Frick Park: Outdoor Learning Spaces Meeting

Girl with spiderRe-posting in case you missed our first post about our Regional Parks Master Plan update meetings: please come out to this Saturday’s meeting about Frick Park!  We’ll be gathering at Colfax Elementary School (map) at 9:00am this Saturday, October 2 for an overview of the plan and dialogue about current and future needs in the park.  Then at 10:45 we’ll move into the park for a mobile workshop.

The topic for this workshop is “People and Nature: Finding the Balance.”  Part of the agenda includes visiting four potential sites for outdoor learning spaces.  We heard a lot of feedback in June about these learning spaces, so we’ve researched a few possibilities and we’ll be visiting them Saturday. 

We need as many people as possible in order to develop some consensus about the plan, so please join us!  Click here to let us know you’re coming.

Please share widely!

Happy trails

Things are really progressing with our trail and signage project, so here’s a quick update courtesy of Phil:

Schenley Park
Schenley Park wallRepairs to the Steve Faloon Trail should be completed within the next two weeks.  One of the more exciting things from an ecological standpoint is the daylighting of a pipe at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course. This pipe had been causing water to flow unchecked over the Panther Hollow hillsides and erode the slopes.  Now, that water is directed through a series of detention basins to slow it down and capture surface water.  The area where the pipe was will be covered with soil and revegetated.

The cracked wall behind the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center has also been repaired, although some of the railing remains to be installed. Looking at this image, you can really see the extent of the wall that had cracked off and needed to be replaced.

Frick Park
Along some trails in Frick Park, old utility poles had been used to stabilize trails, but these poles were rotting and sliding down the hillsides.  Now, those poles are being removed and heavy rocks are being situated underneath the ground’s surface.  The rocks are locked into the hillside so they won’t move and unintentionally widen trails.  Then the rocks are covered with fabric so that water can pass through but soil cannot. 

Frick Park bridgeDuring the course of the repairs to the Falls Ravine Trail, an old bridge above the shelter began falling apart, with pieces falling out from beneath the bridge.  Though it wasn’t included in the project’s scope, it was obvious that it wasn’t safe and needed to be repaired.  The City of Pittsburgh purchased a new culvert and will ultimately replace the wooden railing.  The Parks Conservancy’s grant for the trail project covered the excavation and removal of the old bridge.  The bridge replacement was an example of how the City’s partnership with the Parks Conservancy allows for a quick response to unexpected issues.

Highland Park

Highland Park trail

The new Butler St. trail

Years ago, the old Butler Street roadbed was identified as an excellent site for a trail, and now that trail has been created.  This new 8-foot-wide woodland trail is currently lined with straw, but as the growing season continues new vegetation will begin to fill in.  The trail will ultimately connect with one passing by the overlook that’s behind the current DPW construction area (across the street from the swimming pool).  While this area has spectacular views, the hillside is just too steep to place a regular trail there without compromising both safety and the area’s ecological health, so steps will need to be built.  After this middle portion of the trail is complete, the new Butler Street trail can connect all the way to the Washington Blvd. bike trail.

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

“What does not bend must break”

Last night’s storm was one of the strongest Pittsburgh has seen in years.  As the streets flooded and the wind blew, I couldn’t help but cringe thinking about what I’d see when I walked through the parks this morning.  What I did ultimately see was certainly disheartening, but a chat with Phil Gruszka and Erin Copeland, our Director of Parks Management and Maintenance and Restoration Ecologist, revealed that the parks had held up remarkably well.  I thought I’d share some of what I learned with you.

Frick Park
My first stop on the Tour o’ Destruction was Nine Mile Run, where a couple of DPW crew members were sweeping mud off the bridge near the Commercial Street parking lot.  They reported that the water had been higher than the top of the bridge at one point, but by morning the bridge was walkable (if slippery).  The most obvious things about the Nine Mile Run scene were the bent plants and the unusually high amount of trash.  The area around the bridge looked like the snack aisle of a convenience store, with just about every candy and chip wrapper imaginable stuck in the leafy debris.  Litter that’s tossed onto the ground in the neighborhoods surrounding the Nine Mile Run Watershed (Edgewood, Swissvale, Wilkinsburg, and Regent Square, to name a few) washes into the stream during a storm event, and this storm brought more than its fair share.  It’s absolutely true that what we do at home impacts our natural areas, even if we can’t always anticipate how.

Walking further along the stream, it seemed like almost all the tall plants had bowed in submission during the storm.  It looks grim now, but given a few days they’ll pop back up.  As Phil says, “What does not bend must break,” and floodplain plants are naturally able to go with the flow.  They take some of the hit from the stormwater, slowing it down and lessening its impact elsewhere in the wetland and on the trails.

Schenley Park

The Phipps Run Trail, with one of the basins to the middle right.

The Phipps Run Trail, with one of the basins to the middle right.

After checking out Nine Mile Run, I headed to Schenley Park to see how the Phipps Run stream engineering project the City and the Conservancy conducted about five years ago had held up.  The results did not look encouraging.  Water was still streaming down the steps, and all along the Phipps Run trail, there was a huge rut in the gravel.  As a regular park user, my perception was, “This trail is destroyed.”  But Phil explained to me that, far from being cause for despair, the appearance of the trail was actually a “Hooray!”

When the stream was re-engineered a few years ago, the purpose was to allow the trail to withstand unusually powerful storm events like this one.  Before the project, the trail was constantly washing out, making it impassable for hikers and bikers.  The City and the Conservancy mapped out an alternate course for the stream, allowing it to meander and slow down heavy flows of water.  Two basins were installed to catch sediment, so that in a storm like last night’s, heavy sediment is caught by the basins instead of rushing over the footbridges and into Panther Hollow Lake.  The heavy materials can slam into the bridges, causing them to crack or collapse, and collecting this sediment from the lake is much harder than collecting it from small basins. 

Panther Hollow Lake looks rough today, but the footbridge is still intact thanks to help from the re-engineered stream and the wetland plants.

Panther Hollow Lake looks rough today, but the footbridge is still intact thanks to help from the re-engineered stream and the wetland plants.

The rut in the trail came from the water crossing over an edge that was placed to the left side of the trail.  This edge is meant to erode in storm events, directing water toward the Panther Hollow wetland, where it meets more of those great floodplain plants and slows down.  In a lesser storm, you wouldn’t see the rut, but it isn’t cause for alarm because the base material of the trail is still in place.  What happens next is that the City will remove the sediment that collected in the basins and use it in other areas of the park (for creating meadows and such), and bring in some gravel to fill the trail back in. 

In short, the stream behaved exactly as the project partners intended: none of the bridges were damaged, the basins did their job, and a few minor repairs will bring the trail back to its full use.  These repairs have to happen every now and then if we want to have streams as part of our parks–they’re beautiful to look at, but they are subject to the whims of nature just like everything else.

What Can You Do to Help?
I asked Phil how people could help out in the next few days, and his first piece of advice was to allow the City crews a few days to clear out the hazardous materials, like downed or damaged trees.  The north end of Frick Park was hit pretty hard, so mountain bikers would be wise to stay off the trails until they can be cleaned up.

If you want to get out in the parks and help clean up, the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association is having a stream sweep this Sunday, June 21 from 9:30am to noon.  You can help remove the trash that has collected in the wetland, which would make a huge difference in helping the area to recover.  Click here to learn more and sign up.

Want to see a little more of the storm aftermath?  Click here for more photos.

The Nine Mile Run stream, looking more robust than usual!

The Nine Mile Run stream, looking more robust than usual!