Fall is a perfect time to discover this area of the park. Before you start hiking, pass under the Commercial St. bridge and check out the restored wetland habitat that was created as part of the Nine Mile Run aquatic ecosystem restoration. This is my favorite place in the parks to watch dragonflies and damselflies, because there’s a whole rainbow of them down here. I hadn’t realized until a few explorations in this area that we had orange damselflies around here.
You can start your journey down to the river one of two ways: you can use the “Jeep Trail,” which is a functioning trail on the Swisshelm Park side of the stream, or you can pick your way through an overgrown trail on the Summerset at Frick Park side of the stream. This trail is getting harder and harder to use as the wildflowers and grasses grow in, and sometimes it can be completely impassable. So I’d recommend taking the Jeep Trail, which takes you high above the stream and (in the fall) past a stunning, bright yellow stand of maple trees.
Along your way, you may encounter anything from deer to a family of ducks to a great blue heron sailing overhead. If you’re on the Jeep Trail, you’ll pass a big pile of slag to your left, and if you glance to your right you can make out the Summerset at Frick Park development through the trees. These slag heaps are reminders of Pittsburgh’s industrial past and of the long and difficult journey this area endured on its way to becoming parkland. It’s a fascinating story that I plan on exploring in more detail in an upcoming blog, but the short version is that this area was part of a grand plan for a water recreation center in Pittsburgh. A combination of funding issues, the prioritization of playgrounds over other park amenities, and the fact that the Duquesne Slag Company had purchased 94 acres in the Nine Mile Run Valley before government re-zoned it doomed Nine Mile Run for the rest of the 20th century.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the turnaround began, and project partners began to convert the slag heap into a residential development and the abandoned valley into parkland. The annexation of the Nine Mile Run Valley added 106 acres to Frick Park, officially making it Pittsburgh’s largest park at 561 acres. So when you’re on your hike, you are in the newest section in all the regional parks.
Eventually (after you’ve properly contemplated all this history, of course), you’ll come to a point where the Jeep Trail and the makeshift trail link up again. This is my very favorite part, because the reflections of the trees in the water are really beautiful, and the small splash of a single leaf or rock sends off such beautiful ripples. Funny to think that in the middle of what was once an industrial waste site, it’s the natural beauty that’s so overwhelming.
If you’re on the Jeep side of the trail, you’ll have to cross the stream to continue heading to the river. This is fairly easy if you’re adept at hopping over rocks, but a lot of park users can’t wait for the new bridge that’s slated for this area to be installed. The last time there was a bridge in this area of the park, it was so that slag could easily be hauled from one side of the dump site to the other. Now, the plan is for a pedestrian and bike-only bridge that will increase connectivity between the park and the river.
I talked to Brenda Smith, the Executive Director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, about this recently, and she said, “Since I came to the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association in January 2008, I’ve probably been asked about the bridge more than any other subject. Even though that area seems remote, it is quite frequently used. People have been finding ways to pick their way across the stream, but they are very excited to have a bridge there again.”
Beyond the bridge (which has been delayed due to difficulty in securing funding), the Urban Redevelopment Authority is planning to complete a new trail that goes to Old Browns Hill Road and links up with the existing trail down to Duck Hollow, where park users can access the river.
For now, though, if you actually want to make it all the way to the river, you’ll have to just pretend there’s a trail leading you there. Hang a right and go up the hill towards Summerset at Frick Park. Eventually if you keep walking you’ll come out near Browns Hill Road and can make your way down to Duck Hollow, where you can stand on the shore and watch all the shoppers at the Waterfront across the river.
Hopefully you’ll have a chance to explore this lovely stretch of land that has beat all the odds and finally become part of our parks. To learn all about Nine Mile Run (including the stretch that runs through Fern Hollow, which we didn’t cover here), visit the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association’s website at www.ninemilerun.org.