Fall Colors in Cleveland

With sanguine, pastoral landscapes and the rolling, woody hills of the Appalachian plateau, Ohio has no shortage of charming places to look at fall foliage. Cleveland’s parks are no exception and are some of the most mesmerizing places to look at fall colors in Ohio. I had the pleasure of visiting Cleveland in mid-October, near the peak of the region’s fall foliage, and was excited to see what the city offered in the way of autumn leaves. My drive into town was promising, with striking reds, oranges, and yellows along the highway.

Lake View Cemetery

Founded in 1869 and the final resting place of those who lived the Gilded Age glamor life, Lake View Cemetery is a beautiful walk any time of the year. The cemetery’s exquisite headstones and mausoleums, including the James A. Garfield Memorial, are a somber, Victorian counterpart to striking fall colors.

Lake View Cemetery

I parked my car on the edge of the winding road and walked with no clear path, many others doing the same–walking their dogs, exercising, discussing this and that with friends. Unlike much of the rest of the city, somehow the peak hadn’t quite hit the cemetery yet, but I could tell it was on its way. Splashes of reds promised an oncoming onslaught of autumn.

Down the hill from the Garfield memorial, I stumbled on the John D. Rockefeller headstone. Rockefeller was the richest man in the world during his time, so somehow the giant obelisk came as something of a disappointment–surely a pyramid would’ve been in order. Behind the obelisk were the headstones of Rockefeller and family. I stood there, permitting a moment for reflection: here lie a man who achieved much. An old man with snow-white hair and a denim vest walked up with a penny.

“I’m leaving a heads up penny for John D.,” he explained, leaning down and placing the shiny penny. “It’s good luck. Hang around for a while and maybe you’ll get a touch of greatness.” It was well into 2020 and greatness was something I could do a little more of, so I did hang around while the man walked off and disappeared. I sat there, in the shadow of the obelisk, wondering if ghosts wore denim vests.

A penny for good luck on John D. Rockefeller’s headstone.

After what I considered enough time to catch any lingering greatness, I walked on, passing more tombstones, some modest, others extraordinary. The man in the denim jacket wandered in the opposite direction; not a ghost, likely. Guidebooks mention the Haserot Angel, the memorial’s official name being Angel of Death Victorious. A successful businessman but a relative nobody compared to the Rockefellers of the world, Haserot, I’m sure, hadn’t the faintest idea his family plot would be such an attraction. Due to an unfortunate choice in construction material, the angel appears to cry black tears down her face–a chilling but nonetheless awesome spectacle. The Haserots lie on a lovely section of the cemetery near the Hanna mausoleum, with woods directly behind.

Angel of Death Victorious, or the Haserot Angel.

Rocky River Reservation

While feeling historically satiated, I still had an autumn colors scratch to itch. Thinking it might be best to head away from the center of the city, I drove to Rocky River Reservation near the airport. Slinking down Valley Parkway, I knew I’d made a good choice; the colors were more striking here away from dense urbanization. Though there are many popular hiking choices within the Cleveland Metroparks system, Rocky River Reservation’s steep, 100-ft shale cliffs are an unusual sight in Ohio. I headed to the nature center, which was closed due to COVID, but still a well-used trailhead. When I arrived, I had to park along the parkway far from the building. Everyone, it seemed, was taking advantage of that rare alignment in Ohio: perfect weather on a weekend during peak fall color season.

Fall colors near the Fort Hill trailhead

You can, and I did, go up the many flights of stairs to the top of the Fort Hill cliff for a good look at the cliff face. It’s a bit more of a gradual climb coming up the other way, if you really must go up. For my money, the better view is from down below, on the opposite side of the Rocky River. Walk across the Valley Parkway bridge and along the river until you find an easy way to descend to the river bank. The water level seemed relatively low at the time–I wouldn’t be surprised if during spring or summer downpours you wouldn’t be able to do this–but on this clear autumn day the water was low and the bank wide and pebbly. From here, you can appreciate the scale of the cliff.

Shale cliffs in Rocky River Reservation

Holden Arboretum

The next day, I headed even further out of town to the Holden Arboretum, a massive botanical garden and forest preserve 30 minutes east of town. Beyond the gardens are miles of wooded trails–the gardens portion is so big I didn’t have time to venture out. There are two unique opportunities in this park to get you closer to the trees. First, the Emergent Tower allows visitors to climb over 200 steps to view the forest canopy from above, with trees visible in all directions for miles.

View from the Emergent Tower at Holden Arboretum

The second option, one that doesn’t get your heart rate up to get to the top, is the Canopy Walk. A walk up a long ramp gets you to a series of suspended bridges through the canopy, immersing walkers in a world of leaves and branches. The experience is doubly magical in the autumn with the leaves. For COVID reasons, they kept visitors on the Canopy Walk far apart, which also maintained the tranquility of the forest removed from crowds and noise.

Unlike Lake View Cemetery and Rocky River Reservation, Holden Arboretum isn’t free. Though it’s well worth the cost, plan to spend a considerable amount of time here to get your money’s worth: wander the garden displays, visit the Emergent Tower and Canopy Walk, venture out into the trails. There are plenty of picnic tables near the parking lot and visitor center to eat a packed lunch.

Though these three locations are all excellent color-peeping spots, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the Cleveland area offers. There are numerous reservations within the Metroparks system, the heavily forested Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park–itself worthy of a post of good fall color spots. Where are your favorite places to look at fall colors in Cleveland? If you’re visiting, pair your hikes with some time in Ohio City.

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