About this Itinerary
Lake Erie may be the second-smallest of the Great Lakes by surface area, the shallowest of them all, and the smallest by total volume, but even a tiny Great Lake is a pretty massive thing—enough so that residents of Cleveland, Ohio will refer to their town as being situated along the North Coast. Our featured trail, the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail, starts about 3 miles outside of the city core and follows a defunct canalway southward for 110 miles across four counties.
Canalways, like the railroads that followed and quickly rendered them obsolete, were wonders of human engineering—simultaneously low-tech and ingenious. Lakes and rivers are great for cheaply transporting heavy goods over long distances, but what if the nearby river isn’t navigable? Enter the canalway: Usually running alongside rivers, these manufactured riverbeds in essence pull a river straight, creating mile after mile of linear waterway that barges can easily navigate. Canals were created mostly level, with water locks constructed every so often to allow for movement up or down as the elevation changed—creating what amounts to a stairway for boats. Locomotion was generally provided by mules hitched to a barge. The Ohio & Erie Canalway provided passageway to mule-drawn barges for little more than 30 years before being abandoned in favor of railroads in the early 1860s, and President Garfield was even a mule tender here for a short time in his youth.
The Ohio & Erie Canalway—spanning 309 miles and one of the longest ever built—was designated a National Heritage Area in 1996 and the length of the towpath is either paved or hard-packed, crushed limestone. Restrooms abound, and the distance between towns is short enough that you can count on restaurants for your refueling needs. The trail is open around the clock if early morning or late night rides are your thing, and perhaps best of all, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad offers a bike-aboard option in summer and fall months that will make your round trip journey a lot easier; more on that later.
The nearby canal will be a near-constant companion on your ride and you’ll see the remains of many locks along the route. Note that since the trail often lies along a valley floor with some sections barely above the waterline, the Towpath is more readily subject to flooding and washouts than other trails. The Ohio and Erie Canalway website is a great resource for current information about trail conditions.
Easily accessible from any number of interstate highways, Cleveland is served by Cleveland Hopkins International Airport as well as Amtrak. In a metropolitan city of this size, lodging is easy to come by, and its status as a longtime transportation hub means that there are plenty of well-aged, historical places to lay your head.
One of the best-rated hotels in the city is the Glidden House Inn, about four miles east of the city’s central core and nestled in the elegant campus of Case Western Reserve University. Set in a mansion constructed in the early 1900s, the hotel offers all the modern amenities a visitor could want and nearby cultural offerings abound: the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Cleveland Museum of Art (free admission!), the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and Cleveland Museum of Natural History are all within easy walking or biking distance. Also nearby is the mouthful DoubleTree by Hilton - The Tudor Arms Hotel. The original Tudor Arms was built in 1933 and has since been restored in order to preserve its status as a historical landmark; it is within easy walking distance of the Children’s Museum of Cleveland.
Another great hotel option is located in the heart of downtown within the Cleveland Arcade, a stunning Victorian-era structure consisting of two nine-story office buildings joined by an elaborate arcade and topped with an iron-and-glass roof spanning more than 300 feet. The fully enclosed space was built in 1890 and was one of the country’s earliest indoor shopping malls; today it’s home to a wealth of shopping and dining offerings, as well as the Hyatt Regency Cleveland. If you stay here and professional sports are your thing, the big three are all within walking distance: a Cleveland Indians ballgame and some hoops courtesy of the Cavaliers can be found just down the street, and the Cleveland Browns ply their trade only a bit farther away in the opposite direction.
The above options are really only the tip of the iceberg (and we’ll recommend a few more upon your return back to Cleveland), so with such a wealth of world-class cultural opportunities available, it could be difficult to decide what to see before hitting the trail, but no trip to the North Coast would be complete without a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum located on the shores of Lake Erie. It’s a pretty well known story by this point, but Cleveland became the spiritual home of rock thanks to the city’s WJW radio station where disc jockey Alan Freed first popularized the term “rock and roll” and played an awful lot of it. The museum bills itself as the world's only museum devoted to the celebration and preservation of rock and roll music. If mellower music is more your tempo, the Cleveland Orchestra is widely regarded as the finest in the country and one of the best worldwide.
As with cultural offerings, there are more great restaurants in Cleveland than you have time for. For vegans, The Flaming Ice Cube promises the best tasting food around—that just happens to be vegan. Cleveland Chop is a classic steakhouse that also serves burgers and seafood. Etna offers Italian cuisine in a cozy, old-world atmosphere.
