Now that spring is finally here (even if weather this past week argued otherwise), aren’t we all just desperate to get outside and breathe deep and soak it all in? (YES, YES, YES.) It is, I’m totally honest, a time of year that always makes me second-guess our city life … at least on the pretty days. (I suppose it’s just that I imagine myself happier in some field somewhere, free and easy and unshackled, a la Laura Ingalls running down a hill of wildflowers. Because that’s what country life is like, right?)
Anyway. Aside from — and also because of — those momentary country twinges, I’m generally just grateful that we live in a city that isn’t just straight asphalt jungle: There’s actually a lot of places within city limits to access a little nature, to take the kids for some frolicking, some sunshine-soaking, some grass and some room to roam … even some wildflower-hill-running, if you so desire. Here are few consistently awesome options to remember for when nature calls to you, too:
Gardens, Preserves and Nature Centers
There are several places Philly whose sole mission is to provide nature-based retreats for all of us, and they are always good options when you’re in the mood to hang among the flora and, in some cases, fauna.
♦ Bartram’s Garden in West Philly is right on the river, and — huge bonus — entree onto the grounds are free. There are wildflowers, trees, tons of space, formal gardens, guided tours, family programs, and more.
♦ Another option is the fantastic Morris Arboretum, that sprawling Chestnut Hill staple with garden railway, the Tree Adventure Out on a Limb, plus wide open spaces for running, countless trees for shade. (Plus: a Japanese Garden, a rose garden, a swan pond, an azalea garden …)
♦ The Schuylkill Center is the largest privately owned tract of land in Philadelphia, and its entire raison d’etre is to connect people with nature. In addition to the nature preschool and summer camps they run, there are miles of hiking trails open to the public, as well as an education center with exhibits, an interactive children’s discovery center, and more.
♦ The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, deep in South Philly, is 1,000-acre preserve, created to restore and develop the natural area known as Tinicum Marsh. The place is secluded-feeling, and rich in wildlife, even as it sits at the edge of the city. The Refuge offers fishing, canoeing, trails for hiking, jogging or biking, and endless opportunities for wildlife viewing (it’s a bird refuge, and a migratory stopover for 300-plus species) … and it’s totally free. The visitor center offers maps, brochures, exhibits and even binoculars and fishing rods on loan.
I know this seems like a big fat duh when we’re talking about nature in the city, but there are some spots of this sprawling park that are especially worth noting because they’re so great for families and kids.
♦ The Azalea Garden, that pretty, secluded patch of green between the PMA and Boathouse Row, is a favorite for our family because it’s right off the running path (thus super-accessible), but it’s still quiet and spacious, and there’s a ton of room for tag, for tiny-bike riding, for picnics, whatever. (Of course, walking along the river on or alongside Kelly Drive is always a fantastic option, though parts of the trail move pretty fast if for wandering toddlers.)
♦ There’s also the Shofuso Japanese House. The house is a cool destination in its own right, but also it also sits on an acre of land, filled with beautiful gardens and a koi pond. It’s really other-worldly, and not to be missed.
♦ In fact, Shofuso is part of the park’s Horticultural Center, a large section of the park that includes a creek, a whole bunch of nature paths, a greenhouse, a wetland, arboretums and gardens (including a butterfly garden), a reflecting pool, and more. It’s truly special, and you could easily spend an afternoon immersed, forgetting completely that you’re in the city.
We’ve written a lot lately about hiking/walking trails, but, well, ’tis the season. And anyway, there’s no overstating how lucky we are to have such excellent retreats a stone’s throw from Center City.
♦ The popular favorite is easily Forbidden Drive in the Wissahickon. Shaded and lush, the wooded path actually smells like you’re in New Hampshire, not Philly. The trail is wide and great for the whole family, no matter the ages — you can skip stones in the river, you can fish, you can picnic, you can climb out on giant rocks over the water. It is a bajillion miles away from Chestnut Street.
♦ The Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Manayunk is a bit less lush and and a bit more connected to the city (particularly the stretch of the new bridge that overlooks the Schuylkill Expressway), but it is still quite lovely, and offers what you want from you nature trail: a creek, climbing rocks, trees for shade and wide open spaces. (Also, as we’ve noted before, the path it is begins/ends at a great little playground.)
♦ Another no-brainer: The Schuylkill River Trail. True, it’s not exactly the stuff of Laura Ingalls, but it is nevertheless a pretty good quick nature fix in the midst of urban grit.
♦ Pennypack Park Trail in the northeast boasts is a big paved path similar to the SRT, but is far less crowded and far more secluded, verdant and shaded, as it goes through the lovely, forested Pennypack Park.
Hidden Urban Oases
Beyond the parks and squares that you already go to all the time (Clark, Rittenhouse, FDR, Liberty Lands, and etc.), there are other hidden gardens and tiny serene escapes that offer a little nature-focused respite — maybe even a chance to wiggle toes in the grass — in the midst of the built world. Some favorites:
♦ The quiet side garden at the Barnes features several tiers soft grass, surrounded by tall trees: It’s remarkably quiet (especially considering the Parkway is right there!), so much so that we’ve taken snacks from Whole Foods and set up camp to enjoy the mini “campground” in the midst of the city.
♦ Not far from that is the lovely courtyard at the Rodin Museum, which has no grass, but which is a peaceful and gorgeous enclosed garden with a reflecting pool, Japanese Ilex, dozens and dozens of flowers and tall shrubs that block much of the city from view.
♦ All over Old City are little gardens — a rose garden here, a magnolia garden there. Again, it’s not exactly Valley Forge National Park, but little natural (or totally landscaped) oases in the city where you can take the kids and escape, smell some flowers and run from bees and pretend like you’re not in the heart of the city for a few minutes at a time.
Photo credit: Credit: Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia™