For decades, bikers and joggers have zoomed past the Schuylkill Center’s trail entrance on the Schuylkill River Trail without knowing we are there, that our trail system connects to the River Trail or that they can leave the River Trail to explore our massive forest.

No longer.

This Thursday at 11 a.m., friends and family will gather to help us cut the ribbon to inaugurate the River Trail Gateway, our stunning new connection to the River Trail. Designed by Manayunk’s own Viridian Landscape Studio with signage by Cloud Gehshan and funding by the William Penn Foundation, the Gateway is anchored by a large red name sign shouting the Schuylkill Center’s name, a bright red beacon luring River Trail users uphill onto our trail system.

We’d love for you to come to the ribbon cutting; even better, we’d love for you to explore the River Trail and walk up through the Gateway.

Near the name sign, large stone steps take visitors up onto our trails, formal steps for its early run but then more rugged stones as you get higher up. Halfway up the stairs, a circle of stone cobbles allows groups to gather when the Schuylkill Center holds programming on the trail. A large map shows visitors our trail system, and pocket trail maps will be available for people to take out and use.

A short curving steel wall holds back a garden of native plants, but metal I-beams inexplicably sprout from the garden, a poetic allusion to the River Trail’s industrial history, as the famed Pennsylvania Railroad once steamed along this trail; a rock quarry hammered away a few hundred yards down the Gateway on the Schuylkill Center’s own property. Back in the 19th century, this was no quiet, idyllic spot.

But the biggest change is in the vegetation there. Until this summer, a witch's brew of invasive nonnative weeds, including at least one massive invasive tree, dominated the site. No more. The invasives have mostly been removed, and we’ve replanted with native wildflowers, shrubs and trees, which our staff will be supplementing as we move ahead.

In addition, Smith Run, a small stream that arises in Upper Roxborough underneath the ballfields, flows through the center’s forest and then underneath the River Trail through a metal culvert. 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; in fact, many small streams once flowed through Roxborough down the ravines and into the Schuylkill. Only a handful are left, like this one.

When the River Trail was created back perhaps in the '70s, a chain link fence was installed, protecting trail users from falling off the edge of the trail into the ravine where the stream flows. But the fence then grew its own dense wall of invasive vines, a who’s who of the most offensive plants taking over Pennsylvania habitats. That dense green wall precluded trail users from seeing anything beyond it — including the stream below.

So we’ve pulled down that green wall, allowing River Trail users a new view into a rare sight in Philadelphia — an unimpeded stream — and we’re telling the story of those streams in a new interpretive sign.

Since there are so many bikers on the River Trail, we’ve also installed a bike rack funded by REI (thank you!), which allows adventurous trekkers to lock their bikes and walk up into our trails.

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.

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 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.

So come to the River Trail Gateway ribbon-cutting this Thursday, Sept. 27, at 11 a.m. We’re meeting on the River Trail; drive down Shawmont Avenue and park at the bottom of Shawmont or along Nixon Street and walk down the River Trail. The Schuylkill Center’s stretch of the River Trail is only a few hundred yards west of where River Road and Nixon Street diverge.

Hope to see you there.

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

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