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Philadelphia’s Top Parks and Natural Retreats

Updated on October 15, 2015

Three years ago I moved from a village with a population of 700 people to the city of Philadelphia (population 1.5 million) and had only one question: where is all the green? Where is the tranquil retreat from blaring SEPTA bus horns or the hidden oasis in a desert of steaming blacktop and pavement? I didn’t see a Central Park like New York and – despite being the 5th most populated city in America – Philadelphia ranked last on CNN’s recent evaluation of cities with the best parks.

Fear not! Although Philadelphia may have lost to Plano, Texas and Cincinnati, Ohio, I’ve scoured the region to find the best retreats and hideouts in order to make this city a home. The following list gave me just enough willpower to give this amazing city a second chance…

The Devil’s Pool – Wissahickon Park

I know, it’s not IN Philadelphia, but this park (and specifically this spot) is undeniably the most enjoyable area in the close Philly region. This cliff-diving haven is found at the end of Cresheim Creek, a tributary that feeds into the main Wissahickon Creek, and features a crystal clear pool about 10 feet deep. Even better, it’s a mere 5 minute hike from the nearest side road with parking. (Use this address in Google Maps to get close to the trailhead and then walk north along the river: 1100 Livezey Ln. Philadelphia, PA 19119 – note this is a private residence, do not trespass!) In addition to the slow cascade of water feeding into the pool, this secluded place is in the heart of a beautiful park with both established hiking and biking trails along the entire river. (Additional parking found in a lot near the Valley Green Inn restaurant).

Edgewood Lake – Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park

This park boasts one of the only places in Philadelphia to enjoy a lakeside picnic. Edgewood Lake is bordered on most sides by trees to give it an untouched feel; the Doric-columned gazebo with a blue Guastavino tile-lined dome and matching stone boathouse give the area a classic and solidified aura. Nearby Meadow Lake is another quick stop to make on the way to or from any of the Philadelphia area’s sports games - this park is located directly across from Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, and the Wells Fargo Center.

"The Overlooks" – Fairmount Park

I have a love/hate relationship with Fairmount Park. Despite being Philadelphia’s largest recreational park by area, it is also one of my least favorite due to ever-present Route 76 that runs directly through the center, creating an unavoidable racket of cars, horns, and traffic jams that can be heard almost everywhere in Fairmount. Now for the love: Fairmount park does house three lookouts that I deem worthy of the routine visit, and the single best biking route in the city along the Schuylkill River Trail. I absolutely adore the hideaway that is deemed the “Gazebo in the Trees” and is a must-see side adventure for those visiting the Japanese Gardens in northwest Fairmount Park.

A second overlook that draws my attention when I visit this park is the view from Strawberry Mansion Bridge and its wooden plank construction. Strawberry Mansion Bridge was constructed in the late 1800s for pedestrian and trolley traffic and is still in use today; however, now only for automobile and pedestrian transportation. The bridge features a breath-taking vista towards the south and contains sections of trolley track from when it was discontinued in 1946.

The third venue to view nature from great heights is found at the two (or three!) gazebos atop the hill at Fairmount Waterworks, just behind the Philadelphia Art Museum. While this is a high-traffic area, the two gazebos atop the hill are usually empty and provide a fantastic vantage point for Boat House Row, the Schuylkill River, Fairmount Waterworks, and the sunset. There is an additional gazebo within view that sits at the end of a flagstone walkway and offers an up close and personal view of the water rushing over the small dam.

Thomas Mill Covered Bridge – Wissahickon Park

I might have tipped my hand that Wissahickon was my favorite Philadelphia park, but for good reason! In addition to being sheltered from the nosie of any passing traffic, Wissahickon features a labyrinth of hiking trails and the only remaining covered bridge in a major U.S. city!

Getting to this bridge requires a half mile walk along Forbidden Drive either south from the intersection of Forbidden Drive and W Bell Mills Road or northwest along an unmarked trail from the intersection of W Chestnut Hill Ave and Seminole St (For this route, park in the dirt lot and take the gated path to the left of the lot; turn left when you reach the fork and you will arrive in 7-10 minutes – I recommend looking at the path on Google Maps by copying and pasting these GPS coordinates for the bridge: 40.071898, -75.225659). The entrance to the bridge is flanked by cobblestone walls that funnel the observer into the gorgeous recesses of this 1855 crimson covered bridge that spans the babbling Wissahickon Creek.

I’ve also published an article detailing Top 10 Nature Nooks and Crannies in the City of Philadelphia for those of you who don’t have easy access to these parks and need something rooted in the folds of Center City or Old City!

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