Written by April Bonifate
In the first few months of the pandemic last year, our lives were changed in ways that we would have never anticipated. While others were graduating into an uncertain future or having a baby that would ultimately spend its first year of life unsocialized, I was struggling to find that I had no hobbies that would work in the pandemic. It turned out that my favorite past times included going out to eat at restaurants, seeing movies or concerts, and shopping. In a span of a few weeks, these went from innocent activities to super-spreader events. However, I am happy to report that this issue was quickly solved, as I sought out many outdoor activities to do as respite from the daily walk that I was taking with my sisters. You can only walk up the same streets so many times, but thankfully the Pittsburgh area is home to the perfect mix of varying terrains to provide ample opportunities to get outside and away from others. Allow me to act as the “Yinzer Rick Steves” and share with you just some of the local, outdoor spots I have discovered that can be safely visited amidst the pandemic.
In Washington County:
1. Montour Trail
Distance from campus: 12 miles
While I am not anywhere near an avid biker, biking is definitely a social-distancing approved activity which I became more interested in as a way to see the sights during the pandemic. The Montour Trail runs for 47 miles from Coraopolis to Clairton, then connecting to the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath, meaning you could technically bike from little Washington to big Washington (D.C., that is). Most people, however, bike for just one day and can anticipate going about 10-12 miles in one direction and then turning around. At The Tandem Connection in Hendersonville, which is about 12 miles away from campus, you can rent a bicycle for the day, and upon return of your rental, it might be a good idea to grab some of the refreshing ice cream that they serve on the way home.
2. Mingo Creek County Park
Distance from campus: 15 miles
Based on a recommendation from a professor, two friends and I went to Mingo looking forward to a hike but were quickly intrigued by the many trails for different purposes crossing over the park. With trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, running, and walking, the park has an option for everyone. If you have been looking for a spot near campus for fishing, the creek was popular with both fly and regular fishermen and women along the banks. With a 6 to 9 foot fishing rod in your hands, it would be pretty difficult not to social distance.
Within 30 miles:
1. Montour Woods Conservation Area
Distance from campus: 30 miles
Located on 300 acres, the Montour Woods Conservation Area is unique in that the area is actively maintained and funded to improve the water quality and restore native plants. There are over 10 miles of hiking and biking trails of moderate difficulty. Once you conquer the relatively flat terrain of Mingo, consider visiting the Montour Woods Area for a bit more of a challenger. Additionally, the park hosts opportunities to volunteer as Land Stewards assisting with their conservation efforts, which is sure to be a great experience for EVS and Biology students or anyone looking to make a difference in their community through nature.
2. Raccoon Creek State Park
Distance from campus: 30 miles
Just north of the Pittsburgh International Airport, Raccoon Creek State Park is one of PA’s largest state parks and in my opinion, offers plenty of activities to keep you busy all day. The park contains over 45 miles of hiking trails that cross through a wildflower reserve, pass the Frankfort Mineral Springs, and circle the lake, among other sites. There are opportunities to rent kayaks, canoes, row boats, or even hydrobikes from various rental locations. As a land-locked state, there are not many chances to visit the beach in PA, but there is a 500 foot sand and turf beach that is open from late May-September for swimming. In the winter, ice skating is permitted on the lake, but at your own risk.
3. Three Rivers Heritage Trail
The Three Rivers Heritage Trail takes visitors past some of Pittsburgh’s most popular sites. Portions of the trail run along each of the three rivers as the name suggests, with a total of 33 non-linear miles, but selecting one portion to complete is good for a day trip. On the North Side, you can park near the Heinz Factory and take in the sights along the Allegheny River to the point where it meets the Ohio. You will pass by Heinz Field, PNC Park, the Mr. Rogers statue, and the Carnegie Science Center. On the South Side, you can park near the Duquesne Incline and pass by Highmark Stadium and Station Square. Wherever you go, you will get a glimpse of Point State Park and its famous fountain. While the trail is for walking, running, and biking, I personally have only ever walked the trail and would truthfully be a little nervous to bike some of the portions near PNC Park along the river where there is no barrier between your two wheels and the water below, but you can certainly bike it at your own risk.
