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!)