Introducing a new connection to the Schuylkill River Trail

A stone mason from the Paul W. Steinbeiser Co. lays Belgian block on the Schuylkill Center’s new River Trail Gateway project.

The Schuylkill Center’s 340-acre rectangle of protected open space sits atop the amazing Schuylkill River Trail, which connects Valley Forge on one end to Center City on the other while skirting our southern flank. Thousands of bikers and joggers pass along our border, hundreds daily during the cycling season, but most have no idea that the Schuylkill Center is right there alongside the trail. The old sign marking our presence was marred by vandals long ago and was virtually unreadable by bikers anyway — our name was just too small. The 8-foot chain link safety fence protecting people from falling over a berm became a massive tangle of invasive vines blocking a stunning view of the stream below.

As you read this, everything there is changing.

With funding from the William Penn Foundation, we’re creating the River Trail Gateway, a second entrance to the Schuylkill Center, this one where our four-mile trail system meets the popular River Trail. Stone masons are right now installing stunning steps that will take you up from the River Trail to our trail system, and a circle of rocks will soon allow small groups to gather for programs we can now offer down on the River Trail.

Old sections of railroad track will also soon be installed, some along the ground as edging, others pointing upwards, an artistic allusion to the site’s industrial history and the train tracks that once took the old Reading Railroad down that same path; its abandonment decades ago led to the creation of the River Trail.

That vine-encrusted chain link fence is already down — already, the view into the glen is impressive.

We’ll soon be adding a new Schuylkill Center name sign, one with letters large enough to be read by bikers zooming down, and a large trail map will tell you where everything is on our property — with paper maps available to take up on a walk. A bike rack funded by REI (thank you!) will allow adventurous trekkers to lock their bikes and walk into our trails.

The biggest change is in the vegetational there. Until last month a witch’s brew of invasive nonnative weeds, including massive trees, the invasives have been removed, but that means very little plants exist along the trail at the moment. We’ll soon be replanting with native wildflowers, shrubs and trees, and our staff will be tasked with maintaining the new-growing mix of plants.

Smith Run flows underneath the River Trail, a small stream that arises on the Schuylkill Center’s property and flows directly into the Schuylkill. It’s one of only a handful of streams still flowing unimpeded through Philadelphia — most of the city’s streams were covered over or dammed long ago — and we’ll be telling the story of those streams in a new interpretive sign.

The William Penn Foundation funds a large number of critical environmental programs, including the Circuit Trails, a 750-mile trail network spider-webbing throughout the region; trails here in Philadelphia can get you to the Poconos, the Lehigh Valley and Delaware. The 23-mile Schuylkill River Trail, in some ways the backbone of the Circuit, connects Schuylkill Banks in Center City to the towpath in Manayunk to Valley Forge. It’s also still growing, as the new Bartram’s Mile connects Bartram’s Garden to the River Trail at the bottom of Philadelphia. Imagine that: a walking/biking trail from Bartram’s Garden to the Schuylkill Center and beyond.

There is a pinch pont, a gap in the trail, where Wissahickon Creek flows into the Schuylkill at the Canoe Club. But the city has big plans for the Wissahickon Transit Center next door, and soon a walking bridge will bring people across the Wissahickon right there. The River Trail is slowly unlocking and being completed.

The William Penn Foundation also funds the Alliance of Watershed Education, an association of 23 nature centers with a presence along the Circuit. As a member, the Schuylkill Center is committed to working with the foundation to educate recreationists using the trail to teach about the environment, particularly the river the trail follows. Hence our programming nexus at the Gateway, a place for us to gather and do interpretive walks along the River Trail.

Designed by the Manayunk-based Viridian Landscape Studio, this project is a key piece of the center’s unfolding master plan, which includes a new trail along Hagy’s Mill Road ,which will enhance the connection between the center and nearby Roxborough neighborhoods. Both the frontage trail and our stretch of the River Trail will one day be lined with a “Ribbon of Red,” native plantings that turn various shades of red during different times of the year. Along the River Trail, red grasses will grow along the ground, sumac leaves will turn crimson in the fall, red flowering bee balm will attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Red will become a featured part of our signature plantings along the entire perimeter, including our entrance driveway off Hagy’s Mill

We will be conducting a ribbon-cutting ceremony for this project in the fall and cordially invite you to participate — and to knock on the door of this second entrance. See the fall calendar on our website for more information; love to have you help us cut the ribbon on this great project in September.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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