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Crooked River tour

The Cuyahoga River is the celebrity river of Northeast Ohio. The fire in 1969 made it an international symbol of environmental pollution. The cleanup since then has inspired hope of restoration. Yet few people know the whole river and its diverse landscapes and stories. The slideshow below provides a glimpse.

River of dreams<br />The Cuyahoga is our international icon -- a symbol of the worst environmental degradation and the most inspiring restoration. Everyone knows a different facet of the river and has a different story to tell. (Photo of the Cuyahoga River at Peninsula by Ian Adams)Cuyahoga River watershed<br />The Cuyahoga -- the Crooked River -- has an unusual crooked route. It starts in the snow belt of Geauga County, flows south to Akron, then turns north to Cleveland. (Wikipedia Commons map by Kmusser)Upper Cuyahoga<br />In dramatic contrast to the industrial lower river in Cleveland, the upper Cuyahoga in Geauga County is a State Scenic River, a high quality stream with many adjacent wetlands and much wildlife -- a great place to paddle a canoe. (Photo by Ian Adams)Rich in history<br />Although a small river, the Cuyahoga was a strategic link from the interior of the early United States to the Great Lakes. Now a 22-mile segment of the river forms the backbone of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the most popular national parks in the country. Crossing the divide<br />A statue of a Native American carrying a canoe marks the northern terminus of the Portage Trail in Akron. The trail allowed passage between the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas watersheds -- and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence and Mississippi watersheds.View at Peninsula<br />The Cuyahoga flowing peacefully on a summer day.Lock at Peninsula<br />North of Akron, the Ohio & Erie Canal runs through the valley of the Cuyahoga River. The remnants of 19th century locks add historic character to the valley.Biking the Towpath Trail<br />North of Akron, the Towpath Trail follows the Cuyahoga River (shown here at Peninsula). Hiking and biking on the Towpath is one of the best ways to experience the beauty of the river. Erosion<br />As a relatively young river, the Cuyahoga wants to move around, and its banks of easily erodible glacial till, sediments, and sedimentary rocks make it easy to move. Stormwater runoff from developing communities in the watershed increases peak flows and the amount of erosion. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park often must shore up eroding river banks to protect valuable infrastructure, such as the Towpath Trail, shown here near Peninsula. Under traffic<br />Between the towns of Boston and Peninsula the river runs under major highway bridges for I-271 and the Ohio Turnpike (shown here).Rich habitats<br />The Cuyahoga Valley National Park protects a rich mosaic of habitats along the river, including wet meadows, wetlands and floodplain forests. Route 82 Bridge<br />One of the landmarks along the Cuyahoga River is the multi-arched Route 82 Bridge.Cuyahoga barrier<br />This low-head dam below the Route 82 Bridge is one of the last remaining barriers on the mainstem of the Cuyahoga River, along with the Gorge Dam between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. The removal of other dams has improved the ecological health of the river. Kent Dam<br />The partial removal of the dam in Kent allows the river to run free and has improved habitat for fish and other aquatic life. History in the Cuyahoga Valley<br />The building known as the Canal Visitor Center has stood at Lock 38 for over 150 years. It has been a tavern, a store, a residence, a boardinghouse, and a blacksmith shop. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park has restored many structures the offer a glimpse of 19th century frontier life in the Western Reserve. Following the river<br />The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers a fun way to see the river and the valley. Into the Flats<br />The Cuyahoga changes dramatically at the head of the navigation channel by the steel mills, turning from a shallow, flowing stream to a deep, slack shipping channel with sheet pile banks. (Photo by Ian Adams)Industrial river<br />The Cuyahoga River valley in Cleveland was a crucible of the industrial age, the site of early production of oil, chemicals, paint, and steel. The ArcelorMittal steel works in Cleveland is still one of the largest integrated steel producers in the country. Working river<br />The lower five-mile stretch of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland is a dredged shipping channel for freighters delivering stone, cement, iron ore, and other bulk commodities. It's also becoming a popular place for rowing clubs. River of bridges<br />The Cuyahoga runs under an amazing variety of bridges, especially in the Flats area of Cleveland. Urban river<br />The Cuyahoga flows through diverse landscapes, from pristine wetlands in Geauga County to the urban center of Cleveland.Legacy of pollution<br />For over 100 years, the Cuyahoga River was an industrial and municipal sewer. This historical photo provides some sense of how bad the pollution was.River mouth at Lake Erie<br />Decades of environmental cleanup since the Clean Water Act in 1972 have brought the Cuyahoga River back to live. Although there is still major work left to do (such as programs to correct combined sewer overflows), the restoration is amazing.Experiencing a new river<br />Now that the Cuyahoga has been cleaned up, people are rediscovering the water. The Burning River Fest brings people out to Whiskey Island and the old Coast Guard Station. River's end<br />The old Coast Guard Station marks where the Cuyahoga River flows into Lake Erie. The station will be the northern terminus of the recreational trail system that extends 110 miles to the south. Recent efforts to stabilize and improve the vacant station have been spurred by the annual Burning River Fest.

Multiple personalities from country to city

The Cuyahoga is a river with many faces. Upstream of Lake Rockwell by Kent, the river flows lazily through agricultural countryside and pristine wetlands. The wetland areas, some protected as part of Akron’s water supply lands, are great places to watch wildlife from a canoe. Downstream by Cuyahoga Falls and Akron the river descends steeply through a gorge, and when the last dam is removed this will be a prime spot for whitewater kayaking. Then the river runs through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and is part of a natural and historic, canal landscape from the 19th century. Finally, the river flows through the industrial valley of Cleveland and reaches Lake Erie.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Cuyahoga has been the focus of many environmental cleanup efforts. As a result, water quality and the diversity of aquatic life have been much improved. There’s still work to be done (especially work by the City of Akron and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to reduce combined sewer overflows), but much of the worst industrial pollution has been curtailed. In the next few years, it might even be possible to remove the Cuyahoga from the list of the most polluted areas around the Great Lakes.

There’s more public access to the river all the time -- even rowing access in the lower navigation channel. It’s a great time to experience the amazing sights along this historic river.

For information about how to help restore the Cuyahoga and other streams in Northeast Ohio, see the river restoration section of our Clean Water Activities page.

Watershed facts

  • Length: 85 miles from confluence of East and West branches in Geauga County (each branch adds 15 miles)
  • Area of watershed: 813 square miles
  • Special designations: American Heritage River (one of 14 nationally), State Scenic River (upper 25 miles), Area of Concern (lower river, one of 43 water bodies around the Great Lakes listed for special remedial action)


The little river is still challenging men to works so vast that mile for mile it can’t be matched by any river I have ever heard of in the world.
— William Donohue Ellis, The Cuyahoga

A lot of Cleveland thinks that the Cuyahoga is a place that divides Cleveland. But rowers don't look at it that way. We see the Cuyahoga as a place we all come together, East Side, West Side. When we are on the Cuyahoga, we are all in the same boat, literally.
— Robert Valerian, Cleveland Rowing Foundation

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