Metroparks Trail Challenge: Discovering the Hidden Valley at the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation

Erin O’Brien has accepted the Cleveland Metroparks 2022 Trail Challenge. She will be chronicling her adventures on the trails throughout the year.

It was 23 degrees at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, March 4 when my esteemed associate Robyn Wyatt and I set out to complete the first of my installments on the Metroparks 2022 Trail Challenge Presented by Cigna.

<span class="content-image-text">At times, the path is worthy of Dorothy and the Scarecrow.</span>At times, the path is worthy of Dorothy and the Scarecrow.We stepped off on one of my favorite paths along the venerable Emerald Necklace: the northern route from the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation on East 49th Street to the Harvard Road trailhead, one of several treks challenge participants can select from the 2022 Trail List.

With a round trip distance of about five miles, this easy-going, mostly flat path took a little more than two hours, despite our brisk pace (blame side diversions and my incessant need to stop and take photos).

The features along the quarter mile descent from the CanalWay Center to the main all-purpose trail (the only real hilly portion of the walk unless you venture up to the overlook a scant mile north of the center) prime you for one of the most brilliant trails in the greater Cleveland area.

The Blue Heron Boardwalk beckons while a quiet pond recalls busy gnawing beavers and snapping turtles. That curious steel circle planted in the ground isn't there just for a perfect picture frame, it's actually a cross section from the same 10-foot diameter pipe that makes up the Southwest Interceptor, which traverses this hidden valley just to the south of the CanalWay trail entrance. It's carrying sewage to the neighboring Northeast Ohio Sewer District's Southerly Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Go ahead and wrinkle your nose, but not too much. After all, you've undoubtedly made a few contributions to the plant's intake pipes yourself.

<span class="content-image-text">The Blue Heron Boardwalk with the CSX Short Line rail bridge looming in the background.</span>The Blue Heron Boardwalk with the CSX Short Line rail bridge looming in the background.The American Bridge Company built the railroad bridge towering over this humble and majestic scene in 1907. Rebuilt in 1999, the quarter-mile trestle span (known as the CSX Short Line) stands 160 feet high. And even though freight trains traverse it some 50 times a day, when the cargo-laden cars break through the scene, it never gets old. I look up and watch transfixed for at least a moment or two every time I hear a train whistle.

The dazzling winter sun and crisp air exhilarated both of us after the gray frozen days of February. We felt like the only ones on the trail on that bright Friday morning, although a couple of park vehicles and a cyclist or two passed us as we walked and talked about biofield tuning, the value of a quarter, whether or not we'll ever figure out NFTs (non-fungible tokens), collecting vinyl, moms, and all the rest of it.

There is no more perfect place to catch up with an old friend than this long spacious section of paved trail. And while weekend traffic is considerably more robust, no matter how busy the path is, it's easy to forget that this stunning natural park is in the middle of a dense urban area—until you're reminded.

<span class="content-image-text">Wildlife refuge area.</span>Wildlife refuge area.As you walk beneath canopies formed by oaks and maples and ash trees that are older than your dad, hulking steel works percolate on the bluffs above you. Grass meadows wave gently next to you, while trucks roar around the transport businesses on the other side of the river. A symphony of birds sing along to all of it. And the massive infrastructure components will not be denied, particularly the high voltage transmission towers that are tethered to the sprawling substation adjacent to the CanalWay Center.

I have been walking this path for more than 15 years, yet it never fails to fill me with wonder. While it's green and lush in the height of summer, the absence of foliage in winter divulges so many secrets. Abandoned concrete cisterns poke through the forest ground like otherworldly mushrooms. Details of an old pump house are laid bare. Colorful cargo containers associated with the aforementioned truck commerce look like kid's building blocks without all the leaves and thick green vines to hide them.

If you just have time for a short walk, do the Lower 40 loop trail. It's about a 1.5-mile round trip from CanalWay Center. In the fairer months, the forest it winds through is so enchanting, it will have you believing in fairies and gnomes. In the winter days, you'll still be mystified when you emerge onto a clearing by the Cuyahoga River from whence Buckeye Partner's three-million-gallon petroleum storage tanks announce themselves as real life giants they are.

The walk's most notable infrastructure component is also one of the quietest: the remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal, dug with shovels by local farmhands and rough-housers nearly 200 years ago for a few thin dimes and a snort of whiskey as a day's pay. Their ghosts nod as you amble along their stalwart contribution to our history and culture. This unique ribbon along the Cuyahoga represents so much more than the confluence of water and steel; flora and fauna; wildlife and people. It is who we were, who we are, and perhaps who we will be.

The Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation is at 4524 E. 49th Street, Cuyahoga Heights, Ohio. The CanalWay Center building is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed on New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.