Cuyahoga Valley: A spiritual retreat

Editor’s Note:’s weekly Summer in the Park series turns to rangers at the United States’ most popular national parks to get insider recommendations for your visits, whether you have just one day or can stay longer. The series will run through Labor Day.

Story highlights

Ranger Margaret Adams finds serenity and peace in the park's waterfalls and lakes

No flashlights are allowed on her "full moon" hikes, which usually start at dusk

Enjoy the snapping turtles, blue herons and coyotes living in this national park

CNN  — 

There’s romance in our National Parks, and not just the human kind.

A self-described hopeless romantic, park ranger Margaret Adams likes to lead the full moon night hikes at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.

You’ll have to leave your flashlight behind as you head out at dusk, and Adams likes to change her route, so all you’ll know is that the full moon will light the way and it will last about two hours. You might encounter animals stirring in the night. During February’s full moon hike, Adams and her hikers spotted a couple of deer ahead and later, a pair of coyotes.

That’s part of the magic at Cuyahoga Valley Park, which was created as a National Recreation Area on December 27, 1974, and was named a National Park on October 11, 2000.

Park stats: Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the 10th most visited National Park in the country with 2.3 million visitors last year. (Great Smoky Mountains National Park came in first place with 9.7 million visitors.) The park’s boundaries encompass nearly 33,000 acres. About 5% of the park (or 2,400 acres) are still privately owned.

The location: Cuyahoga Valley National Park is between Akron and Cleveland in northeastern Ohio, along 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River.

If you go: There’s no fee to enter the park, although there are admission fees for some concerts and other programs.

Meet our ranger: Margaret Adams didn’t expect to fall in love with Cuyahoga Valley when she started as a seasonal ranger there in 1999. She had grown up in nearby Canton and had only spent a little time there during summer camps and other trips.

Adams was studying elementary education at the University of Akron, and her love of the park caught her by surprise. “I decided that by the time I walked the stage at graduation, you need to have decided if you’re going to be a teacher or park ranger,” she said.

The park chose her: She was offered a spot in the park’s junior ranger program for the summer and was hired permanently in 2000. “I’m still a teacher. I just have a different classroom.”

“There’s nothing better than seeing a little kid looking at their Junior Ranger book,” she said. “I tell them, ‘It’s your national park.’ And then they take ownership.”

Fourteen years later, she credits the serenity and tranquility of the park with keeping her multiple sclerosis in check. “My neurologist can’t believe I’m still doing this job,” she said. “I told him it’s because of this job that I’m doing this well.”

For a day trip, don’t miss: Brandywine Falls. The 65-foot Brandywine Falls serves as Adams’ spiritual retreat in the park.

“My mother and two ladies from our church rode the train up one Sunday, and I took them on a little tour,” she said. “I work on Sunday, and I told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about me.’ I showed them I can connect right here (at the falls). The water is flowing. It’s very serene and calming. All three of them said they got it. “

Brandywine Falls is an excellent example of the geology of waterfalls: A layer of harder rock capping the waterfall, with layers of softer rock below. It’s also wonderful history lesson, as the waterfall was a source of power for a sawmill built in 1814. While most of the town surrounding the falls is gone, the house built by the sawmill owner’s son is operated as a bed-and-breakfast.

If you have a little more time, head to the Ledges Overlook and Beaver Marsh, said Adams. At the Ledges, perhaps the most popular overlook at the park, you can see the entire Cuyahoga Valley. Sunsets are particularly spectacular. It’s an easy walk from the parking lot or you can enjoy the 2.2 mile loop trail. “I love sitting there and looking at the vastness,” she said. “It’s open space and very serene.”

“There is so much activity at Beaver Marsh because the beavers come out, and there are a lot of birds down there,” said Adams. She’s seen a great blue heron landing to catch a fish, snakes and snapping turtles.

Favorite less-traveled spot: Indigo Lake. Formerly a sand and gravel quarry, a tributary filled it with water and now it’s a great place to fish, said Adams. “It’s a beautiful and serene lake,” she said. “It’s not a huge lake, and it’s very tranquil.”

Favorite spot to view wildlife: Oak Hill Trail. Adams has spotted great blue herons and heard the frogs during her fall hikes to see the changing colors. “You’re hiking in the woods and you come into a clearing at Sylvan Pond,” she said. She has also led full moon hikes there, which the park has every month in different locations when the moon is full.

Most magical moment in the park: Adams had gone to the Grand Canyon in 2000 for training, and she says she didn’t really appreciate her home park until she got back. “I was driving back into work when something clicked and I realized how much I loved this place. Having been surrounded by the sunburnt colors of the Grand Canyon, I saw how much I loved the color green. I really appreciated this park. It was just the right size for me.”

Funniest moment at the park: “When I started working here, a lady asked where she could walk her pet llama,” said Adams.

The park has programs with horses, but Adams had never worked with llamas. She took the question up the park’s chain of the command and discovered that llamas are indeed allowed, with restrictions.

“A llama is considered a pack animal, and so she could walk her llama on a leash on any of the bridle trails,” on the same trails where horses are allowed.

A ranger’s request: Please don’t feed the animals, she said. “We tell people, but they do it anyway. It’s not good for them. They need to do things on their own and not depend on us.” If you see a hurt animal, tell a ranger. Some animals can bite if scared or provoked.

Another park she’d like to visit: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, with its active volcanoes, is the next National Park on Adams’ bucket list. She may be able to get there through a 6-to-9 month park ranger swap. (Check out the park website before you plan a visit, since some sections of the park may be closed because of volcanic activity.)

“That one looked awesome with the volcanoes going off and hitting the water,” she said. “It looks surreal.”

What’s your favorite national park and why? Please tell us in the comments section below.