It’s that time of the year for retrospection.
After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2020 and Top Ten Books of 2020, I’m following the pattern that I established in previous years, turning my attention to hikes that I’ve been privileged to enjoy in the past year. Hiking has remained one of my favorite ways to experience the world, and to experience intimacy with God.
The COVID-19 Pandemic made it so I couldn’t travel as far or as wide as I did in 2019, but it did create more opportunities to “opt outside” for personal time and for time with others. Fortunately, we also happen to have several places of exceptional natural beauty right here, within a relatively short drive of Kent, Ohio. In particular, I made it my goal to hike every trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (again) over the course of 2020. And I actually met this goal earlier than expected, in early September! Consequently, I got to hike several of my favorite trails more than once. And with a couple of trips outside of northeast Ohio, I feel pretty proud about the quantity and quality of hiking I got to do in 2020.
So anyway — without further ado, here are my Top Ten Hikes of 2020, in ranked order:
- Marcy Dam to Mount Marcy, on July 28th
- Chippewa Creek, on December 1st
- Letchworth (NY) State Park, on June 18th
- The Northern Bank of Tinker’s Creek, on September 18th
- Blue Hen Falls + Buttermilk Falls, on October 12th
- Johnson Falls, on June 20th
- The Cuyahoga Valley Ledges, on April 10th
- Towner’s Woods, on September 29th
- Terra Vista Natural Study Area, on November 23rd
- “My Mountain,” on August 11th
And again, for those who would appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:
One of the upshots of pandemic life and pandemic ministry has been a lot of time in the Great Outdoors. Our H2O Church Staff Retreat in August was a good example. All three days of meetings were outdoors. The first day of the retreat was probably the best, however. We established a base for ourselves at the confluence of Chippewa Creek and the Cuyahoga River in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. During the morning, we soaked in the water and/or the sun, depending on individual preferences. And then in the afternoon, we split up into two groups to go for a short hike. My group went to a spot that is literally labeled “My Mountain.” The hike itself is not hard. The view out over the Chippewa Creek valley is pretty. But it was the time with my friends and colleagues that made this one extra-special.
I thought I had previously hiked every trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but this year I actually discovered a couple of new trails. Some of these new trails had been developed after my last circuit of the park; others, it would seem that I just missed for one reason or another. The Terra Vista Natural Study area is one of those areas that I previously missed because it’s not contiguous with any other trails in the park. But I’m glad I discovered it! It’s got a lovely mix of forests, meadows, and wetlands — plus at early 19th Century Cemetery! Before the year was finished, I’d visited this “new” section of trails three times.
I hiked around Towner’s Woods eighteen times in 2020! Mostly, these hikes happened on Tuesday mornings with my friends Chad and Jason. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a weekly breakfast appointment in Kent. When everything shut down back in the Spring, however, we needed to switch to something outdoors. I’m curious to see if we’ll eventually switch back to breakfast (stockpiling calories) or if we’ll continue with hiking (burning calories). Either way, I’ve cherished the time that I’ve gotten to spend with these quality men out on the trails of Towner’s Woods. It’s a particularly spectacular place to hike in the Fall.
This would easily be the best hike in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, except for the fact that it’s also the most popular. Sometimes it can be outright uncomfortable (even when nobody’s worrying about a pandemic) how many people try to cram into the tight spaces formed among these rocks. Back in April, however, the COVID-19 shut-down kept a lot of people holed up in their houses (not many had yet figured out that hiking is a healthy quarantine recreational activity). And April 10th happened to be a cold and rainy day, as well. So I had the Ledges almost completely to myself. It was also Good Friday, and something about the Ledges and the rain felt very evocative of the Crucifixion, the Tomb, and the Resurrection. I had a great time of personal worship and wonder.
I only happened across Johnson Falls because of a teeny-tiny road sign on a teeny-tiny country road serendipitously included in our family’s vacation to Western New York. Just 75 meters downstream from a two-car gravel parking lot, I discovered a beautiful 5-meter waterfall. Shortly after I got there, another set of hikers wandered up and used a rope to descend through the waterfall to the river below. I learned that their family owns much of the surrounding land — and they’d been the ones to install the rope (which they assured me was safe). They said the “really impressive” waterfall lay another 75 meters downstream. The second falls dropped maybe 12 meters into a hollow that felt like it belonged in another world. I never would have tried that rope if I hadn’t gotten to talk with its owner and installer. So that made this discovery extra-special.
These are such pretty waterfalls at such a pretty time of the year! Blue Hen Falls is a pretty popular destination in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Its sister falls just downstream, however, are not frequented by others. And I might argue that Buttermilk Falls is even more beautiful than Blue Hen Falls. In any event, I hiked to these waterfalls several times in 2020, but my favorite time was when I went with Olivia and Cor in October.
I almost never encounter other hikers in this northernmost section of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It also happens to feature some of the most diverse landscapes of the park: forested hills… cliffs overlooking Tinker’s Creek… rolling meadows… and wetlands teeming with birds. It’s a lovely place to go exploring, especially in the Fall or Winter (probably a bit mushy in the wetland areas during the Spring and early Summer). Definitely worth a visit, if you live in Northeast Ohio.
It sounds like hyperbole to call Letchworth the “Grand Canyon of the East.” But it’s really not far off. It’s not quite as vast or as desolate (and I consider “desolate” to be a highly-desirable quality in landscapes). Still, it’s impressive in different ways: lush green forests… powerful waterfalls… and more moderate (comfortable) temperatures. Our family got to do this hike together on our vacation to Western New York, and it was definitely one of the highlights of that trip.
I love hiking in snow-storms. Partly because it’s beautiful to see everything covered in snow. Partly because it makes the woods exceptionally quiet. But if I’m being completely honest, it’s also partly because it makes me feel like I’m wandering the remote ice world of Hoth, like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. The Chippewa Creek trails are amazing under any conditions. But this hike was extra-special because the snow was coming down particularly hard and heavy as I hiked.
This hike would have made my Top Ten list in any year, even if I had been afforded the opportunity to travel to more exotic locations. Mount Marcy is the highest of the High Peaks area in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. It’s steep, rugged terrain that offers sweeping vistas, particularly at the summit and at Indian Falls. It was also super-special to do this with Cor, as a sacred rite of passage to mark his 13th Birthday and transition into adulthood. We finished our exhausting hike with a swim in the frigid waters of Phelps Brook, near our base camp.