If you don’t have a bike with you, there are a few bike rental options in town: the Ohio City Bicycle Co-op rents bikes by the week, The Bike Rack offers a limited selection for rent by the hour or day, and Fridrich Bicycle, Inc. rents bikes by the day.
Day 1 (37 miles, Cleveland-Akron)
Like many trails that terminate in a large city, the urban section of the Towpath is broken up into on- and off-street routes that link up with many more trails throughout town. All this, combined with periodic construction that closes streets, can be difficult for the uninitiated to follow so it’s best to thoroughly map your route out of the city ahead of time or check with the bike shop where you rent your bike; the miles of unbroken trail don’t begin until about four miles south of Cleveland. As you make your way over rivers, across interstate overpasses, and under roadways, you’ll see a broad slice of Cleveland life, including the massive railyards that make plain the city’s status as a shipping powerhouse. Depending on your route, you may pass within a block of the home used for the exterior shots of Ralphie Parker’s house in A Christmas Story; now a museum, the home has been renovated to appear as it did in the film—both inside and out—and despite its yuletide theme, is open year-round.
About 10 miles out of the city core, you’ll pass underneath I-480 towering overhead; three miles after that, you’ll be within the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (the only national park in Ohio) and hard-pressed to know that one of the country’s 30 largest metro areas is only a short distance behind you. It’ll be another 10 miles of pedaling before you arrive in an area known properly as Boston Mills, but Helltown if you’re feeling melodramatic. In the process of creating what was then the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in the mid-1970s, the federal government seized private homes and property through eminent domain proceedings. Homes abandoned en masse and plastered with government-issued no trespassing signs stood side by side with burned-out husks of houses set ablaze in training exercises for local fire departments. With the backlog of houses taking several years to demolish, the area made for an eerie tableau to those who didn’t know the story, and thus was born legends of—take your pick here—a government coverup of a massive chemical spill, evil Satanists taking over the area, a haunted cemetery, and more.
Don’t let the ‘spooky’ nature of the area scare you away from checking out the Boston Store Visitor Center. Built in 1836, the building has been a warehouse, a boarding house for area workers, a post office, and a private residence. Now it’s a National Parks Service station and is a great place to start your visit to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park; if you participate in the NPS passport program, get your passport stamped here.
You’ll next pass under two interstates in quick succession and soon be halfway to Akron in the town of Peninsula, population 565. Located on the second floor of the Boston Township Hall is the Cuyahoga Valley Historical Museum (free admission; open Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends) which offers exhibits of the history of the valley and its nearby towns. Lunch options here include Fisher's Café & Pub and the Winking Lizard Tavern, both serving classic American fare like burgers, wings, and sandwiches. Fisher’s is a third generation restaurant; the Lizard is a locally-based chain. If needed, Century Cycles offers bike service and repairs.
Another 4 miles on is Everett, a rural village seemingly lost in time. Registered on the National Register of Historic Places, Everett seems immune to the pressures of suburban development, retaining its feel of a turn-of-the-century rural hamlet. The historic district comprises several village buildings, dating from the 1880s to the 1930s, along with outbuildings such as chicken coops, barns, and a milk house. Nearby and situated right off the trail is Szalay’s Farm, a farmers’ market offering fresh-as-fresh-can-be fruit and veggies. It’s open daily June-Oct. and was voted the region’s best farmers’ market several years running. A mile further south is Beaver Marsh where the trail becomes an elevated boardwalk over the wetlands. A wildlife and bird viewing hotspot where around 240 species of wildlife have been documented, the marsh had been a sprawling junkyard before being cleaned up by a local chapter of the Sierra Club two decades ago and subsequently flooded by the work of beavers.
At the Botzum trailhead, you’ll make a quick street crossing before rolling past a wastewater treatment facility that serves Akron. A mile and a half after that, there’s a turnoff to the right that will take you along Smith Road to a lovely side excursion: the 104-acre Nature Realm, a sprawling park featuring hiking trails, ponds, a suspension bridge spanning a deep ravine, several gardens, observation decks, botanical exhibits, kids’ areas, live animals, and a huge visitor center. One of the biggest draws is the opportunity to feed the thousands of chickadees that call the park home. Admission is free, so it’s well worth a visit to stretch your legs before making the final push into Akron. We can’t say that the half mile along Smith Road is particularly bike-friendly, but it’s short!
