Philadelphia for families: 5 great hiking, biking, and paddling spots
May 11, 2013

Philadelphia is a glorious place to be a kid outdoors, as anyone who has explored the city’s Fairmount Park can tell you. The largest landscaped urban park in the world, Fairmount is just one of Greater Philly’s many attractions. With its moderate seasons, expansive open spaces that stretch from the city to the countryside, and growing network of walking and biking trails, the metropolitan region offers families many options for being active in the natural world.

With all those riches to choose from, it was hard to select 100 places to feature in the new book Outdoors with Kids Philadelphia: 100 Fun Places to Explore In and Around the City, says author Susan Charkes. When I asked her to recommend the top five of those trips, she hesitated.

“They’re all great trips,” she said.

But Charkes, who is also the author of AMC's Best Day Hikes Near Philadelphia, eventually obliged with a selection that features hiking, biking, paddling, an arboretum with a farm and bee hives, and an unusual boulder field where the rocks make music. An avid hiker with deep local roots—she grew up in the Philadelphia area, raised her son there, and still lives in southeastern Pennsylvania—Charkes knows what appeals to the younger set, and to their parents. Here are her top picks to get a taste of what the region has to offer.

1. Wissahickon Valley Park
“If there is a ‘must go’ trip in this book, Wissahickon Valley Park is the one,” Charkes writes in her description of this 1,800-acre park full of rugged beauty in the heart of the city. As an introduction to the park, which is part of the Fairmount Park system, she recommends the area near the Wissahickon Environmental Center, which has educational exhibits and a native-fish aquarium and offers programs for families. The paths in that area are off-limits for mountain bikes and are a bit easier than in other parts of the park, which offers more than 50 miles of hiking trails.

Charkes also recommends Forbidden Drive, a wide, level path that follows the meandering Wissahickon Creek for 5.5 miles. It is easily hiked and good for strollers and kids on bikes. It also offers terrific views of the rocky, forested Wissahickon ravine, which she says is “one of the most beautiful natural areas on the East Coast.”

Wissahickon Valley Park also includes Rittenhouse Town, a restored historical village that was the site of the first paper mill in British North America. Weekend tours provide information about the town and about papermaking.

The park is accessible by bus routes and a regional rail line. The nonprofit Friends of the Wissahickon organizes events, many of which are suitable for families, and sells a helpful trail map.

2. Schuykill Canal Park/Lock 60
Charkes recommends the 2.5 miles of the Schuylkill Canal in this park as a great place for families to start paddling. Boat rentals are available at a nearby commercial outfitter, and the canal’s steady, slow current makes travelling easy whether upstream or down. “The canal is very picturesque,” she says. “It’s tree-shaded and always has tons of turtles and ducks and other birds.”

Families with older children who are more adept at paddling may portage a short distance to the Schuylkill River at Lock 60 and do a more challenging 5-mile loop rather than going out and back on the canal. You may also go hiking or biking on a towpath along the canal or fish from a dock at Lock 60. The historical Locktender’s House at Lock 60 is open to visitors on the third Sunday of every month, and the lock itself is opened at least once a year for recreational paddlers to experience the up-and-down ride.

3. Schuykill River Trail at Valley Forge National Historical Park
Although her first two recommendations include cycling options, for a favorite bicycling route, Charkes turns to the 130-mile Schuylkill River Trail. The bike path, which has a hard, level surface, is also a great place to walk and push a stroller. Charkes particularly recommends the segment at Valley Forge National Historical Park, a destination that is also appealing for its hiking (19.5 miles of trails) and history. The park’s visitor center describes the Americans’ winter encampment there in 1776-77 that is considered a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

You can rent bicycles at the visitor center parking lot, and 21 miles of biking trails beckon, including a portion of the paved Schuylkill River Trail. “It’s wide and flat and a gentle grade,” Charkes says. “The only drawback is that it is very popular—but it’s popular for a reason.” She recommends going on weekdays rather than weekends in the summer—or detouring to the park’s River Trail, a shaded gravel-surface biking and hiking path along the riverbanks.

4. Awbury Arboretum
This 55-acre oasis of green in the bustling city neighborhood of Germantown features meadows, a pond, woods, and a creek, all accessible by regional rail or bus. You can find out about bees and beekeeping through special programs at the Community Apiary, and learn about growing food at the 2-acre farm and children’s garden. You and your kids can even enter a secret garden (you have to ask the staff to unlock it).

“It’s like a miniature version of our region’s amazing variety of outdoor landscapes, all in on place,” Charkes says of this destination. “There’s something different to explore at every turn.” The arboretum is also easy to reach by regional rail or bus. It has a full calendar of children’s programs and summer camps, too, so you may find yourself returning to this little gem.

5. Ringing Rocks Park
For “a unique destination that appeals to families,” Charkes recommends this 128-acre park in Upper Black Eddy. The 4-acre boulder field next to the parking lot features rocks that ring like bells if you tap them with a hammer (bring your own from home). The boulder field was “formed over millions of years, as extreme freeze-thaw cycles fractured a huge block of dark volcanic rock called diabase,” Charkes explains in her book, and no one can say for sure why the rocks ring. Nearby trails offer short hikes, including one to a beautiful waterfall, High Falls, just a five-minute walk from the boulder field entrance.

Wear sturdy shoes for this excursion and consider reserving it for school-age children: Scrambling around the boulder field is challenging for kids under 5 years old, and the paths are not stroller-friendly.

Learn More
Families are invited to join the fun at the launch event for Outdoors with Kids Philadelphia. Join author Susan Charkes and explore the trails, meadows, and wetlands of Awbury Arboretum from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 9.

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