Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hiking the Great Woods of Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park

by Brian Schwarz, your Hiking Megalopolis guide

Everyone should have access to the woods, regardless of any qualifier you can think of - I mean EVERYBODY! That's why it's so amazing that Philadelphia - a city with shocking income disparity and blocks that are segregated along race and class lines - is home to a public resource so close to the urban core where anyone can gain access to an in-tact contiguous woods, with an easy-to-follow 5-mile hiking loop that leads through the urban wilds and only crosses a busy park road once!

Mountain bikers and competitive cross-country runners already know about sections of these great trails. Still, strikingly few hikers take the time to get to know this truly unparalleled hiking experience. Despite their proximity to the heart of the city, this is not some second-rate hike you do when you can't make it to the Wissahickon, the Reading Prong, Blue Mountain or the Poconos. Hiking the great woods of Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park actually feels like entering the lungs of this great city.

Topo map shows terrain, beneath the trees of West Fairmount's Great Woods
Most people who have been to West Fairmount Park are probably most familiar with aspects of the Centennial District, which includes the Philadelphia Zoo, the Horticultural Center with its Japanese Garden, the Mann Center for Performing Arts and the Please Touch Museum in Memorial Hall. Most also know the many picnic areas and the spectacular view to be seen of the Philadelphia skyline from the Belmont Plateau. But fewer know of the woods that lie east of the plateau, on either side of the ridge where you'll find Chamounix Drive and the multi-use Speedway Trail.

The Great Woods of Fairmount Park can be divided into two parts, Belmont Woods and Chamounix Woods. The Belmont Woods is a unique urban-riparian experience.  Bound by Greenland Drive to the north, Chamounix Drive to the west and the sweeping grassy knoll of Belmont Mansion to the south. It is bound by the Schuylkill Expressway, too, and the trails here dip down below the massive interstate highway taking you into quiet wetland zones where creeks trickle down through a mixed-growth forest. Trees that are hundreds of years younger trees, providing a unique forest experience with a high canopy and a dense understory. It's an experience that rivals and even tops many Pennsylvania state forests, most of which are still quite young in comparison.

The Great Woods of Fairmount Park - Belmont and Chamounix

The Satellite image above shows the near contiguous Great Woods of Fairmount Park. Notice where the Strawberry Mansion Bridge enters the picture, crossing the Schuylkill River on the bottom right of the photo. As the road enters the park it is called Greenland Drive until it reaches Chamounix Drive. Belmont Woods are to the left of Greenland and extend all the way to the edge to the grassy area in front of Belmont Mansion. The woods north and west of Chamounix Road stretch as far north as the Schuylkill Expressway - right up to the I-76/Roosevelt Boulevard interchange - then wraps around Chamounix Hill to continue back to Greenland Road.

Here's the best part - the Great Woods of Fairmount Park is home to an extensive network of wilderness trails that nearly ANYONE can do and where EVERYONE is welcome. That's right - you don't have to be a moneybags or have special equipment and such to enjoy these woods! Just strap on a sturdy pair of shoes, carry water and snacks, and carry a pack so you can haul out any trash you make while enjoying the woods. These are the people's woods!

Don't worry that the trails back in these woods are not marked; you can trust all of the trails to lead you eventually to a road. If there is a trail back there that just peters out and doesn't go anywhere - and I haven't found one yet after at least 15 trips to scout trails - then just turn back around and take another route. That's what's so amazing - you're never far from a way out of the woods, yet you could get lost in there for as long as you choose to. These Philadelphia woods are the epitome of the urban wilds.

GPS Map of the Great Woods Hike in West Fairmount Park
The above map shows a recent 5.3-mile hike I took, starting at the Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel (see the green dot?) and doing a loop of the entire Great Woods Hike. During the hike, I only crossed traffic once - at the intersection of Belmont Mansion and Chamounix Drives, which, as it turns out, is at the three-mile mark, an excellent place to stop and have lunch at the Chamounix Picnic Area.

The road crossings at Ford Road and Greenland Drive each have wooded pedestrian crossings, where if you'd like to exit the woods you may, but you certainly don't have to. Just to give you an idea of how long it would take to do this 5..3-mile loop, I did the entire thing in about three hours, taking several breaks to sit beneath the towering trees and listen to the many birds that call these woods home. Because it is at once so accessible while feeling so remote, you can break up the hike any way you choose and still walk out of the woods feeling refreshed.

So are you ready to explore the Great Woods of Philadelphia's West Fairmount Park? Follow this link to a description of an epic loop hike that begins at Historic Strawberry Mansion, just across Strawberry Bridge in East Fairmount Park.

