Making Waves: A new Lake Erie water trail is in the works

Between the sunbathers dotting the beaches and the boats bobbing in the water, it’s clear Clevelanders know Lake Erie is the place to be on a warm summer day. Thanks to a new initiative working toward the creation of a Lake Erie water trail, that popularity probably will continue growing.

Spearheaded by the Cleveland Metroparks, and inspired by the recently designated Cuyahoga River Water Trail, the proposed Lake Erie version would stretch around 25 watery miles from end to end, spanning the coastlines of Bay Village (starting at Huntington Reservation Metropark), Rocky River, Lakewood, Cleveland, Bratenahl and Euclid (ending at Sims Park). The goal is to show off the lake’s natural beauty while also educating kayakers and stand up paddleboard users on the safest way to experience the water.

(The project is not to be confused with Cuyahoga County’s Oct. 17 announcement of ambitious plans for a land-based waterfront trail also running from Bay Village to Euclid.)

“I've paddled on rivers and lakes, but I've only been on Lake Erie once, and the conditions there are so different,” says Kelly Coffman, who as senior strategic park planner for the Cleveland Metroparks is leading the effort to create the trail. “For a novice paddler, conditions can change so quickly, and that education is warranted. We want to make sure we're arming folks with the knowledge they need to stay safe when they embark on the lake.”

To prep paddlers for the rapidly changing weather conditions and high traffic of the lake, the water trail would consist of signage along the route, and brochures with maps, safety tips and public access points identified for launching your watercraft or taking a break. Paddlers can tailor the route to their level of comfort and expertise: doing it out and back, one way, just a portion, or chaining it to one of the tributaries that empty into the lake, such as the Rocky River.

With the enormous growth in numbers of paddlers over the last decade, thanks to cleaner waterways and the price of kayaks dropping, the time is right to add a Lake Erie route to the growing roster of water trails across the state, according to Tom Arbour, land and water trails coordinator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Watercraft.

“Experienced paddlers like to travel and see new water, and the water trail, in the future when it is developed, will be a destination to get people from other parts of the state to the Cuyahoga County coast,” says Arbour.

Less experienced paddlers and locals are sure to be attracted too, judging by the sheer numbers of paddlers ODNR has had registering their watercraft. The number of registered kayaks and canoes in Ohio skyrocketed from 67,880 in 2016 to 257,528 in 2019. While those numbers don’t reflect paddlers on Lake Erie specifically, and don’t include stand up paddleboards (which aren’t required to be registered by the state), it’s obvious more paddlers of all levels are setting sail on our waterways.

“We're excited to see folks across Cuyahoga County really embrace the lakefront,” says Coffman. “We've seen such a tremendous resurgence and use of the lake for recreation since we began management of the lakefront parks back in 2013. The water trail is a natural outgrowth of that.”

Besides educating paddlers and creating a recreational destination, the trail will also put the natural beauty of the lakefront on full display, from the towering bluffs and cliffs on the western end, to its beaches and parks, known for being hubs for migratory birds and insects, like the annual monarch migration.

“It's one of our greatest natural resources here in Cleveland,” says Coffman. “The more familiar people are with Lake Erie, we think that'll also help encourage environmental stewardship.”

A kickoff meeting for the water trail planning took place in June, and since then, Coffman has been rallying support from each community the trail would pass through and developing the educational materials paddlers will reference. Once the plan is complete, it will go to Arbour to review for ODNR’s approval. The goal is to finalize the trail by paddling season in 2020. But the Lake Erie Water Trail would ultimately be just one piece of a larger puzzle.

“The idea's been around for at least a decade to have a water trail along the entire Lake Erie coast,” says Arbour. “This would be a part of that someday. What we're working toward is developing locally these small projects. Then one day we tie them all together to create an Ohio Lake Erie water trail. And who knows? Maybe someday you could create an entire Lake Erie water trail that includes Canada, New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, too.”

Ilona Westfall
Ilona Westfall

About the Author: Ilona Westfall

Ilona Westfall is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. When she's not penning articles for a variety of Ohio publications, she's roller skating with Burning River Roller Derby, rolling d20s with her D&D group, or getting muddy in the woods. Follow her on twitter @IlonaWestfall.