Early in the 1800s, connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River seemed like a great idea. The project seemed easy, too, except for a large tract of land, known as Ohio, sitting in the way.

Early in the 1800s, connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River seemed like a great idea. The project seemed easy, too, except for a large tract of land, known as Ohio, sitting in the way.

Washington's answer was the Ohio & Erie Canal, which by 1833 linked Cleveland to Portsmouth through a small dirt channel lined with sandstone and hundreds of locks that ushered narrow, flat-bottom boats through elevation shifts. Before it was made obsolete by a growing railroad network, it provided cheap, reliable passage of goods and people - $1.70 per person, $25 per ton of goods.

This shipping marvel now lies at the center of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a beautiful, interactive preserve that protects 33,000 acres of riparian land in Northeast Ohio.

It's the only national park in Ohio - and a perfect place to spend a summer day.

Driving north from Columbus, you can enter at numerous points along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, a hard-packed cinder multi-use that runs the length of the park. From here, you can access shorter wooded trails, historical farms and much of the Cleveland Metro Parks.

Historical displays along the way tell of grist mills, dry docks and other structures now reclaimed by the verdant meadows and emergent forests that spread from either side of the crooked river.

Casual outdoor trips start at Thornburg Station. Walk south to the Canal Visitor Center, where you'll find a restored house and lock and a grassy picnic area for lunch. Continue south on the towpath to pick up more rugged trails at the Frazee House. Hike as much as you want there, then take the towpath back.

For a more adventurous excursion, try the section of towpath between Brecksville Station and Boston Mills Ski Resort, which offers numerous side trails winding through the woods. Hit part of the Buckeye Trail near Vaughn Road, take it south past Blue Hen Falls and link back up with the towpath for the way back.

The main trail's long, straight path can make return trips somewhat samey, so the park system operates one of the most unique amenities in the state: the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

Running between Cleveland and Canton Wednesday through Sunday, this genuine passenger car is the best way to bike the park. You can cycle the towpath from one end to the other, then take the train back for $2.

Cuyahoga Valley might not have the secluded vantages of more famous national parks, but it's a beautiful expanse with plenty to do, see and learn.