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Ritchie Ledges trail place to visit in winter

1/12/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Jennie Vasarhelyi

CVNP — One of Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s (CVNP) special places is the Ritchie Ledges. Here in winter, you can enjoy rocky cliffs highlighted by ice, green hemlock trees contrasted against the stark winter forest and expansive views of the Cuyahoga Valley. Make this one of your destinations to discover the beauty, intricacy and mystery of nature in winter. The Ledges Trail is a 1.8-mile walk, which you can shorten or lengthen, to discover nature’s wonders at the Ledges.

Shown are the Ritchie Ledges in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Photo: Tom Jones; courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley National Park
The Ritchie Ledges are one of many named “ledges” in Northeast Ohio. All are outcroppings of the same ancient rock — Sharon Conglomerate — formed from sand and pebbles deposited about 320 million years ago. Geologists refer to this time period as the Pennsylvanian.

It stretches the imagination to think about what the land was like then. The Earth’s crust shifts positions over time. During the Pennsylvanian, this area sat closer to the equator. A steamy climate favored ancient tropical plants including tree ferns, early conifers, reeds and rushes. Giant insects, like dragonflies with wingspans of over a foot, were likely common. The Appalachian Mountains were rising and streams flowing from the new mountains toward an inland sea carried the sand and pebbles here. Many of the world’s coal deposits, formed from the remains of vegetation built up in the Pennsylvanian swamps also date to this period.

Start your exploration of the Ritchie Ledges at the Ledges parking lot on Truxell Road. The most visible feature from the parking lot is an expansive field, great for flying kites in warmer weather and practicing cross country skiing when snow conditions are right. This field sits atop the plateau formed by the Sharon Conglomerate; the Ledges Trail encircles the plateau to give you up close and changing views of the rocks.

From the parking lot, the trail crosses the plateau heading north. You’ll shortly come to a junction marked by an exhibit that shows relationship between the plateau and trail. Turn right to walk downhill to the base of the Ledges. When you reach the bottom, turn left to walk counterclockwise around the plateau.

Soon you’ll get up-close views of the Sharon Conglomerate. Look for individual grains of quartz sand and pebbles that have loosely cemented together to form the rock. You can notice how the grains have been smoothed and rounded, the result of natural polishing as they were carried by water. The amount of polishing is greater than sometimes seen, suggesting they experienced extended weathering and transportation before coming to rest here.

Cross-bedding is another rock feature that provides clues to its origins. Within the thick layer of Sharon Conglomerate, you can find thin angled layers that resulted from water action shaping how the grains were deposited. The water action also sorted the sand and pebbles by size. Pebbles are not evenly distributed throughout the rock; instead they occur where channels of faster moving water once ran. Geologists use this combination of evidence to identify the ancient watercourse as a braided stream. Instead of having one channel that meanders in a sinuous pattern like the Cuyahoga River, braided streams have a network of diverging and converging shallow channels that resemble a braid.   

Other interesting rock features relate to erosion. In places, the rock face has eroded in a honeycomb pattern. Jointing has created nooks and crannies that invite exploration. The first you’ll come to is Ice Box Cave. Not a true cave, it is a joint that has widened enough for you to enter. Called Ice Box Cave because of its cooler temperatures during summer, in winter it can be warmer than the outside temperatures. Please explore Ice Box Cave respectfully because you are sharing it with hibernating bats.

Jointing also has caused slump blocks, massive sections of rock that have slipped away from the main cliff. After you pass Ice Box Cave, you’ll find an opening that takes a side-trip through a passageway in the rock. The National Park Service does not allow climbing on the ledges; many fragile lichens, mosses and ferns grow on the rocks and can be easily damaged by climbing.

Several trees find favorable habitat in the Ledges. Yellow birch, with distinctive yellowish-bronze bark, can grow directly on the rock. Along the Ledges Trail, you’ll encounter impressive evidence of their ability to survive on rock. Evergreen eastern hemlocks also are attracted to the cooler, moister microclimate of the Ledges.

About one-third mile past Ice Box Cave, stairs built into the rock lead to the top of the Ledges. The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed them in the 1930s when they developed the park amenities that you’ll find at the Ledges today. Take these stairs if you want a shorter walk back to the parking lot. Otherwise, continue on the trail to follow the base of the ledges for about another mile.   

While ancient, Sharon Conglomerate is the youngest bedrock in the Cuyahoga Valley. It sits at the top of layers of rock that have accumulated across millennia, creating a high point in the valley. In the southwest corner of the Ledges, the trail winds back onto the top of the plateau at the Ledges Overlook. From this high point, you can see across the valley to enjoy the expansiveness of the 33,000 acres protected in CVNP.

From the Ledges Overlook, cut across the field back to the parking lot or stay on the trail to finish the 1.8-mile loop around the plateau. You can also backtrack to find connector trails to other parts of the park’s trail system. Maps of the Ledges area trails are available at park visitor centers or online at www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/hiking.htm. For more information, call 330-657-2752.

Jennie Vasarhelyi is chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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