Parks Educator Takes Pride in Planning Hikes

This post was originally written and posted by our friends at Venture Outdoors. Check out their blog here!

On December 24, Parks Conservancy Naturalist Educator Mike Cornell will be leading his third annual, all-ages winter hike through Frick Park.

In 2012, Cornell led his first hike on a whim. He was in the office on December 24, Christmas Eve, and decided that if had to be in office, he would see if anyone wanted to come out for a hike. He put up a posting on Facebook: “Gonna take a hike at noon.” Approximately eight to 10 people showed up and a tradition was born. This year, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy expects between 25-30 people. The hike has become so popular so quickly that they are hoping to do another winter hike in January 2016.

Cornell’s outdoors education has spanned most of his life. Since he was 15, he worked on education and hikes with the Frick Environmental Center. Growing up in Point Breeze meant that Cornell was always out and about.

“I’ve been going outside my whole life and I just want to share it with other people,” Cornell said. “It’s so great to show others what is so great about the outdoors and what they can see out in the woods.”

Cornell went to school in Syracuse at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he studied environmental science in natural history and interpretation. During summers, he would return to Pittsburgh to work in the parks at the Frick Environmental Center.

Photo provided by Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Photo: Mark Simpson

Nowadays, Cornell prepares for his hikes well ahead of time. When he first begins to create a hike, he imagines what it will look like: will he try to get as far possible, cover as much ground as he can? Will he try to educate his audience on trees or birds? It is essential for him to pick a topic for the hike. Once he chooses a topic, he narrows it down to a specific theme or anchor.

“For instance, I really like winter tree ID hikes; I always default to trees!” Cornell said. “What am I going to do to make it interesting this year?”

He looks at ways to make the winter tree ID hike interesting, like educating his audience on which trees can be used to make a winter tea.

“Maybe we’ll walk around the park and sample teas from different types of trees,” Cornell said. “We could talk about additional properties, like, historically speaking, how trees were used for tea and to get people through harsh winters.”

Once he locks down his theme or anchor, he takes to the route. Cornell explores and walks potential paths and figures out the different things he wants to show his audience.

“I make sure I can see the trees I want to see or I check out the best place to see birds or fossils,” Cornell said.

Sometimes he charts out his route on a map to get exact distances and times.

“I like to start and end when I say I will,” Cornell said.

Photo by Melissa McMasters for Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Photo: Melissa McMasters

Though he may mimic past hikes’ theme, no one hike is the same. Every outdoors experience offers a unique perspective or a surprising event. This past summer, for instance, Cornell was out in the early morning for a run and ran into a six-point buck in the middle of the trail. He had seen other bucks playing around the area in earlier weeks. The buck approached Cornell as he stood very still. The buck turned sideways and gently bumped Cornell with his antler.

“It was like he was waiting for me to come after him,” Cornell said, “So I gently tapped him on the back and then he tapped me. I had a little game of tag with a deer and it was so surreal.”

From planning hikes to leading them, it seems Cornell is out in the parks enough that even the deer and bucks have taken a liking to him.

– Danielle Levsky, Communications and Media Coordinator at Venture Outdoors

Though the upcoming winter hike is now closed for registration, check back with us at the Parks Conservancy to see when Mike will host his next hike. Also, check out Venture Outdoors’ upcoming hikes, like the New Year’s Resolution Hike on January 1, the Game Day Hike on January 3 and the Winter Tree ID Walk on January 9.

Urban EcoStewards Celebrate a New Year – A Winter Gathering

You know what’s better than a Winter Gathering to kick-off the 2013 Urban EcoSteward training year? A snow-covered Winter Gathering complete with a one-mile hike in Schenley Park! Around 35 dedicated park stewards signed up for the event on Saturday, January 26. The Urban EcoStewards represented a variety of organizations including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Frick Environmental Center, Allegheny Cleanways, Allegheny Land Trust, and Nine Mile Run Watershed.

Wintry Schenley Park

Tufa Bridge in Schenley Park

The day started with lunch at the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center which was restored by the Parks Conservancy in 2002. Rumor has it, Patty’s Smoked Mac and Cheese was the big hit of the day! After a brief overview of the participating organizations, the day continued with a celebration of 2012 successes and what the EcoStewards have to look forward to in 2013.

Urban EcoSteward celebration at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center

The group then bundled up and strapped on their snow boots for a one-mile hike around the Lower and Upper Panther Hollow Trails.

Headed down for a snowy hike through Schenley Park

Looking up at Panther Hollow Bridge from the Hollow

Led by Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Education Program Coordinator, Taiji Nelson, the group discussed winter tree identification, soil erosion, and emerald ash borer along the way.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Education Program Coordinator, Taiji Nelson, explaining soil erosion to the EcoStewards

Lesson in destructive tree identification

The day ended with an overview of Phipps Run and Panther Hollow Watershed’s and restoration efforts being implemented in the area.

Hiking along Upper Panther Hollow Trail

Urban EcoStewards give back to their communities by adopting a specific section of park land that they agree to maintain. Stewards receive training from Parks Conservancy staff and other program partners and visit their site throughout the year to remove invasive species, plant native flora, slow erosion, and clean up trash. EcoStewards report to a coordinator, who will accompany them on at least one site visit per year to determine maintenance needs.

If you’re ready to take on your own little piece of the park, sign-up for our next training date on our Urban EcoSteward webpage. For more information, please contact our education department at 412-682-7275 ext. 232 or

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.