Summertime is the right time to explore the area’s great outdoors. Check out these wildlife preserves, parks and trails.
Winter’s wallop left many people craving the great outdoors — sans snow. Having to quit the al fresco life cold (or freezing) turkey gave most folks new appreciation for how integral parks, squares, rivers and forests are to life in the Delaware Valley. Part of our Philadelphia DNA dates back to William Penn’s “green country towne,” and now that summer is finally here, we don’t have to just envision it — we can live it. So lace up those sneakers, apply sunscreen, fill a water bottle and let’s go explore our great outdoors!
Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area
Everyone knows the Schuylkill river, right? Driving over it is part of living in Philadelphia. But the Schuylkill is actually 128 miles long and, in fact, was named Pennsylvania’s 2014 River of the Year. Celebrations continue with the Schuylkill Canal Association’s 32nd Annual Canal Day on June 29 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Lock 60 and St. Michael’s Park in Mount Clare in Upper Providence Township. The day is filled with food, music, kids’ activities, the Denny Porrini Memorial 5-Mile Trail Run, a 5-mile canoe and kayak race, and a horseshoe tournament. (For more details, visit schuylkillcanal.org.) But special events aren’t required to fully enjoy the river. Paddling — in kayaks, canoes and tubes — is a great way to take in the scenery and get exercise. Landing points are marked on the Water Trail Map, available at schuylkillriver.org/Water_Trail.aspx.
The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education
Splayed over 400 acres, the center has many hiking trails of various lengths and difficulties. Ravine Loop, which covers a mile, is the longest of these and includes crossing brooks via wood bridges and passing wetlands with ancient-looking, beautiful rock formations. (For a trail map, visit schuylkillcenter.org/publications/trailmap.html.) One demographic that is specially catered to: kids. The center plants the seeds of environmentalism in children with programs like a nature preschool, the Monkey Tail Gang after-school program, camps, the Philadelphia Envirothon and other activities. Even if it’s just for a one-day visit, the center provides a plethora of trails and activities, including the Discovery Center, a great way to start adventures. Don’t miss the Wineberry Harvest on July 5, the July 26 unveiling of the sculpture and garden created by LandLab artists Maggie Mills, B.H. Mills and Marguerita Hagan, and “Shooting Stars and S’mores” on Aug. 11. Set GPS to: 8480 Hagy’s Mill Road, Philadelphia; schuylkillcenter.org; 215-482-7300
Binky Lee Preserve
Wanting a binky takes on new meaning after a visit to Binky Lee Preserve. Yep, it’s a long drive to Chester Springs, but it’s well worth the gas to explore these 112 acres. Four miles of hiking trails showcase the work being done to convert former farmlands into their native woodlands and meadows. More than 10,000 trees have been planted to restore and expand the forest; grasses and wild flowers are rampaging beautifully through the area. Wild animals have also returned to Binky Lee, so take caution with young children who may tend to be more adventurous than they should be. Get a trail map from the kiosk in the parking lot and stick to designated areas. Another word of caution: The back-to-nature experience is for humans, too. Bathrooms are not available, bikes are not permitted and dogs must be leashed. But roughing it just a bit makes Binky Lee Preserve all the more unique to explore. Set GPS to: 1445 Pikeland Road, Chester Springs; natlands.org/preserves-to-visit/list-of-preserves/binky-lee-preserve; 610-520-9197
Peace Valley Park
One of Bucks County’s best-kept secrets, Peace Valley Park is over 1,000 acres of woods and grasslands that are perfect for hiking and biking. The trails are well marked and include everything from a 20-minute walk up to a one-hour wooded trail hike.
At the eastern end of Peace Valley Park is Lake Galena, a great place for boating, canoeing, kayaking and paddle boating — all of which are available for rental for $10 to $15 by the half hour. Visit the Peace Valley Nature Center for a variety of activities, including Sunday afternoon guided family nature walks, evening star watches, information on bird watching and learning tools for adults and children. Also check out the Peace Valley Lavender Farm (802 New Galena Road, Doylestown, peacevalleylavender.com), where more than 3,000 lavender plants bloom in spring and summer. From them come culinary goodies like herbes de Provence and lavender-infused honey, as well as soaps, lotions, sachets and sprays. Set the GPS to: 170 N. Chapman Road, Doylestown, or 230 Creek Road, New Britain; peacevalleynaturecenter.org; 215-345-7860
Valley Forge National Historical Park
What surprises many first-time visitors to Valley Forge National Historical Park is the sheer size of it. Seemingly endless, the 3,500-acre park is epic in its natural grandeur. As the hills that provide spectacular views of the surrounding region attest, there’s a really good reason that George Washington chose this spot as the winter camp for the Continental Army. Remnants of that era remain — cannons, wooden shacks and houses that were headquarters — but they don’t interfere with enjoying the park as, well, just a park. There are 26 trails from which to choose, all of which are detailed in the maps available at the park’s Visitor’s Center. Most popular is the 6.6-mile Joseph Plumb Martin Trail, which has hills that make it a good workout for runners, walkers and bikers. Biking is another great way to explore the park, and bikes are available to rent by the hour, as are caravan attachments for kids. History-centric bike tours are conducted on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. and cost $10 per person. But no tour is required to enjoy the scenery. Picnics, kites and napping in the sunshine are encouraged. Set GPS to: 1400 North Outer Line Drive, King of Prussia; nps.gov/vafo; 610-783-1000
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum
Calling it Tinicum Marsh makes these environmentally unique 145 acres sound rather unappealing. But the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderland of wild nature and is, in fact, the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetland in Pennsylvania. Approximately 10 miles of trails include wildlife observation platforms on which visitors can see hundreds of birds, reptiles and mammals. Canoeing and fishing can be done at the refuge as well. Check the Events page of the website for a complete list of upcoming programs. Set the GPS to: 8601 Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia; fws.gov/refuge/John_Heinz; 215-365-3118
Wissahickon Valley Park
Seven miles long, Wissahickon Valley Park extends from Chestnut Hill to Manayunk and includes Forbidden Drive, one of the most scenic trails in Philadelphia. Biking and hiking are favorite ways to enjoy Forbidden Drive and the 57 other trails in the park. For a map of all the trails, visit fow.org/about-park/maps. To explore the upper trails, be sure to get a special permit, available on the Friends of Wissahickon website. Set GPS to: 8708 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia; fow.org
Melissa Jacobs is a contributing editor to Inside magazine. This article originally appeared in This Summer, a Jewish Exponent publication.