The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail or simply the "towpath," as it is more commonly known, is one of Ohio's longest and most scenic bikeways. When finished, it will extend about 100-miles from Lake Erie at Cleveland, to New Philadelphia.
Within the Cleveland Metroparks jurisdiction, the towpath surface is asphalt. This is also true along some segments in Akron. Otherwise riding along the towpath means riding on a compacted, finely crushed stone surface.
For those who prefer an asphalt surface, this may be a concern. Fear not. The surface is firmly packed and can easily be navigated on a road bike. Newer sections may have a few spots that are loosely packed, but for the most part these areas are few and far between.
If you don't like cleaning your bike, however, you should know that the towpath can be fairly dusty, particularly during extended dry periods in summer. The dust isn't a problem while riding, but a good bike cleaning will be needed afterward. If this sounds like a hassle, try riding the day after some rain.
The Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail will start at the Cuyahoga River near Lake Erie in Cleveland, OH. The Northern terminus will be at the future Canal Basin Park near Detroit Avenue.
Though the northernmost section of towpath will stop short of Lake Erie, there is a connector trail in the works to take trail users to the lakeshore. It's called the Lake Link Trail and you'll find a completed segment that connects to the Scranton Flats section of the towpath.
From the Scranton Flats segment south, there is a .3-mile gap in the trail where road riding is required. Thanks to new trail construction in 2017 - 2018, new towpath now stretches down to the southend of Steelyard Commons.
From here continuing south, an .8-mile gap exists over to the Harvard Road Trailhead where the towpath continues southward to the CVNP.
The northern portion of the trail follows the old canal route through the Cuyahoga Valley and the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. A section also parallels the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad which caters to cyclists with its 'Bike Aboard' program.
The CVNP is also where the towpath joins up with 2 other major regional trails, the Akron Bike & Hike Trail and the Emerald Necklace Trail. In fact, the Emerald Necklace and towpath share a short stretch of towpath near the Brecksville Reservation, while the Bike-Hike runs parallel to about 9-miles of towpath in this same area.
Our ride north to Harvard Road was surprisingly quiet. Though we were now in Cleveland, it certainly didn't feel that way. The Cuyahoga Valley had created its own peaceful environment along the towpath as it carried us closer to the lake.
It felt like we had sneaked past much of the big city on our way north. It'll be interesting to see how the remaining miles play out over to Steelyard Commons and through the industrial area that still stands between the towpath and its final destination.
The Canalway Center is just off the trail in Cuyahoga Heights. The connecting spur that takes you there continues on along nearby city streets and over to the Washington Reservation, about 2 miles to the north.
Previously the tranquility of the trail would begin to fade as you rode south into Valley View. Lynda Warner reported on major improvements there: "As of [fall 2006], two very unique bridges were opened, which remove the stress of having to cross two major intersections."
View from Towpath Bridge in Valley View, OH Photo by Lynda Warner
In Valley View you'll pass under the super structure of I-480 that towers overhead as you make your way to the Thornburg Station, a commercial complex that offers a trailside eatery. This also marks the spot where the asphalt surface changes to classic towpath crushed stone as you leave the jurisdiction of the Cleveland Metroparks and continue southbound past Rockside Road.
Mile marker posts tick off the miles as you head further away from Lake Erie, mile "0". This provides a good way to gauge your distance from the north coast from any point on the towpath.
Now you enter the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where some facilites are open year-round. Perks for trail users include: riding on the scenic railway and limited camping spots reserved for through hikers and cyclists. Reservations are required. The camping season runs from Memorial Day through Oct. 31.
[Alert! -Trail section closure in Akron into 2019. The towpath is closed from Mustill Store north to Memorial Pkwy, a distance of ~1 mile. See a map of this trail section detour (closure). Use Hickory Street as your parallel detour route along this segment.]
Video of the Towpath Detour
The Summit County section includes most of the trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. From there it continues south through Akron, Barberton and just south of Clinton, OH.
The Cuyahoga Valley Train offers service to cyclists along a stretch of the trail from North Akron to Independence. Hopping aboard gives visitors another way to enjoy the valley and knock some miles off your ride when you're doubling back to your car.
