Four Unsung Spots #4: Nine Mile Run

If you asked me to name my favorite spot in all of the four parks, I would probably say the area of Nine Mile Run that goes from Commercial St. down to the Monongahela River. It’s a low-traffic spot that is teeming with interesting flora and fauna, so it somehow manages to be both totally peaceful and exciting at the same time.

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.

Just a few of the dragonflies and damselflies Ive spotted at Nine Mile Run.

Just a few of the dragonflies and damselflies spotted at Nine Mile Run.

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.

Nine Mile Run before the slag came in (from the 1923 Citizens Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh)

Nine Mile Run before the slag (from the 1923 Citizens Committee on City Plan of Pittsburgh parks report)

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

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Four Unsung Spots #3: Highland Park Seasonal Pools

What do you get when you cross a lawnmower with a huge, completely flat field of grass that just happens to be located at the foot of a very steep hill?

The lawn in February 2006

The lawn in February 2006

If you answered “a maintenance nightmare,” you’ll appreciate one of the Conservancy’s lesser-known capital projects, known as the Highland Park seasonal pools.  Once a large patch of grass that regularly flooded and contributed to water runoff onto Washington Boulevard near its intersection with Allegheny River Boulevard, this area is now a wetland habitat that’s unique in the Pittsburgh park system. 

Much like the Schenley pool meadow that we covered as our first unsung spot, the seasonal pools weren’t an original part of our Regional Parks Master Plan, instead arising out of a problem that more or less demanded a solution.  Several years ago, then-Mayor Tom Murphy commissioned a new trail in Highland Park to provide a link between the park and the rest of the citywide trail system.  The trail was originally slated to run across the lawn area, but the Parks Conservancy saw its construction as an opportunity to combat the woody invasive species that were aggressively taking over the bottom of the slope. 

The completed seasonal pools

The completed seasonal pools

So instead of creating a trail on a lawn that regularly flooded, the City’s Department of Public Works Construction Division routed the trail partially through the woods, creating a more unique experience for cyclists and hikers.  The team created basins, culverts, and outfalls so that the energy of the water coming down the hillside would dissipate, reducing flooding.  Along the south side of the trail, the seasonal pools (also called vernal ponds) were created to catch the water.  As Phil Gruszka, our Management and Maintenance Director, puts it, “That’s what that area wanted to be anyway,” but instead of being regularly mowed, now it could collect water and provide habitat.  In 2006, the trail and the pools were completed.

The Parks Conservancy began sowing native seed mixes all around the ponds, instantly laying the foundation for a biodiverse habitat.  Now instead of flooding a lawn full of grass whose roots aren’t deep enough to soak it up, the water goes into the wetland, filling the pools and infiltrating via the deep roots of dozens of different types of wildflowers.

Wildflowers spotted at the seasonal pools.  Top: Bloodroot, ironweed, and black-eyed susan.  Bottom: Blue vervain, buttercup, and butterfly weed.

Wildflowers spotted at the seasonal pools. Top: Bloodroot, ironweed, and black-eyed susan. Bottom: Blue vervain, buttercup, and butterfly weed.

The wildflowers are striking, especially this time of year when the black-eyed susans, ox-eyes, and bergamot create a sunny spectacle dotted with pale purple.  But what’s even more encouraging is the amount of animal species that have been spotted in this previously non-existent wetland habitat.  Some birds, such as the red-winged blackbird, prefer to live in wetlands, and there is a large colony of them that inhabits this space.  Dragonflies and damselflies buzz around the water, lighting on cattails.  Other species that have been spotted include great blue herons, snakes, slimy salamanders,  red tail hawks, and raccoons.  The pools have been a true success story in terms of bringing biodiversity into the parks.

Volunteers planting bald cypress trees

Volunteers planting bald cypress trees

They’ve been a success in other ways too, including as a site of community involvement.  In 2007 a group from the Girls Math and Science Partnership came out several times to do monitoring of water levels and quality.  We’ve had several cleanup events where we fished litter out of the pools that had run off the hillside.  And ecological restoration efforts on the site have been continual: the hillside had a number of invasive trees (mostly Norway maple) that have been removed, and new trees have been planted each season.  This spring we kicked off our Home Runs for Trees initiative by planting several bald cypress trees in the area between the pools and Washington Boulevard.  Now we’re focused on keeping all the new trees watered and healthy so that we can add biodiversity to the tree canopy in addition to the wetland.

So the next time you head over to the Washington Boulevard bike track to catch a race (or participate in one!), take a few extra steps and check out this relatively new habitat that’s bringing all kinds of new creatures into the park.   And don’t forget to bring your camera, just in case you spot a turkey hiding among the wildflowers!

(Wildflower ID thanks to this great site!)

The plants have really sprung up around the pools; heres the same view from April 2007 and July 2009.

The pools have really filled in; here's the same view from April 2007 and July 2009.

Four Unsung Spots #2: Snyder’s Point in Riverview

This is the second in our series of Unsung Spots in the Parks.

Click here for a full map and directions!

Click here for a full map and directions!

The most common question I’m asked about Riverview Park, either by people who’ve never visited or those who have been there many times, is “Where’s the river view?”  Back when the park was created in 1894, it was composed mainly of pastures that had been used in dairy farming–a far cry from the tall tree canopies you see there today.  Standing behind the current Allegheny Observatory, people had an expansive, unobstructed view of the Ohio, and this continued for many years as trees were kept pruned to preserve the view.

But now the trees mask the river entirely from this location, and there’s really only one place to check out the view.  So where is it?

To see the Ohio from what is called Pope’s View, you take the Snyder’s Point Loop Trail out to its furthest point.  You get onto this trail from the most southwestern point of Riverview Drive, the road that runs throughout the park.  A few minutes’ walk on the trail gives you a pleasant prelude to the meadows that follow.