Also, for more information of other opportunities to explore the urban wilds and other hiking areas throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania and beyond, go to Facebook and like the Hiking Megalopolis community page. Free hikes are often listed. And please, TELL YOUR FRIENDS you saw it on Hiking Megalopolis!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

"Hiker, there is no trail": FADA at the core of Hiking Megalopolis

by Brian Schwarz, your Hiking Megalopolis guide

The hike is where you make it, but it starts at your own front door
Hiking Megalopolis is all about EVERYONE enjoying the outdoors. At its core, Hiking Megalopolis believes in involving pre-novice, novice, intermediate and advanced hikers around these four concepts: Fitness, Action, Direction, and Adventure (FADA).

Fitness

Access to the outdoors can be gained at some entry point by nearly everyone. But hiking takes you on an adventure whereby, as you increase your level of fitness through participation, you increase your access to all of the most special places in nature, you know, off the beaten path. It's a progressive model of fitness that begins with you walking out of your own front door and finding the nearest trail. Fitness is not about arriving at some place and being like, yeah, I'm fit. Fitness is a lifelong journey, and Hiking Megalopolis - with its pan-generational approach - supports the fitness journey for individuals as well as their associated communities.

Action

Getting involved in the hiking community means getting involved in both preserving existing trails and working with local, state and federal authorities to open new trails as they are seen to benefit affiliated communities. Action involves supporting these agencies with trail clean-up and maintenance, hiker education with relation to Leave No Trace Ethics, fostering trail etiquette and engaging in trail awareness campaigns.

Direction

Trails are more fun when you realize where you are with regard to the historical and geographical elements of the space you occupy. Knowing how to use a map and compass, or even GPS, not only enhances your experience outdoors, but it helps give new perspective on navigating the roads of relationships, careers and other trappings of "the real world". Being in nature alone is like no other experience. Wilderness navigation is a big part of Hiking Megalopolis. Finding your way through nature, and then finding your way safely home, is what Direction is all about.

Adventure

Underneath it all, like the tangled root system of a tree that's hundreds of years old, Hiking Megalopolis is about Adventure. Reaching to new depths of ourselves through adventure supports our growth as people and as members of the global community. No person can tell you what adventure would actually look like to them until they have experienced it. But those who engage in hiking often experience adventure they didn't even see coming.

In conclusion, I leave you with this sentiment, inspired by Spanish singer Juan Manuel Serrat. He said, "Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar." For the purposes of bringing home the raw truth behind Hiking Megalopolis, I will say this: Hiker, there is no trail; the trail is laid out before the one brave enough to take the first step.

For a better understanding of how Hiking Megalopolis and the FADA core was conceived, you'll find a pictoral and textual representation of my journey throughout the web and on various social media platforms. On Instagram, I'm FitLifeChronicles. For more on Fitness, check out MyFitLife2Day on Twitter, and the MyFitLife2Day blog. For Action and Direction, read the Man of Merit blog. And for Adventure, strap on a sturdy pair of shoes, pack water and snacks into a pack, and head out into the woods for a day of HikeyHikey!

Healthy Parks and Healthy Trails Fuel Healthy Communities

by Brian Schwarz, your Hiking Megalopolis guide

Fairmount Park overlooks Philadelphia from Belmont Plateau
It's well known that Fairmount Park in Philadelphia has struggled throughout its progressive stages of inception to be what it could be. A multitude of interests have an idea of what it should be. Many others love it as it is. But over the years, even as the mix of local interests shifts, and through all the various successions of development and dilapidation, Fairmount thrives. Call it what you will. Rename places as their use and care is inherited from one generation to the next, from one hobby to the next, from one person to the next, and even from one political or social upheaval to the next. Fairmount is the people's park of Philadelphia.

Educating novice hikers on Wissahickon Thru Hike, Philly Mega
I've heard a lot of talk about connecting communities to natural spaces that are directly juxtaposed to those natural spaces. I've also seen a lot of resistance to opening parks to diverse communities. Sometimes it feels like there are two sides to every mouth. While lots of folks are working to increase awareness of natural spaces, still these places are underused by nearby communities; Current users are trepidatious of inviting newbies. Access is created but not promoted. Or if it is promoted, it is done so in a way that inadvertently decreases feelings of inclusion, thereby increasing fear.

As a result, many people back away from going deeper into a park out of fear they didn't even know they had. These potential park users are unable, then, to benefit from the physical and psycho-spiritual aspects of being active in nature. (I know this from experience - just four years ago my fear of the unknown kept me from enjoying my local hiking trails. That's why I'm so committing to helping others find their path into the woods.)