Back on the trail, there will soon be a false alarm that you’re entering Akron: the path takes a quick jaunt through a residential area and around a retail parking lot before plunging back into the woods once more. If your timing allows for it, consider breaking away from the Towpath once again for a 1.5-mile trip down Treaty Line Road (once again, the roadway isn’t bike-friendly, but traffic is generally sparse); what awaits you is the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, the 65-room home of the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. The manor, built in 1915, is not only one of the largest homes in the country, but is the one of the largest historic homes open to the public. In addition to the opulent mansion, the grounds feature 70 acres of artistic landscaping and formal gardens.
Four miles farther along the trail is the Mustill Store and House, a visitor center and museum that is the last combination residence and commercial structure of its kind along the Towpath; exhibits inside tell about Akron's rise from a frontier to an industrial power. Another mile along is a quick but steep climb—an uncharacteristic 5 percent grade—at the top of which you’ll cross a highway overpass and then you're in Akron, the city that was once home to the Goodrich Corporation, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and General Tire, a distinction that led to its nickname of the Rubber Capital of the World. Today, the rubber business has been greatly expanded to include other manmade materials, such that the city of 200,000 people anchors the state’s so-called Polymer Valley.
One of the best-rated hotels in the city, the Hilton Garden Inn is an easy 3 miles from the trail, mostly via easily bikeable roads, and you can cover about a third of the distance with a leisurely roll through the University of Akron campus.
Built in 1929 and located in the heart of downtown, the Akron Civic Theatre is the grand dame of Akron's live theater scene. Fashioned after a Moorish castle with elaborate Mediterranean décor, it features a twinkling star-lit sky in the auditorium and is one of the last of its kind still standing. The Civic hosts acts as varied as rock and classical musicians, comedians, plays and musicals. Just a mile or so off the Towpath is the Akron Zoo, a 50-acre animal center home to more than 700 animals; the zoo has been rated among the best of all zoos and aquariums in the country. The Akron Art Museum showcases its holdings in a funky glass and steel structure with dramatic cantilevered overhangings that makes for a striking landmark.
A family operation since 1949, Luigi’s Restaurant offers what is widely considered the city’s best pizza, as well as sandwiches and pasta; regular readers of the comic strip Funky Winkerbean will feel right at home here – Luigi’s was the model for the local pizza parlor often seen in the strip. Housed in an unassuming storefront, Taste of Bangkok was voted the best Thai restaurant in northeast Ohio. Bricco offers an extensive drink menu with 120 wines and 100 beer choices to pair with pastas, pizzas, sandwiches and hearty dinner fare.
If you’re in need of a bike tuneup, Akron Bike Center is located just across the parking lot from the Luigi’s.
Day 2 (48 miles, Akron- Zoar)
Following the Towpath out of Akron couldn’t be easier—there’s only the brief on-road section you already encountered when entering town yesterday, so once on the path again, it’s unbroken trail the rest of the way out of town. An hour or so of pedaling will bring you to the small village of Clinton, and another 20 minutes will get you to Canal Fulton, population 5,500. An hour later, you’ll be rolling into the town of Massillon; it’s been about 36 miles since you left Akron, so this city of 32,000 is a great place to stop for lunch. Kraus Pizza is a locally-based chain that also serves up wings and subs; Cameo Grill is a locally owned shop that offers big burgers at small prices; and for a sweet treat, check out Liebermann's Bakery, a very popular donut, pastry, and bread shop.
If needed, you’ll pass Ernie’s Bike Shop on the way into town; the shop offers a full range of bike services and is conveniently located just steps from the trail.
The Massillon Museum is a local art and history museum with more than 100,000 items in its permanent collection. Rotating exhibitions cover media as broad as textiles, glass and pottery. On permanent display is the Immel Circus, a 100-square foot miniature tableau containing 2,620 individual pieces carved by a local dentist using tools from his dental practice; admission is free. If you end up in Massillon on a weekend evening, consider taking in a second-run movie—shows are as varied as Ben Hur and Ghostbusters—at the Lincoln Theatre, one of the oldest purpose-built movie houses in the country still in operation. When the Lincoln first opened its doors in 1915 (for a silent film, of course—it would be nearly 15 years before the new-fangled talkies were commercially viable), Civil War veterans sat with young men soon to be called to World War I. Don’t let its age fool you though—the theater boasts digital sound and projection.
