15 WITHIN 15: Trail running the Wissahickon

A downed tree creates a welcoming tunnel to the trails of Wissahickon Valley Park in northwest Philadelphia, on a beautiful early May day. [Photo: Kyle Bagenstose]

By Kyle Bagenstose

15 minutes.

That’s the driving distance limit still being championed for outdoor recreation under the novel coronavirus, by entities such as the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The idea is to stay near home and limit the spread of the disease by decreasing community-to-community infection. But it’s a tough pill to swallow. Those not blessed to be immediately adjacent to their favorite recreational spots might not have much recreational opportunity within a quarter of an hour. I know it’s put my plans on hold: a guys’ trip to the Poconos in early May was cancelled, planned visits to new state parks in northwest and southwest Pennsylvania are delayed, and a goal to visit Acadia National Park by the end of the year is up in the air.

Nevermind my usual trips from Philly to campgrounds like French Creek and trail networks like Hawk Mountain.

But, I’ve decided to give it a go. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do 15 outdoor activities within 15 minutes (maybe a few extra depending on the red lights!) to see how it feels. I’m trying to approach this with what some call “beginner’s mind.” Looking carefully for nature and taking it slow in places I may have only sped through before. But I also plan to turn it up a notch from time to time: Can I get my vigorous exercise and strenuous accomplishment kicks within 15 minutes of home?

We’ll see.

Activity 4: Trail running at Wissahickon Valley

Just two “outings ago,” I went to Wissahickon Valley Park in northwest Philadelphia to fish. I wrote in that post that the Wissahickon has easily become my favorite spot for outdoor recreation in the city over the past 10 years, and that’s obviously evident by my returning so soon.

But, it was time for a change of pace. After three leisurely activities to kickoff my “15 within 15” series, I decided to do something a little more strenuous for the fourth. With the weather warming and my budding interest in running re-emerging, I grabbed my trail running shoes and headed for a trailhead on the north part of the park.

It turned out to be one of my favorite days outside in a long time.

The weather was my idea of perfect for running: bright blue skies, and the temperature tipping just into the low-60s as the morning passed. I wasn’t quite sure how far I intended to run, but had a trail running backpack with water and some snacks to help fuel me along.

I tried to take trails I had never taken before, which is growing more difficult each time I visit the park. But I managed to find some, and early in the run encountered the beautiful downed tree seen in the photo atop this post, forming what looked like a bridge or tunnel welcoming me to the trails.

I then wound my way through a network of trails, getting lost several times along the way, and encountering many of the man-made bridges located in the park.

Well into the run, I started my way up a dog leg of a trail, tracking the Cresheim Creek north out of heart of the park. Best I can tell, this creek runs for only 2-3 miles through the area, draining the Chestnut Hill area down into the Wissahickon. It was the first time I’d seen it, and it was beautiful to behold that morning: a gently flowing waterway surrounded by various shades of bright green foliage emerging from tree branches.

As I followed a patch of the park that extended north to hug the creek, I encountered another surprise: the stone ruins of some old structure. Visible as I walked through the ruins were what appeared to be a large chimney and the remaining, bright white tiles of what appeared to be some kind of sterile room, perhaps a bathroom, washroom, or kitchen.

After some quick Googling, I found the structure is what’s left of a barn, which itself was once part of a much larger and historic property dating back to the early 19th century. I don’t want to steal their hard work, so if you’re curious to know more, read this Chestnut Hill Local article.

But, the discovery reminded me of why I love the Wissahickon so much. Even after many years of visiting, it seems there’s always something new to discover, whether it be a natural feature or the historical vestiges of something manmade.

The ruins more or less marked the turnaround point for my run, after which I headed back east for the car. I was still in the mood for more running. I had been alternating between pushing myself as I rambled through the varying elevation and taking minutes-long pauses to enjoy the nature and even solitude around me. I wanted to keep it going.

But after 11 miles and about two-and-a-half hours, my knees told me I’d had enough. I sat down by the “Toleration Statue,” another Wissahickon discovery made in earlier years, reflecting on life while watching for birds. Then I got up and exited the park, fully satisfied with my outing for the day.

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