Philly’s great outdoors

Some folks would never trade a modern skyline for a mountain range, neon city lights for the Painted Desert sunrise, or a never-ending stream of people for the perfect solitude of a riverside while backpacking.

Some folks would never trade a modern skyline for a mountain range, neon city lights for the Painted Desert sunrise, or a never-ending stream of people for the perfect solitude of a riverside while backpacking. Others would swap in a second.

Living in Philly though, it seems we don’t really have a choice.

So how does the outdoor enthusiast survive in a smog-hazed concrete jungle? Philadelphia has a few resources that can soothe the outdoor itch, or at least scratch it.

Fairmount Park is one of the biggest city parks in the world and boasts a network of outstanding mountain bike and walking trails, all accessible by fat bike tires and many others near public transportation.

This is not the Boathouse Row end of Fairmount, which everyone is most familiar with. Instead, head north to the Wissahickon Valley, a wooded area nestled between Chestnut Hill and Manayunk.


As it turns out, Wissahickon is pretty notorious for mountain biking. When asked to suggest a good spot for dirt, bike shop folks usually point first to Wissahickon — it’s only about six miles riding from Center City and trails range from light and easy to gnarly and technical.

All trail heads are clearly marked hiking, biking and/or horseback riding. If at first you should encounter a few walking-only trails, fear not: super-chunky bike trails are not in short supply.

Forbidden Drive, a wide gravel road on which cars are not allowed, is the main artery from which all the smaller trails extend. At 10 miles roundtrip it’s a good introductory ride. Taken in shorter pieces, it’s perfect for kids.

The Valley Green Inn sits roughly three miles into Forbidden Drive and is accessible by car, which means people are usually roaming nearby, on both the main drive and the smaller trails.

Across from the Valley Green Inn is one of the least technical but nonetheless steep trails with a basic, super-fun downhill. When you’re ready for more, hit up the trails on the west side of the creek; you won’t be disappointed.

Your best bet is to get on a sturdy bike and just go; you’ll quickly discover where you stand. Once you find that point, keep challenging yourself.

Sure, there’s probably going to be a few trails on which you can’t go further than 25 yards, but as long as you keep riding, your skills and strength will improve.

Trail Running and Hiking

The trail isn’t even a cousin of the track. It’s an entirely different species. Were I to risk sounding ridiculous, I’d say it’s spiritual.

It’s loading up with water, a light rain jacket and a snack and just going, running for an hour or two over rocks, tree roots and runoff streams. It’s not a matter of timing each mile or working out, it’s just getting out, going where you might not on a short walk or bike ride.

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, by my longest runs by far have been on the trail, where it’s easy to lose yourself in the surroundings.

In the Wissahickon Valley, the best trails to run or hike are pretty obvious: the ones on which bikes are not allowed. This means less traffic getting in your way. In addition, most of the nostalgic wooden bridges and colorful picture rocks are along walking-only trails.

It’s easy to get caught up along the creek or playing on the rocks, but don’t miss out on the Andorra Natural Area. It’s just above Bell’s Mill Rd. at the northernmost end of the Wissahickon Valley.

Here you can spot deer among a variety of plants and insects. A sign at the northern end of Forbidden Drive points to the Andorra Visitor Center, where you can pick up a free map of the natural area.

The map details trails and marks where to spot a fox’s den, a natural honeybee hive and migrating monarch butterflies.


There are even two places in the Wissahickon Valley — one on the main paved trail just above Ridge Ave. and the other along Forbidden Drive, north of Valley Green — where a climber can do a bit of bouldering.

Without much rain or snow this season, the water level is looking pretty low. In higher water, however, Wissahickon Creek definitely seems boatable.

By no means will it be whitewater intensity, but the creek is probably the only place in Philly (with the exception of a large drainage ditch) where a kayak could be put to good use.

You can find detailed maps of the Wissahickon Valley for $6 at The Valley Green Inn or at Borders located at 1727 Walnut St. For directions to The Valley Green Inn call 215-247-1730.

Though the Valley Green Inn is currently closed for dinner (due to renovations), it is available for private parties and both the snack bar and restrooms are open to the public.

So give in to your earthy, adventure sports side and explore the Wissahickon Valley — it’s the closest you’ll get to the great outdoors without having to step foot past the county line.

And if I were to bid farewell with a cheese-ball cliché, I’d say happy trails.

Tips for Beginning Mountain Bikers

  • Helmets are not optional: always, always, always wear a helmet. As far as crash souvenirs go, a cracked helmet is far better than a head injury and a brain-stained rock.
  • At first, lay off the front brake; slamming down on it is the quickest way for a beginning mountain biker to go flying over the handlebars.
  • You don’t need the fanciest or most expensive equipment, but make sure your bike is sturdy. Bring it in for a tune-up if you haven’t touched it in awhile, and don’t be afraid to ask questions at the shop.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Falling is a part of riding and the skills will improve over time. Showing off the damage and recalling the “when I flew over the handlebars” stories are only half the fun.

    Courtesy on the Trail

    On those beautiful sunny Saturdays, chances are you won’t be the only one out, so use common courtesy.

  • Yield the trail to others and be weary of sharp turns and blind spots. When passing, slow down and warn those ahead of you if possible.
  • Always stay on the trail; never cut switchbacks or make your own path.
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