Garlic mustard isnt tasty, so they use it as a bed.

Garlic mustard isn't tasty, so they use it as a bed.

It’s a rare occasion to walk along the Snyder’s Point Trail in the evening and not pass a family of deer snacking on the native plants, which is why all along the Snyder’s Point trail you’ll see large round piles of sticks.  These deer exclosures are experiments of the Parks Conservancy and other organizations, an attempt to protect the native saplings and groundcover that we plant in hopes that we can regenerate the canopy and the understory.  Riverview’s deer population is just too much for the plants to handle, which is part of why you’ll see entire areas with nothing but garlic mustard, jetbead, and multiflora rose–invasive plants that the deer don’t like and that take advantage of the lack of native competitors.

(Do you see why we love our Urban EcoStewards so much?  Without them, the native plants–and the biodiversity of the forest–wouldn’t stand a chance against the deer and the invasives.)

Milkweed beetle

Milkweed beetle

But I digress–back to the trail!  You’ll eventually come to a lovely open area surrounded by meadows.  It’s especially fun to visit in the summertime when the milkweed is out in full force, because the plants are covered with tiny red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetraophthalmus).  The beetles get their scientific names from the odd structure of their eyes.  The base of their antennae splits each eye into two sections, making it look like they have four eyes.  The milkweed beetle is one of only a handful of creatures that can eat milkweed, the most well-known being the monarch butterfly.

After you pass through the meadows, stopping to see whether there are any birds living in the houses scattered around, you’ll come upon a small stone bench, and you’ve reached Pope’s View.  Unfortunately, I don’t know who Pope is to give you the great story of his life (or who Snyder is, for that matter), but his name lives on if not his story.  (Anyone who can enlighten me, I’d much appreciate it!)  Depending on what season it is, your view of the river may be either marginal or pretty darn good.  In the summertime, you can peek through the trees at what’s going on across the river, and in the winter you may actually get a decent look.  An expansive vista it’s not, but I think it is essential to the Riverview Park experience.

Popes View in summer and in winter

Pope's View in summer and in winter

On your way back from Pope’s View, you can either make the loop and return to the road the way you came, or you can take one of the many offshoot trails into the woods.  I’d recommend this route, but only if you’re pretty sure of your feet. 

Sulfur shelf fungus

Sulfur shelf fungus

There’s no telling what kind of interesting plants, trees, and especially fungus you’ll come across.  I think Riverview Park is one of the best places in the city to find really cool mushrooms and spring ephemeral flowers, and this area of the park is a great one to keep your eyes open for bright colors.

If you want to check this route out for yourself and learn a little park history along the way, mark your calendar for Wednesday, July 15, the next time Walks in the Woods cycles through Riverview Park.  For more information on all the walks, click here.

Four Unsung Spots #1: Schenley Pool Meadow

We’re starting a new series on the blog today called Four Unsung Spots in the Parks. These are places in our park system that either get a lot less traffic or that people might have overlooked on their regular hiking or biking routes. We’ll do a spotlight on one place in each of the four regional parks over the coming weeks, so check back often!

Coming up with an “unsung” spot in Schenley Park is fairly difficult, because Schenley isn’t really the park you visit when you’re looking for some genuine solitude.  But I thought I’d shine a spotlight on one of the Conservancy’s lesser-known projects of the past few years, a huge patch of wildflowers known as the Schenley Park Pool Meadow.

Before and After: the lawn in 2006; a summer evening in 2008.

Before and After: the lawn in 2006; a summer evening in 2008.

The meadow is pretty much where you’d expect–right past the fence that borders the swimming pool.  Like a lot of our meadow sites, it was previously used as a lawn before the Conservancy created the meadow in 2007.  Here are just a couple of reasons we love meadows as opposed to lawns:

  • Meadows are beautiful to look at and provide visual interest for park users.
  • Meadows increase the park’s overall biodiversity by introducing many different native plant species into the park and providing habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife.
  • Lupine

  • Meadows require a lot less maintenance than lawns, which require frequent mowing.  Because the plants in meadows are native to Western Pennsylvania, they have adapted to the weather conditions of the area and grow well with little assistance from us.
  • Meadows soak up a lot more storm water, reducing flooding and erosion in the park.  Our rule of thumb is to look at how tall a plant is and estimate a 1:1 relationship between its height above-ground and its depth below-ground.  Imagine how small one blade of grass is compared to a big black-eyed susan.  Now imagine how much deeper the black-eyed susan’s root system is, and therefore how much more water it can soak up.

And this meadow will hopefully eventually have the added benefit of providing a natural cover for the graffiti that’s all over the wall under the Charles Anderson Bridge.

Volunteers Grace and Beth battle the horseweed.

Volunteers Grace and Beth battle the horseweed.

With any new project comes a set of challenges, though, and the pool meadow’s chief menace has been horseweed.  Although it’s native to the U.S. and not as noxious as some of our enemy plants in the forest, it spreads easily via many windborne seeds and thus is not the kind of plant you want competing with your other meadow natives.  With the help of some of our reliable volunteers, we’ve cut the horseweed population lower each year, and hopefully that’s making it easier for the other plants to grow.

And there’s lots of great plants to see: in the springtime, wild lupine sends up purple stalks, and July brings an explosion of bergamot and ox-eye sunflowers that gives way to black-eyed susans in the fall.  Every year I come across something new and unknown and find myself doing image searches when I get home to try and ID the latest mysteries.

The Schenley Park pool officially opens this weekend, so when you’re done taking a dip, stop off by the meadow and take a look.  (In July you won’t be able to miss the show, but its charms are a little more subtle right now!)  Then check out Wildflowers of Western PA for help identifying all the cool flowers you spot in the meadow!