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If You Think the Hiking in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is Bad, Then You Haven’t Gone Deep Enough

Ohio is the last place you'd expect to discover an off-trail wonderland. But in Cuyahoga Valley, where cross-country hiking is allowed, finding the good stuff takes a little bit of work.

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At first, I didn’t even know I was lost. I’d spent hours wandering on- and off-trail in the woods near my college campus, the University of Dayton, and now thought myself an expert. I wasn’t, really: I was a naïve college freshman who was passionate about hiking and outdoor photography, and I was embracing my newfound independence. But I also had no clue what I was doing.

The story went something like this: Sunset lit up the forest, making for perfect photography conditions and distracting me from the quickly oncoming night. It got dark, I panicked. When I finally stumbled my way back to the trail at dusk, I bolted out of the forest, faced ridicule from friends, family, and especially myself, and never went off-trail hiking again.

Then, last summer, I moved to within 30 minutes of Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). For a hiker interested in exploring off-trail, it’s hard to beat: Unlike some national parks, CVNP allows cross-country hiking in large swaths of the park—anywhere it isn’t specifically prohibited. On my first few hikes there, I stuck to marked trails, absorbing the lay of the land. But the more locals I met, the more I learned about the park’s off-trail culture; even friends with kids take their children on adventures through the park’s creek beds. Finally, I decided to take the leap with a ramble down one of the park’s streams.

Photo: Steve @ the alligator farm

My college experience made me nervous to leave the marked trails behind— but that’s a good thing. As I discovered on my college rambles, a hyper-aware mindset is essential when hiking in an off-trail area. CVNP is relatively safe—it lacks intimidating wildlife (no bears or mountain lions), has plentiful cell service, and enough people that it isn’t hard to find help—but by learning to pay closer attention to where I was going, I knew I wouldn’t just keep myself safe, I’d minimize my impact on local plant life and wildlife too, avoiding burrows and patches of delicate wildflowers.

The park’s 33,000 acres are an inviting amalgam of rolling hills, rushing waterfalls, meandering creeks, and steep gorges, all scattered along the Cuyahoga River, my favorite guardrail for navigation. For off-trail adventures, I stick mostly to the parks oak- and hickory-fringed creeks in the summer and snow-covered forests come winter (Leave No Trace suggests terrain like rock, ice, and snow for off-trail travel.) The park’s Boston Mill Visitor Center is a smart stop for maps and route questions, especially as park builds, repairs, and closures may alter off-trail plans.

You’re not there to create a trail, but rather to experience the terrain on its own terms

Those early creek strolls helped me find my off-trail footing, but I didn’t absorb the immense beauty and potential adventure hidden in CVNP’s backcountry until I joined a small group of anglers on the first warm day of 2021. They lent me spare waders and boots, then, ready or not, took me on a lengthy wading journey through knee-high water to reach the park’s best fishing holes. For them, the morning was all about snagging steelhead. But I didn’t care about catching fish; I just stood there, awestruck, admiring the wild beauty I’d never seen from a marked trail. 

From river jaunts to snowy hikes, CVNP opened my eyes to a world beyond trails. I now have my bucket-list sights set on future destinations where off-trail hiking isn’t just allowed, but encouraged, including the crème-de-la-crème of trailless trekking: Denali National Park. But off-trail hiking in Alaska is leaps, bounds, and more leaps beyond backcountry Ohio. To start bridging my skill gap, I chatted all things off-trail hiking with Sarah Hayes, a seasoned Denali park ranger who’s a big fan of finding her own path. 

“Hiking off-trail helps to focus our minds and use our senses in a way that is not required when hiking on a trail to a designated destination,” Hayes says. “Off-trail hiking can seem really scary at first, but you can figure it out with practice and help from a friend. It’s an amazing experience and an opportunity that is fast disappearing with more trail and campground construction on our public lands.” 

To help me prepare for my longer and harder routes, Hayes shared her best off-trail hiking advice—advice that’s as useful in Ohio as it is in Alaska.

Popular Blue Hen Falls are a good place to get your legs under you on an on-trail hike. Photo: "Blue Hen BIGDOG3c (J. Todd Poling), licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tip 1: Study navigation

Simply having a map won’t get you very far, but knowing how to interpret topography will. “Practice looking at and reading a topo map and match it up to the landscape around you in an area you’re already familiar with,” Hayes says, noting free topo maps are available through the U.S. Geological Survey. “Learn to place yourself on the map with it oriented correctly, and study what the symbology means.” (You can further hone those skills with Backpacker’s Backcountry Navigation or Basic Map and Compass Skills online courses.)

Tip 2: Know your limits

Sure, understanding your physical capabilities is important on any hike, but when mapping your route, it’s important to build in time for navigation, orientation, and watching the ground to avoid fragile plant trampling. 

“Folks who are used to hiking 10 to 20 miles on a trail need to scale back their expectations to about half of that,” says Hayes. “The ground you’re walking on is much more uneven and dynamic than a built trail, you have to make your own switchbacks, you may have to deviate significantly to avoid disturbing animals, and unexpected hazards, such as river crossings or landslides take more time to navigate.”

Tip 3: Keep it simple

Hayes suggests “navigational handrails” for those new to off-trail hiking like me. I use CVNP’s Cuyahoga River as my go-to handrail when possible. In off-the-grid wilderness like Denali, though, this situational awareness is even more important.

“We recommend first-time off-trail hikers stick to the major river drainages,” Hayes says, noting brushy areas with dense vegetation are notoriously tough. “Since the park road generally runs east to west, and the major rivers flow south to north, you note which side of the road you leave from and whether you’re hiking upstream or downstream. To get back to the road, just reverse the stream direction.”

Tip 4: Leave no trace

Off-trail hiking doesn’t mean anything goes. Just the opposite: Whether the land is wild like Denali or tamer like CVNP, off-trail hikers need to follow leave-no-trace rules to keep the wilderness pristine. “Remember to leave no trace as you travel,” says Hayes. “You’re not there to create a trail, but rather to experience the terrain on its own terms. Don’t mark routes with cairns, arrows, or broken branches, and remember to pack out your trash and bury your poop.”

Where to (legally and responsibly) hike off trail

Of course, CVNP and Denali aren’t the only spots to head cross-country. Other off-trail hiking destinations (where off-trail hiking is specifically allowed) include: Dinosaur National Monument, Olympic National Park, Lake Clark National Park, and Wind Cave National Park.

To fully prepare for off-trail hiking excursions—from emergency response to how to properly purify water—explore Backpacker’s master classes, including: Outdoor Survival 101, Backcountry Navigation, and Wilderness First Aid Basics

It’s important to observe Leave No Trace protocols while hiking off-trail and to only do it where it’s permitted, such as trailless wilderness or destinations that specifically state they allow it like CVNP, which confirms off-trail hiking is OK (unless signs post otherwise) on its website. Read more about Backpacker’s stance on off-trail hiking here