There are good trailheads all along the towpath. Peninsula makes an excellent starting point. It's between Cleveland and Akron and has parking right along the trail with restroom facilities. There's also a depot for the scenic railway, restaurants and a bike shop.
The route south from Peninsula was constructed with many gentle curves to lend more interest and character to the trail. And it does make a more pleasurable ride. The only drawback is that sight lines can be limited, making passing a tricky proposition on heavy-traffic days.
Barberton, OH Towpath
There are some wooden boardwalk trail sections along the towpath, and the Akron-area has its share. The sections here are approximately 14' wide and feature wide, sweeping turns. When riding south you pickup speed on a slight downhill and can hear the deck boards "sing" when a rider comes past. Be careful on wet or frosty days. The surface is bound to be slippery.
Where the towpath enters North Akron the surface turns to asphalt with a stone chip top coat. It returns to crushed stone once you leave this developed area. There are several places to eat here, so take advantage of nearby restaurants if you're hungry.
At North Street resides the historic Mustill Store. Formerly a general store during the glory days of the canal, it now serves as a museum and visitors center. There's also a trail parking lot and facilities at this trailhead.
The trail continues south through Cascade Locks Park and up a 5% grade (a .6-mile climb), over the old Akron Innerbelt (Rt. 59), and south to Canal Park.
Once over the bridge, the trail transitions to wide concrete sidewalk and continues alongside streets over to Canal Park. This .3-mile stretch is just 2-3 blocks and does not involve any road riding.
The short segment within Canal Park, home of the Akron Aeros, features a red rubberized surface, perhaps the most unusual one you'll find along the entire towpath.
Joe Chase describes the Canal Park segment: "This [section] extends from the Akron Civic Theater south through a public festival park, around the west side of the Canal Park Stadium and down to the parking area behind Canal Place (the old BFG factory).
"Part of this section of the canal was once covered by a parking deck; the city has done a great job removing decrepit buildings and landscaping the canal in this area. From this path north to the Staircase Locks [near Martin Luther King Drive], the canal has been buried forever beneath office buildings and the Akron Innerbelt, but the water still flows. Did you know the lobby of the Civic Theater is actually a bridge across the canal?"
At Summit Lake the trail passes the rec center and moves along the shoreline before taking to open water via the boardwalk-like floating trail section that crosses the south end of the lake and enters the canal.
The towpath follows the canal for several miles as you gradually leave urban sights and sounds for more tranquil towpath through Barberton.
A statue has been erected at Manchester Road of a indian carrying his canoe. It's a monument to the original Portage Indian Trail which followed a section of the Cuyahoga Valley. This monument can be found at each terminus of the Portage Trail, the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas.
Further south you'll encounter some short punchy climbs. Along with the 5% grade in Akron, this likely represents the most overt climbing you'll do along the otherwise flat towpath trail. Here you will climb regardless of your direction of travel, while the Akron climb is only for those riding south.
Towpath & Lock in Clinton, OH
Further south the trail enters Clinton Towpath Metropark where remnants of the canal are on view. Remaining locks, partial locks and other historic reminders are scattered along the towpath route. As are trailheads, facilities and places to eat.
As you leave Clinton a pond borders one side of the trail, while the canal lies opposite. The next stop is Canal Fulton.
Though Summit County was the first to complete its portion of the towpath, Stark County was not far behind.
The Towpath begins south of Clinton and passes through Canal Fulton, Massillon and Navarre south to the Tuscarawas County line, just short of Bolivar.
Canal Fulton is another great towpath starting point. There's plenty of trail parking, places to eat and a canal boat ride, the St. Helena III.
The trail ride south of Canal Fulton is also scenic and features the classic crushed stone trail surface.
Towpath Tunnel in Stark County, OH
The Lake Avenue Trailhead in Massillon has parking, a bike shop, a canoe livery and restroom facilities.
Further into Massillon the towpath meets up with the Sippo Valley Trail. Take the first ramp up to street level (Lincoln Way W.) to make the Sippo connection. To continue south on the towpath, take the 2nd ramp up to Tremont Ave. SW. Cross over the river and turn south on 5th St. to continue south.