4. Urban Parks: Schenley and Frick Parks
Distance from campus: 25 miles
While urban parks are less of a hiking destination than some of the other options on the list, their historic and cultural value still make them fun places to visit. Schenley Park has it all; from Phipps Conservatory to the PNC Carousel, the park also contains hiking and biking trails, a golf course, disc golf, an ice rink, and numerous playgrounds and water features. In the summer, the park is host to the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, the nation’s only vintage car street race. The event plans to make its grand return this summer following covid guidelines on crowd limits. I attended the event in 2019 and must say that even if you are not a car enthusiast, it is pretty cool to see all of the drivers racing around the tight bends and across the many bridges in the park. Frick Park might be most popular with our age demographic because of Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller’s debut studio album, Blue Slide Park, in which he name-drops the park and surrounding areas that served as the setting for his childhood and teenage years. Besides the iconic blue slide, Frick Park is known for its miles of wooded trails that manage to make the heart of the city feel like a dense forest. Additional attractions include Clayton Hill, where bird watchers can gather to see just some of the 100+ species that have been cataloged at the location, red clay tennis courts, and the LEED Platinum certified Frick Environmental Center. Besides Schenley and Frick Park, Pittsburgh is home to over 30 additional urban parks to explore.
1. Ohiopyle State Park
Distance from campus: 60 miles
The Ohio River Valley was hotly contested territory in the Seven Years’ War and by looking at the natural features of Ohiopyle State Park, you can definitely understand why. The park is located within the Laurel Ridge portion of the Allegheny Mountains and features some of western Pennsylvania’s most diverse land features. The many streams and tributaries eventually lead to the Youghiogheny River, where visitors can brave the rapids on a white water rafting trip. If you are looking for perhaps more mild and dry activities, the park features hiking, biking, and horse trails, as well as rock climbing and fishing. There are three scenic waterfalls throughout the park as well as an opportunity to experience what perhaps may have been a recreational activity of our ancestors. Natural water slides in the park allow visitors to ride the current through a path of rock formations into a pond area below. The slides at Ohiopyle are the only natural water slides in PA, so you are sure to be in for a unique experience. Just remember, the rocks are slippery when wet and water shoes are highly recommended!
2. Cooper’s Rock State Forest
Distance from campus: 60 miles
It truly is “Almost Heaven” atop Cooper’s Rock State Forest’s main overlook high above the Cheat River Gorge. Rated by WV Tourism as a top scenic spring spot, the park showcases some of the state’s most beautiful natural sites including sandstone cliffs and canyons. A multitude of hiking trails fill the park, but one of the most interesting is the Clay Run Trail, a moderate 1.8 mile hike ending at the remnants of the Henry Clay Iron Furnace. Of course, it is required that you play the John Denver hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as you drive both in and out of West Virginia. I heard that it’s the law, and you definitely don’t want to risk it.
3. Mount Davis
Elk Lick Township, PA
Distance from campus: 85 miles
At an elevation of 3,213 feet above sea level, Mount Davis claims the spot as highest point in PA. Though this location is at an elevation considered meager by Rocky Mountain or Adirondack standards, it provides some of the best views in the state as you can climb a 50 foot viewing tower for some extra height. The tower itself is easy to access, as you can park right near the base, but the surrounding area features 10 miles of hiking trails. Along with Ohiopyle, the region is home to some of the most scenic autumn scenery in the fall and bright blooms in the spring.
It is important to remember essential pandemic rules and guidelines while outside including:
Always keep at least one mask on with multiple back-ups in case it becomes dirty or wet. For some water activities, you are required to remove masks as a safety precaution for drowning, but biking, hiking, rock climbing, and most other activities can safely be completed while wearing a mask.
Bring your own hand sanitizer and personal safety supplies. Not all outdoor locations offer stations to wash your hands, so it is best to come prepared.
If possible, pack your own lunches and have a picnic instead of eating in a restaurant.
Bring your own water supply and do not rely on sharing with others. Even if you are with your friends or relatives, you can limit the spread of Covid-19 and other illnesses by drinking from only your own beverages.
Try and visit popular locations at slow times. If you visit mid-day on the weekends, many of the locations are still very crowded, even at 25-50% capacity. Try to stop by on weekdays, in the early morning, or in the evening.
Maintaining your own mental and physical health can be a challenge, especially during a life-altering pandemic, but I have found that getting outside has helped to greatly improve my mood. Even if you can’t take a trip away from campus, try taking walk through Washington on a beautiful spring day as a way to get away from your computer, breathe in some fresh air, and discover the natural beauty that is all around us here in Western Pennsylvania.