer and train fan based in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @prisstail.

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