Article

Learn about Geology: Rocks, Ice, and River

Long-exposure photo of yellow-white water falling over a gray rock face; snow and ice coat the rocks and shrubs on either side.
The power of waterfalls such as Brandywine Falls continues to shape the landscape of the valley.

© J.J. Prekop, Jr.

Bedrock, glaciers, and rushing rivers—geologic stories of a place do not involve one chapter. Instead multiple events have shaped and reshaped the land. By studying the modern landscape, we can trace the story of what happened. The terrain of Cuyahoga Valley National Park is diverse and often rugged. River terraces, steep valley walls, meandering streams, ravines, waterfalls, and rock ledges all give texture to the valley. The geologic evidence found in these features tells of seas, glaciers, and rivers that have all left an imprint on the land.

Illustrated map shows the regions of Ohio, mostly left to right: Huron-Erie Lake Plains, Till Plains and Central Lowland, Glaciated Allegheny Plateaus, Appalachian Plateaus and Interior Low Plateau - Bluegrass Section.
The physiographic regions of Ohio.

Courtesy Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Geographic Setting

Cuyahoga Valley sits where two major regions of North America meet. Here, the final influences of Appalachian mountain-building give way to the vast plains. Most of the park falls on the Appalachian’s Allegheny Plateaus; however, its northern tip crosses onto the plains. The transition is not easily noticed within the park, but can be dramatic nearby. The Portage and Allegheny escarpments—broken lines of steep hills—mark the edge of the plateau and offer striking views of Cleveland and Lake Erie. Cuyahoga Valley also sits near a north-south continental water divide, found south of the park in Akron. Rivers north of the divide flow to Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean. Rivers south of the divide flow to the Ohio River and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Bedrock

Layers of sedimentary rock, hardened from materials left by ancient seas and streams, create the park’s bedrock. The oldest rocks rest at the bottom, with successively younger layers on top. Between 410 and 315 million years old, the bedrock dates from the Paleozoic Era. Cuyahoga Valley’s most common bedrock includes Bedford Shale, formed by sea deposits, and Berea Sandstone, probably created by slow-moving streams. They can be seen at Brandywine Falls, where the harder sandstone caps the waterfall. The highly textured Sharon Conglomerate, formed from sand and quartz pebbles carried here by ancient streams, crops out at the spectacular Ritchie Ledges.

Grayscale illustration shows Ohio and surrounding states; lines depict the course of ancient rivers: the Erigan River through present-day Lake Erie and the Teays River across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; gray shading shows the extent of glaciation.
Geologists have pieced together the paths of ancient rivers in the region.

Courtesy Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Ancient River Valley

The Cuyahoga River is often credited for carving its namesake valley. Yet it was not the first river to sculpt the park’s bedrock. Before glaciers buried its work, an ancestral river cut a deep valley near the current Cuyahoga Valley. This river flowed to the now extinct Erigan River, an east-west river that mirrored the shore of Lake Erie’s current location. The ancestral river system created a rugged landscape, similar to that now found in southeast Ohio beyond the reach of glacier’s smoothing influence.

Valley Under Ice

Two million to 10,000 years ago, an Ice Age gripped the planet. Four major ice advances moved like bulldozers pushing tons of sand, silt, clay, and rock. Glaciers here were too thin to scour the land. Instead they polished the ancient river valleys and filled them with deposits, burying features that had existed for thousands of years. Resistance from the Portage and Allegheny escarpments forced the glaciers to grind to a halt in northeast Ohio. This is recorded in linear piles of debris dropped by glaciers called end moraines. They mark the furthest advance of the glacial ice. Where glaciers encountered the escarpments, end moraines took on unusual, contorted shapes unlike those seen in western Ohio. Ice Age deposits had profound effects on park's soils and ground water. Where melt water deposited sand and gravel, artesian waters can yield over 500 gallons per minute. Water gurgles in the artesian wells along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail at the Jaite Mill. More commonly, clays derived from glacial deposits fostered soils devoid of groundwater. Finally, where ice or glacial debris dammed streams, Ice Age lakes left deposits that helped create the park’s fertile soils found on river terraces.

Aerial view of a brown river winding its way through green trees and shrubs; the river's course is a backwards S shape; light colored beaches appear along the inside of each curve.
The Cuyahoga River meanders through the valley.

NPS Collection

The Cuyahoga River

As glaciers retreated, the region’s natural landscape began to take its modern form. The Erigan River Valley had lowlands where water could accumulate. A complex succession of great lakes filled the basin until Lake Erie took its current configuration less than 4,000 years ago. Rivers like the Cuyahoga re-carved valleys, sometimes following routes that align with the buried valleys, but sometimes finding less resistance from alternate routes. Unlike other rivers north of the watershed divide, the Cuyahoga River initially flows away from Lake Erie. From its origins in Geauga County, it flows southwest until it encounters the north-south continental water divide in Akron where it makes a U-turn to the north, earning its nickname “Crooked River.” In Cuyahoga Valley, the river’s closely spaced ravines can drop nearly 600 feet in a few miles. Without vegetation, the ravines would resemble the intricately eroded badlands of the western United States. This rugged land stands out along the Buckeye, Salt Run, and Old Carriage trails.

Legacy of Geology

The valley’s carved topography fosters biological diversity. The uplands, dry valley slopes, moist ravines, and valley floor all support differing plants and animals. Cool, moist areas such as the Ritchie Ledges offer places where plants that grew here closer to the end of the Ice Age still survive. Being at the meeting point of two regions of the country adds to the diversity: species from both regions may be found in the park, although Appalachian species are more common. The land also created opportunities and barriers for people. The Ohio & Erie Canal and Valley Railway took advantage of the natural corridor offered by the valley. But, it is the barriers that ultimately created the opportunity for this national park. After World War II, suburbs began to dominate the land surrounding Cleveland and Akron. However, unstable soils and lack of ground water caused suburban development to come late to the valley, leaving the open space that has become a national park.

An unpaved trail winds along a gray, orange, and green cliff face to its left; moss-covered boulders and trees line its right side.
The Ledges Trail winds through cliffs and boulders of Sharon Conglomerate.

© Jeffrey Gibson

Last updated: April 15, 2021