And by the way, I've not just heard this talk here in Philadelphia. I'm a long-time observer of human interactions in open spaces, and I've seen this in places like D.C. and Pittsburgh, Newark, Miami, Los Angeles and Boston - parks and recreation can be a battle zone where political landmines abound. Often times those who can make the most money on a park improvement plan do not have interaction with nature as their primary objective. Sure, they sell the idea of development on access to nature, but too often, fear of going into wild spaces permeates neighborhood culture, especially as population and park usage increases.

Overcoming fear on my fist 10-mile hike, Blue Hills Reservation, Boston Mega
Urban legend and Oprah are to blame. Fear keeps us out of the woods and leads us to tell our children to stay out of the woods. But ironically, maintaining and enjoying the woods by hiking natural areas that exist around cities is as a matter of national security. Our greatest national security threat - the societal obesity epidemic - can be mitigated in communities that value walking and maintaining access to local trails.

Consider this: Successful treatment of many psychological disorders hinges on access to nature as treatment. Getting active in nature while undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce a patients' reliance on pills - just ask any honest doctor. Those in recovery, ex-offenders and individuals affected by PTSD can find soul-healing solace under a canopy of green. Watching as the sun's flickering rays highlight the significance of something so minute as the multitude of shades of moss on stones or chipmunks wrestling along the trail can do wonders to re-set the tendency to think of oneself as the center of the universe.

Healing time, alone in the desert mountains, LA Mega's Coachella Valley
All's I'm saying is this: There are 100s of reasons not to go into the woods, but to go, you only need just one. Finding that one reason will change your life for good. And once you do find your path - here in Fairmount Park or in that special open space that's located somewhere near where you live - get involved with the local parks community. After all, healthy parks and healthy trails fuel healthy communities!

For more information on hiking in Philadelphia - or if you're interested in parks and hiking and are from any of the 20-some megalopolitan areas of the world - like the "Hiking Megalopolis" page on Facebook to get involved with our growing online community!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hiking Philadelphia? Here's the Fairmount Park Epic Hiking Loop

by Brian Schwarz, your Hiking Megalopolis guide

WHAT'S COOL? The fact that this West Fairmount Park hike is so transit-accessible, as it starts and ends in East Fairmount Park atop historic Strawberry Hill. Cross the bridge toward Chamounix Ridge, and wind through post-1880s urban forest to observe traces of the park's origins as a water-supply protector. Discover how a gradual piecing-together of private land for public use still struggles to find an identity as a cohesive and unified city park. But above all, co-exist with the great human diversity found here, a diversity which rivals the flora and fauna that await all quiet hikers through this spectacular riparian zone.


Ok, so you may have heard there might be some kind of hidden, epic hiking loop in West Fairmount Park, somehow far from the pulsing city that surrounds it. Now I can confirm to you, there is!

It may not be well marked, but it is fairly easy to follow. Come along on one of the most complete hikes of the Chamounix Woods Trail. Or if use these directions explore these West Fairmount trails alone or with some friends. These directions are the result of ongoing scouting on foot as well as last winter's worth of online research. I hope they help you find your path, Philadelphia.

The loop I'll describe here has several connecting points throughout West Fairmount Park, but to get the full Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area experience, I recommend starting at the Strawberry Mansion parking area (2450 Strawberry Mansion Dr, Philadelphia, PA 19132), so you can cross the river and make sense of the bigger picture that is Fairmount.

Starting here also makes it more accessible to anyone in the City of Philadelphia with a yearning to explore - regardless of current financial status. Take any bus that goes to the Dauphin-Ridge Bus Loop and walk across 33rd to enter the park. (The 32 from Center City is one such route, for example.)

Wave hello to Tyson if you see him around the old mansion. He'll be the one dressed in post-Revolution Empire style. On a $5 tour - WHAT? Just cinco pesitos? - he gives the home that stayed neutral during the American Revolution a touch of Southern charm.

Need pic of Tyson in Empire regalia here in front of Strawberry Mansion
Take the steps on the right side, where the Boxers Trail makes its way down to the Schuylkill River. For an extra warm-up, walk down the steps and pace yourself as you make you way back up. Then take the right side pedestrian-friendly Strawberry Mansion Bridge as you are transported from East Park's Strawberry Hill to the foot of the Chamounix Ridge in West Park approaching City Ave, which is across the next ridge and through a riparian valley you'll discover on this hike over Pennsylvania's first piedmont ridge.

