On July 3, 1827, a small boat set forth from Akron, traveled north at roughly three miles per hour and arrived in Cleveland the following day. The short, perplexing history of the Ohio and Erie Canal began.

On July 3, 1827, a small boat set forth from Akron, traveled north at roughly three miles per hour and arrived in Cleveland the following day. The short, perplexing history of the Ohio and Erie Canal began.

It didn't last long.

In 1880, a railroad line completed insultingly close to the canal sapped the ditch's remaining utility, which had dwindled by the 1860s. Rail passengers chugged by until 1963 - and freight until 1985 - as highways pushed the great iron horses into memory.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park doesn't have the remote wilderness or striking geological features of other national parks. Instead it preserves important parts of the heartland's cultural and economic fabric, a time capsule of ways that were and will never be again.

Through the heart of the park's 33,000 acres runs the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, a passenger line into this rich nostalgia. It's also an unforgettable way to see fall color in the tree-lined riverside valley between Independence and Akron. Leaves were changing last week and should be nearing their peak this weekend.

Most trains making the three-hour round trip are comfy, modern diesel rigs with plenty of seating and a dining car. You can grab sandwiches, souvenirs, coffee, beer or a glass of wine as you kick back and enjoy the ride. (There's even a happy hour.)

Round-trip tickets cost $15 or just $2 if you plan to bike part of the way.

Beyond the windows is familiar northern Ohio territory: wide fields, occasional patches of farmland, small marshes and younger forest slowly healing from the scars of people eager to expand and settle.

Highlights include several vintage bridges and locks and a swath of dead trees drowned by a beaver dam and overtaken by about 70 nesting great blue heron families. To ensure you spot the good stuff, grab complimentary headphones for an audio tour that describes in detail the region's natural and cultural history.

The train acts as an artery into the long, skinny park, so take some extra time to visit local parks, farmers markets, hiking trails and field stations near the line's eight depots.

Trip guides, trail reviews and other wonderful things await at the Ohio Adventure Map, available at columbusalive.com/venture.