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For the past 50 years, the National Park Service has administered the National Natural Landmarks program.
It recognizes the nation's best remaining biological and geological features in order to preserve the country's natural heritage and illustrate its diversity. Almost 600 landmarks have been designated.
One landmark, Tinkers Creek Gorge, is located within the boundaries of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Its awe-inspiring beauty stands out in winter, making it a good destination this time of year.
The National Natural Landmarks program encourages cooperative conservation. While some landmarks are located on federal public lands, many are administered by other levels of government or are privately owned.
Tinkers Creek Gorge is part of Cleveland Metroparks' Bedford Reservation. Its preservation predates the establishment of Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 1974.
Cleveland Metroparks established Bedford Reservation in 1926; in 1967 Tinkers Creek Gorge earned National Natural Landmark designation.
When the national park was established, it boundaries encompassed several metroparks, including Bedford Reservation.
The power of water to carve a landscape is on full display in Tinkers Creek Gorge. The gorge was cut by Tinkers Creek, the largest tributary of the Cuyahoga River. The gorge extends for over 2 miles along the lower part of the creek, ending shortly before it empties into the river.
The creek drops dramatically through the gorge, which approaches 200 feet deep in places. The water runs straight and swiftly, with whitewater and numerous small cascades.
This contrasts against the slower, meandering course of the Cuyahoga River. As a result, the gorge is narrower than the Cuyahoga Valley and lacks an extensive floodplain.
THE STEEP walls of the gorge are easier to view in winter without the shroud of trees. Exposed rock faces add to its allure, especially when highlighted by snow. The steepness of the gorge restricted development along Tinkers Creek, supporting preservation of plant species.
The National Natural Landmark nomination notes how the gorge protects habitats, including virgin oak-hickory and beech-maple-hemlock forests.
In winter, eastern hemlocks are particularly noticeable. It is an evergreen tree that likes cool, moist areas like the gorge. It grows within the gorge, but not on the adjacent flat uplands.
You can view Tinkers Creek Gorge from a scenic overlook accessible from Gorge Parkway between Dunham and Egbert roads in Walton Hills.
If you are looking for a walk, park at the Egbert Picnic Area. The 1.1-mile Egbert Loop Trail skirts the upper edge of the gorge, providing spectacular views along the way.
From this trail, you can also follow a horse trail down to the edge of the creek. For a longer walk along the creek's edge, take the 0.8-mile Hemlock Loop Trail from the Hemlock Creek Picnic Area, an area known for spring wildflowers.
You can find a map online at www.clevelandmetro parks.com. For both trails, be prepared for winter conditions of snow and ice.
While the steepness of Tinkers Creek Gorge kept some development at bay, people were attracted to the creek's waterpower and had to tackle the challenge of crossing the gorge.
Viaduct Park within Bedford Reservation is a place to view the intersection of nature and history in the gorge. It is located at the corner of Willis Street and Taylor Road in the City of Bedford. A 15-foot waterfall can be found there, as well as the remains of a mill race.
The park's focus is a stone viaduct built in 1865 to carry the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad high over the gorge. A more recent railway was built near the viaduct not by crossing the gorge with bridgework, but by filling it with landfill.
WHEN YOU visit Tinkers Creek Gorge, make sure to bring your camera. The National Park Service sponsors an annual photography contest of National Natural Landmarks.
This year's contest rules have not yet been posted. However, you can get an overview of the contest and view past winners by visiting online at www.nature.nps.gov/nnl/photocontest.cfm.
Tinkers Creek Gorge shares some outstanding company on the list of 594 currently designated National Natural Landmark sites within 48 states, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Louisiana and Delaware are the only two states that do not contain a landmark. There are 23 landmarks located within Ohio, including forest communities, marshes, glacial formations, bluffs, and gorges. Others that may be familiar include Mentor Marsh and the Glacial Grooves State Memorial on Kelleys Island.
The National Natural Landmarks program continues to grow. Three landmarks were designed in 2012 and show their diversity.
They include a privately-owned cave in California that contains an especially diverse assemblage of calcite formations; a Nature Conservancy site in West Virginia where ice vents create a microclimate that supports species normally found in much colder regions; and a section of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado where a spring-fed creek flows through a wind-blown sand sheet, supporting a wetland ecosystem in an otherwise arid landscape.
Editor's note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.