A brief on-road section will put you back on track along the towpath and heading south once more. In 6 miles, you’ll roll around the outskirts of the small town of Navarre; in another six, you’ll encounter the largest gap in the towpath as you trek along Highway 212/Dolphin Street into the town of Bolivar; note that there are no restrooms located along this Navarre-Bolivar stretch. It’s all street riding through this town of fewer than 1,000 before the trail picks up once more on the south side of town at the Fort Laurens State Memorial, the site of Ohio’s only Revolutionary War-era fort; no parts of the original fort remain above ground, but the outline of the fort remains visible. Here you can enjoy parklands and pay your respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Patriot of the American Revolution. The Ohio Historical Society operates a small museum at the site with exhibits about the frontier soldier, a video about the fort's history and archaeological artifacts from the fort's excavation; the admission fee is nominal.
Beyond Bolivar, the trail crosses over I-77 and continues to Zoar, the southern terminus of the Towpath. A very brief jaunt along County Road 82 is required to reach this small town of fewer than 200 people. Here you’ll find Zoar Village where a group of German religious dissenters set up a communal society from 1811 to 1898. Visit restored Zoarite buildings and businesses and enjoy a walk in Zoar’s expansive public garden, preserved and maintained as it was in the 1800s. The Ohio Historical Society calls the site an island of Old-World charm in east-central Ohio. Admission fees for tours are fairly low.
Located just off the bike path, Canal Tavern of Zoar caters to towpath travelers, offering steaks, seafood and German specialties. Firehouse Grille & Pub serves up an extensive menu that includes pizza, wings, barbecue, steaks and chicken dishes. And if you’re looking to provision up for the next leg of the trip, you can get groceries at Zoar Market, a family-owned convenience store with a full-service deli.
For such a small town, there are a surprising number of inns at which to stay the night, with four located in the heart of historic Zoar. Because all are small bed and breakfast-style inns, advance reservations are strongly recommended. In addition to its four rooms, the Cider Mill of Zoar sports a gift shop; check out its extensive collection of products made by American artisans. The Cobbler Shop’s five guest rooms are decorated with antiques dating back to 1828 and its antique shop offers more for sale. The Keeping Room Bed & Breakfast has many antiques on display as well, including a claw-foot bathtub in each guest room. The Zoar School Inn Bed & Breakfast, located in what was once the community’s sole school house, requires a two-night stay.
Located along the shore of Zoar Lake, Zoar Wetland Arboretum is a natural wetland ecosystem with a 30-acre shallow marsh and two miles of trails crisscrossing 50 woodland acres. The arboretum and surrounding area is a popular geocaching spot in which people hide and hunt for hidden treasures. Admission is free; donations are welcome. On Friday and Saturday evenings May-Oct., you can take a guided candlelit stroll on a ghost tour of Zoar; reservations are required. A mile south of town is Zoar Village Golf Course. This 18-hole, 6,700-yard course is one of Ohio’s best-rated. Assuming you haven’t been packing a nine-iron this whole trip, you can rent clubs from the clubhouse.
Day 3 (48 miles, Zoar-Akron)
The Towpath officially terminates seven miles further south at State Road 800, but you won’t be missing anything if you turn around and start heading back north, checking out the sights you may have missed on the ride in.
Day 4 (14 miles, Akron-Cleveland)
How can Day 4 be a mere 14 miles of riding? Today’s the day the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s bike-aboard program comes into play. Less than two miles north of downtown Akron is the CVSR’s Akron Northside Station where, for a nominal fee, you can wheel your bike aboard and ride the rails to Rockside Station, about 12 miles south of downtown Cleveland. Note that the bike-aboard program operates only during the summer and fall, June-Oct. We know we recommended more things to do in Cleveland than you possibly had time for, but what the heck – here are a few more!
If you’re into zoos, museums and live theater, Cleveland has you amply covered: The country’s largest performing arts center outside of New York City is right here; Playhouse Square presents Broadway shows, concerts, dances, plays, comedies, operas, speakers, family shows and more. Billing itself as an amusement park for the brain, the Great Lakes Science Center offers hands-on family fun with science demonstrations and exhibits on topics from renewable energy to space exploration. The Cleveland Aquarium is a 70,000 square foot facility divided into eight galleries and more than 50 exhibits featuring both local and exotic species of fish. The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s 183-acre site is home to 3,000 animals representing 600 species; the zoo has one of the largest collections of primates in North America.