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!