The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley is the perfect place to take you family for a cycling adventure. The smooth and flat Towpath is friendly to cyclists of all ages and abilities, and there are many nearby amenities for food, drinks and sightseeing. You can pick an out-and-back ride of whatever distance you care to tackle, depending on how much energy the kids have to burn. To make a full day of it, choose your parking location, load your family and your lunch onto your bikes, ride to a convenient picnic spot, then flag down the train to catch a ride back to your car. Here's how to make it happen:
Where to start
The most convenient place to start your day is in the village of Peninsula, which is located on Route 303 in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just a few miles off State Route 8 or I-271. Ample parking is available at the Lock 29 Trailhead; follow the signs from the traffic light in the middle of town.
Other popular starting spots are the Botzum Trailhead, located near the intersection of Riverview and Bath roads just north of Akron; Station Road Bridge, located off Riverview Road adjacent to the Brecksville Reservation; and the Lock 39 Trailhead, located just off Rockside Road in Independence. Public restrooms are provided at all four of these areas.
Bicycles for everyone
If someone needs a bicycle to ride, Century Cycles in Peninsula (1621 Main St./Route 303; www.centurycycles.com) rents comfort hybrid bikes for adults and a few smaller-sized mountain bikes for children ($8 per hour per bike, [includes helmet; sales tax is additional]).
For the youngest members of the family, they also offer tag-alongs ($4/hour) and trailers ($8/hour). Tag-alongs convert a regular bike into a two-person bike for an adult and child. They are a good choice for kids just learning to ride a bike or who don't have the stamina for a longer ride. A bike trailer is a great choice for toddlers and small children. A trailer can hold one or two kids (and their snacks and toy friends), up to 100 pounds total. The children can sit back and enjoy the ride (and even nap) while their parents take care of the pedaling. Many parents also use the trailer and tag-along rentals as a way of "test driving" the products for an afternoon before they purchase them for future family bicycling.
If you have your own bike, Century Cycles provides repair services and carries a full selection of cycling clothing and accessories. The store also offers night rides on the Towpath Trail should a family want a guided ride to experience the nocturnal version of the Towpath. Check the Century Cycles Web site for dates and details.
Sightseeing along the way
As you ride on the Towpath, you'll see plenty of wildlife along the way. In fact, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is home to more than 900 plant species, 194 bird species, 32 mammal species and 20 species of reptiles.
As for attractions, a popular stopping point is the tiny town of Boston, about 2½ miles north of Peninsula on the Towpath. The Boston Store Visitor Center offers historic photographs, diagrams and stories from the canal boat-building industry of the early 1800s, as well as clean restrooms with running water and drinking fountains. Next door, the M.D. Garage is a former gas and service station that now hosts artist and craft showcases. Just across the street, the Trail Mix store sells candy, ice cream and even the occasional homemade cookie.
At the northern end of the valley, the Canal Visitor Center is located about two miles down the Towpath from Rockside Road. Here, exhibits illustrate the 12,000-year history of the valley, including the history of the canal. Down in the southern end, take a short detour on Bath Road to the Great Blue Heron Viewing Area. The road's shoulder is smooth and wide to provide a safe place to ride. Here, mainly in the spring, you can see the majestic blue herons with their wings spread, soaring from tree to tree as they tend their nests, which contain their just-hatched young.
All aboard - even your bike!
Don't feel like pedaling back to your car? Kids love trains, too? Then take advantage of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad Flagstop Service (www.cvsr.com). For a fare of only $2 per person (a steal - fares usually average $10-$15), the train will take you and your bike one-way between any of the train's eight stations, all located on or near the Towpath. A train ride can even be planned into your day. For example, start your family's ride in Peninsula and bicycle north for 15 miles to the Rockside Station (stopping at the Canal Visitor Center along the way), then ride the train back to Peninsula. Check the CVSR Web site for the current schedule and full details.
Time to refuel
Nothing beats a picnic to bring the family together on a summer day, so pack a lunch and bring it along in a backpack or your bike's cargo bag. There are picnic tables at most of the trailhead/parking areas mentioned above, as well as at other points on the trail, such as Deep Lock Quarry, Hunt Farm Visitor Center and Ira Road.
If you'd prefer to have your lunch served to you, the local communities provide numerous options. Peninsula has two popular restaurants - The Winking Lizard and Fisher's Café and Pub - right in the center of town. The Merriman Valley area on the north end of Akron has several local restaurants and bars, as well as a couple of poplular fast-food chains. Independence has a wide variety of establishments for every taste and budget, and the nearby entertainment plaza on Canal Road in Valley View has several restaurants, as well as the local multiplex movie theater.
Tips to help enjoy a day on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail:
Bring water. Staying hydrated is essential to safely enjoying any outdoor activity.
If you're not packing a lunch, carry some small snacks to keep yourself and the kids energized.
Take your cell phone to call for help in case of a breakdown or other unexpected event.
Read and follow the safety tips posted at most of the Towpath trailheads.
Get a map of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park ahead of time to help plan your trip. These are available at Park Visitor Centers, Century Cycles and many local shops.
Kevin Madzia knows a good bike trail when he rides one. His cycling accomplishments include riding from Seattle to Boston and a third-place finish in a 24-hour mountain bike race. He is a Web site manager for Century Cycles.