Metroparks Trail Challenge: A gritty and majestic walk along the Lakefront Reservation

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

For my sixth installment of the Metroparks 2022 Trail Challenge Presented by Cigna, I enlisted the support of my husband Eric, daughter Jessie, and family friend Kay Babic to log more than four miles on June 19 along one of the area's most beloved greenspaces. We headed to the Lakefront Reservation, specifically Edgewater Beach, loaded up with bonhomie and picnic fare. With temperatures in the low 70s and wall-to-wall sunshine, the weather made for a dazzling backdrop of blue sky and water.

The author's crew treks along the APT at the Edgewater Lakefront Reservation.Our group hopped onto the paved all-purpose trail (APT) near the Beach House and made our way east on this mostly flat path. Unlike the shady natural trails that characterized my previous treks, this walk unfurls amid one of our area's grandest open spaces. And we were hardly the only ones enjoying it on Father's Day 2022.

The scent of lighter fluid and sizzling burgers lingered in the air amid flying frisbees and kites. Sunbathers, kids on bikes, ice cream eaters, people fishing, and grill chefs brandishing tongs lent a welcome and festive feel to our outing. Heaven on earth? That might be a stretch, but at a minimum it was a perfect break from everything ailing us—from politics to the pandemic.

Of all the options on the trail list, this one represents an undeniably authentic Cleveland experience. If you want to immerse yourself in an unobstructed lakefront excursion, this is the walk to take. If you have out-of-town guests that love an outdoor activity, this is the walk to take. And if you're strung out on the blues, this is the walk to take.

The history along this stretch is at once quiet, majestic, and gritty. The attributes of the beach are obvious enough, and the gracious-but-funky Beach House is an apt haven for sand-covered kids seeking a snack and sun worshippers in need of a break. But for me, the real amenities of this trail represent who we are on a deep level, starting with something that isn't exactly glamourous: sewage.

Long view of Wendy's Way pedestrian bridge from the Willow Avenue Bridge.You'll leave that green expanse of lawn behind you as pass through the no-man's land portion of the Whiskey Island Trail that's characterized by hot parking lots and a chain link fence sequestering Edgewater Yacht Club. The path then gives way to the Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant, which you can't miss either with your eyes or nose, but don't grimace too much. You've undoubtedly made a few contributions to the plant yourself.

The facility, which dates back 100 years, services more than 107,000 residents with an average daily throughput of 33 million gallons. And the plant's location is more significant than meets the eye. It's very near the original mouth of the Cuyahoga. The straight channel we know and love, which is home to the iconic Coast Guard Station and Iron Curtain bridge, was dug in 1827 in order to make the crooked river a little less crooked.

And for most locals, this walk will get you closer to the Old River than you've ever been before, but first, there is the business of the Cleveland Bulk Terminal.

This stretch of dirt has its charm, however industrial. It is my favorite part of the walk. Delivered by freighters such as the Calumet, H. Lee White and American Spirt, mountains of taconite pellets wait along the shore here to be transformed into steel upriver. Until then, they carve a unique backdrop against the Lake Erie horizon, and serve as the perfect preface for the star of this particular trail: the new Wendy's Way pedestrian bridge.

The 500-foot bridge opened in June 2021. When you traverse it, you'll enjoy unparalleled views of the old section of the river (referenced above) and you'll walk right over the seemingly endless Norfolk Southern rail traffic. The skyline from this vantage point includes the usual skyscrapers, but it also puts the Cuyahoga's unique bridges center stage. From the snaking 8,000-foot Main Avenue Bridge to the frozen jack-knives, Wendy's Way is also a unique platform from which to view some of the most historic infrastructure in the area.

Wheelies by the water!From here, you might opt to continue over to the pier and follow it down to where the Cuyahoga meets the lake. Or you could continue south, over the Old River via the Willow Avenue Bridge. That will lead you to a short but magnificent portion of the Cleveland Foundation Centennial Lake Link Trail, which connects the intersection of Mulberry Avenue and River Road to Old Detroit and the underbelly of the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

If instead you turn around to trek the nearly two miles back to the main beach and the lure of your picnic basket (our was brimming with chips, sammies, fruit parfaits, and even homemade börek courtesy of Kay), no one will fault you for stopping at the Whiskey Island Still & Eatery to wet your whistle.

And if you choose to drive or ride there in order to enjoy a cold drink on a hot day on Cleveland's own Whiskey Island, it will still get you that much closer to heaven.

Some takeaways:

•  Before our beloved Guardians of Traffic became the titular head of a ball team, they inspired the unique public art installation on Wendy's Way, which is a story in its own right.

•  Near the westernmost end of Edgewater Beach you'll find a weird concrete and steel structure emerging from the sand. Per the attached sign, "The large round black disc on the concrete may open and discharge untreated sewage at any given time. When that does happen, the phenomenon often makes the local news. Perhaps this slice of heaven is also home to the gates of hell.

•  The Hulett ore unloaders are the stuff of an industrial history buff's dream. These dinosaurs of yesteryear used to unload ore from the bellies of the lake freighters. They are all but gone, save for a couple of Hulett carcasses that are still visible near those mountains of taconite on Whiskey Island, but you really have to look for them.

•  During our otherwise fair outing, a large police and EMS presence had descended upon the easterly part of the park. We later discovered they were tending to the unfortunate business of recovering a body from the rocks along the shore. Alas, the Grim Reaper is never far from the action.

Edgewater Lakefront Reservation is accessible to cars and people from a number of points including Cleveland Memorial Shoreway and pedestrian tunnels at West 65th and 76th Streets.

Read more articles by 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 erinobrien.us for complete profile information.