Pay attention to where you are as the Strawberry Mansion Bridge crosses the Schuylkill River, Kelly Drive, the Schuylkill River Trail and Martin Luther Drive. Subsequent bridges you'll cross include the Reading Railroad, whose tracks reach back east and branch back across the river into Brewerytown and the proposed Brewerytown Gateway. Finally, you'll cross the Schuylkill Expressway and then a historic stone bridge, which, if you'll look to the right, you notice a rustic-looking pedestrian path running below it. This is where you'll be returning from the hike.

Now, are you ready? Turn left after the bridge and enter the woods.Take this short connector trail through the woods, crossing quickly the trail you'll be returning on, and then a stream with options to cross at the water or over a fallen tree and rustic wooden footbridge.

On the Pipeline Trail, linking The Shredder to the 420
Soon you'll arrive at the front gate of the Philadelphia organic materials recycling center. Pretty easy so far, right? Continue on, and notice at the right side of the recycling center gate, between the fence and the gravel service road, there is a small dirt path. From here, the trail twists and turns deeper into the woods. Take this trail. Mountainbikers call it The Shredder.

Follow the Shredder Trail as it winds through the Schuylkill Wetlands. You'll go up and down as you hike downstream and back, almost unnociceably between the service road and the foot of I-76. Feel in awe of the quiet stillness you feel being just under the pulsing highway. Don’t take short cuts – turn left every chance you get. Downstream. Go down to the lowest elevations and back up to the heights as you get an intense hilly workout. It’s only about 100 feet difference, but you’ll feel it. Sweat it out as the Shredder Trail links up with the Pipeline Trail, but only having taken you on a riparian rollercoaster that includes two left turns and two significant ups and downs.

Flowers like this adorn the higher section of the 420 Trail
So again, take that third left, and then hang a fairly quick right to link up with the Pipeline. If you take another left you'll come out farther down the service road, where you can double back and pick up on this trail where it crosses this secluded packed-gravel path. So, continuing straight on rather than taking that fourth left will lead you to a point on the service road where you can cross over and continue on into the woods. This is the 420 Trail.

For some reason, I love the 420 trail. Take it all the way up to the corner of Belmont and Chamounix. Then, cross the stone bridge there and look for the dirt trail entrance to the South Edgley Trail, which continues into the woods at the Chamounix Picnic Area parking lot.

Chamonunix Path enters the woods, but immediately, where you may notice an old concrete picnic table that's been taken over by vegetation) you must turn right at South Edgley Trail. Notice a crumbling concrete picnic table that's been all but taken over by vegetation. Turning right, it's the South Edgley Trail for as long as you notice the Ultimate Frisbee fields on your left side. This eventually turns into the Chamounix Flat Trail, which winds around a surprisingly deep wood.

Hiker selfie, crossing an old trolley bridge on the Chamounix Flat Trail
Cross behind the Park Plaza Condos and then pass over Ford Road along an abandoned trolley bridge overgrown like you'd imagine in some dystopian-future novel. Find an exit trail on the right side if you’ve had enough hiking at this point – it will lead to the stairway at the corner of Ford Road and Chamounix Drive – or buck up and continue on the trail as it leads downhill to a gorgeous creek.

As these trails converge, follow the creek downstream along the orange-blazed Ford Road Flat Trail and you will soon cross beneath a stone bridge, notable for its unique underside of arched brick and starkly brilliant graffiti (I won't post a pic of it here; that'd spoil your surprise!). Continuing on, you will notice the orange blazes continue as you start climbing the tip of Chamounix Ridge, to the top by the Hostel Drop Trail. This trail leads back toward the interstate and then quickly cuts up through the hillside forest to the cul-de-sac at Chamounix Mansion Youth Hostel.

Neighbors I met through Nextdoor enjoy nature on Ford Road Flat Trail
Cross the Chamounix Road cul-de-sac, and beyond the hostel on the right, just near the Chamounix Mansion sign, the Log Jammin’ Trail begins. It's kind of like a log flume ride at Hershey Park or Dorney Park or Six Flags, or whatever. Personally, I would call this the Brown Bear Trail, if I were maker of at least this trail name. There’s big old brown decaying stump along the trail that just about scared the (insert expletive) out of me the first time I came upon it! Now I call this nature made brown bear and cub statue "Stump and Stumpy".

However, true to it's Log Jammin' moniker, there's a reason this section of trail is part of a short 1.5-mile loop hike that's part of my regular cardio fitness regime. It has two ways you can take, but both ways lead to the service road, yet each winds through a different section of woods along the Chamounix Hill, and each way its own charms.