You'll want to check a map to plan ahead for this junction, as there are a couple of options, both of which involve a little road riding (less than a mile) to the next trail section at Walnut Road.
Towpath near Navarre, OH
Once back on the trail at Walnut Road, the towpath runs uninterrupted to just short of Bolivar at the county line. As the trail nears Rt. 212 west of Bolivar, it turns east, away from the river to follow the road. This segment ends further east where it deposits you on Rt. 212 at the McDonnell Trailhead. You have now entered Tuscarawas County.
The ride to and beyond Navarre is quite rural as the river corridor and canal provides its own linear ecosystem which is quite lush in summer.
The Tuscarawas County towpath will extend from the Stark County line through Bolivar, then pass by Zoar, Zoarville and Dover on to its final destination, New Philadelphia, OH.
At this time 7.7 miles of towpath are finished within the county, with ~9 more miles to go. The final missing 9-mile leg is from the current endpoint in Zoarville, to New Philly.
From the McDonnell Trailhead along Rt. 212 near the Stark County line, there's a gap in the trail. A .3-mile road ride is necessary to reach the next trail segment which takes riders into Bolivar. Ride here at your own risk as this road is a rural highway.
Trail resumes on a newer segment that was opened on Oct. 15, 2016. It reportedly leads you through Bolivar and over to Fort Laurens. But when we drove into Fort Laurens to start riding south from the park, we did not see any bike or trail route signs leading north out of the park.
However, according to the map in this brochure, this route does exist! Or at least a portion of it, behind the park grounds along the river. We'll have to make a trip back to explore this section.
The towpath crosses I-77 in Bolivar and runs 3 miles south to Canal Lands Park in Zoar. Open towpath continues on to Zoarville, where it currently ends at Rt. 800, just southwest of Rt. 212 in Zoarville. From there, land for the last section of towpath to New Philly is still being developed.
Bridge over I-77 near Bolivar, OH
The I-77 trail bridge is a major piece of infrastructure that looks as though it would support single lane auto traffic. It's that robust. The extra width was designed to carry ped and bike traffic alongside horses and riders. The bridge crown features a partition that separates horses and allows them to cross more safely.
Heading south the towpath is narrower, at about 4-6' wide. But it remains smooth, mostly flat and is slightly undulating. It's a departure from the more finely manicured sections to the north, but still an enjoyable ride. In fact, the mini undulations will mean more fun for many riders.
I noticed a few walkers would stop when I approached them from the opposite direction by bike. They would move to the edge of the trail to give me room. I would slow considerably and make sure I was on the far edge of the trail, to give them room to keep walking. But there are only so many trail users you can fit into a 4-6' wide path. It makes one wonder what happens when you add horses with riders to the mix...
As you approach Old St. Rt. 82, you'll spot a wooden staircase leading up to a deserted bridge over the trail. This is a former roadway that is now closed to auto traffic. The bridge was restored in 2004 and now serves as a pedestrian and bicycle access point and overlook.
Unique Trail Access at former Roadway Bridge
Shortly after this structure, you'll pass under the Dover-Zoar Road Bridge. A spur soon appears on your right that leads to the Canal Lands Park Trailhead.
In 2013, towpath was completed south to Rt. 800, just outside of Zoarville. It was a major accomplishment by volunteers who constructed boardwalk sections to traverse two 150' wetland stretches en route. According to the Ohio & Erie Canalway website, "The work was done mostly by hand, on weekends, and with tools brought from home or loaned by local businesses."
Riding further south by trail is not an option as the next section, the Zoar Valley Trail, is not currently open.
In the future, this Zoar Valley Trail section will likely be shared with the towpath, just as they now share towpath between Zoar and Fort Laurens in Bolivar.
A pleasant surprise in Tuscarawas County, was the appearance of the stone towpath mile-markers seen further north. This section has markers 81-86, if memory serves. For those unfamiliar with these markers, they indicate the distance to Lake Erie, which is mile "0."
Completion of the entire trail looks to be at least a year away. Current projections are that perhaps 2020 will be the year. And with only 9 miles remaining in the south and ~2 miles at the north end in Cleveland, it's certainly possible.
When that happens, the trail will likely be somewhere between 100-110 miles in total length. But until then, there should be new sections to explore from time to time.