Brown Bear and Cub (Stump and Stumpy) on the Log Jammin' Trail
For this hike, take top trail, as it's better maintained at the moment. You'll be behind the ball field - the one you'll notice from Chamounix Road is located across from the Friends of  Chamounix tennis courts; in fact, just behind home plate you'll notice a service road that heads downhill. Don't take it, unless you really want a short cut (lazy much?). Instead, cross the gravel path leads you on a loopty-loop single-track dirt trail for the full Log Jammin' experience. At the bottom, crossing the creek on your right would supposedly lead to a trail called the Cul-de-Sac Trail, but this scenic route may or may not be inaccessible - meaning I haven't taken it yet. In theory it crosses the creek and passes behind the Lilac House, where there's an Outward Bound facility tucked away at the historic Lilac House. I've seen where it reconnects to the aforementioned service road, so if you find it, it will lead you to the same place as the service road, at the intersection with Greenland Drive.

Once back at Greenland, turn back toward the river and cross Strawberry Mansion Bridge. The return to your starting point offers the view of Strawberry Hill in the distance and the Schuylkill River flowing south and east toward Center City off the right side of the bridge. The first bridge you see in that direction is the rail bridge that PennPraxis suggests has the capacity to route pedestrians between East and West Parks - a boon for neighborlands park users from both North and West Philadelphia.

Hikers head toward Strawberry Hill, along the mansion bridge trolley path
By the way, in case you're wondering about the trail names in my description, let me assure you that these are not something I made up - they're given apparently by the mountain-biking community, which is responsible for maintaining many of these otherwise unmarked trails. I found the trail names on the MapMyHike app on my Android phone only after I'd logged a hike in West Fairmount Park.

Also, I should put a word in here about safety. Be careful on the trails - these are shared pedestrian and equestrian trails. Listen for mountain bikers who may be coming up from in front of you or behind you on the trail. Always step right immediately and stop when you hear them coming. They should also be mindful of you, but don't expect too much. If you're kind to them, they will appreciate the effort - even though some might not show it as they huff and puff up a hill or what not - and everyone will be happy to have avoided a collision. And remember, horses always get the right of way on trails, no matter what. 

So after reading all that (like anyone will read all of that!), if you’d like to hike the West Fairmount Epic Hiking Loop but still feel you’d rather do so with a guide, just like the Hiking Megalopolis page on Facebook for upcoming free hikes. Or contact Brian directly if you’d like to hire him as a guide for and outing with you and your family or group of friends. HikingMegalopolis.com website coming soon.

(PS – Stay at this hostel for something like $20 bucks-a-night next time you visit Philadelphia, and you’ll be in an urban hikers paradise!)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Hiking East Fairmount Park: Brewerytown-Mansion Boxers Trail Loop

The East Fairmount Park Brewerytown-Mansion Boxers Trail Loop is the kind of trail that gives you just the right amount of daily cardio exercise. It provides for a variable-grade walking workout that's pretty flexible.

Basically, this hike first follows the full length of the Boxers Trail, from John Coltraine's home in the Mansion-Brewerytown Blurlands to the front door of Strawberry Mansion. Then it continues down some 125 steps to the burm of Kelly Drive, at the 2.5-mile point of The Box of the famed Schuylkill River Trail.

Setting sun filters onto the Strawberry Mansion Steps along Boxers Trail
Don't worry, I'm not suggesting you hop across traffic Frogger-style to take the SRT's busy bike lanes for the return trip to the trailhead! Instead, turn around at the base of Strawberry Mansion Steps, climb them back up - take a breather! - and return to Coltraine's house via 33rd Street.

Walk briskly the full four miles and you'll finish in an hour or so. This hike is really flexible! Do the Strawberry Mansion Steps down to the Schuylkill on days you want to push it; skip them on days you don't. You could even take the 32 bus along 33rd Street for the last mile on the days three miles will do you.

Just so you know, this hike is about three-quarters paved trail and one-quarter crushed rock and packed dirt. Take at least a liter of water to stay hydrated on your hike. Expect to see wildlife if you try walking like the Lenape and with a Leave No Trace Ethic. Deer, birds, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and insects have all been part of this trail lover's experience along the Boxers Trail.

The real value in the Brewerytown-Mansion Boxers Trail Loop is that it's a place where nearby Philadelphia neighbors can access a defined yet flexible fitness loop that's close to home and public-transit accessible. If you're looking for something more in the style of reclaimed woodland majesty for your daily or weekly hike, choose equally accessible trailheads elsewhere in Fairmount Park trail, or find a trail that winds through the nearby Wissahickon Gorge.

NOTE: Hey runners, check out the Boxers Trail 5K in September.