25 Ways To Celebrate Your Galentines and Valentines (Part 1)

Whether you’re celebrating your Valentine, Galentine, or really anyone that you enjoy, we’ve compiled a list of date ideas — platonic or romantic! — that will knock your next park adventure, well, out of the park:

1. Catch sunset at the Highland Park Reservoir

The Overlook at Schenley Park is a fan favorite for sunset spotters. Take a stroll around the Highland Park Reservoir, though, to see the sun set betwixt trees and the Giuseppe Moretti entrance statues in the peaceful entrance garden.


2. Ride a bicycle built for two on Pocusset Street

Don’t have the balance to reenact that timeless Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid scene with your sweetie? Riding a tandem bicycle (or any bike, really) down the biker- and walker-only Pocusset Street in Schenley Park is the next best thing.


Knock, knock!

3. Hunt for fairy doors 

In Frick and Mellon Park, Allegheny Commons, and many other parks are teensy little doors for the resident fairies. Find and knock on them to see if anyone’s home.

4. Gaze at stars in Riverview Park

The iconic Allegheny Observatory opens its doors weekly to star-struck astronomers for free tours, lectures, and open houses at this incredible space. On clear nights during these events, the 100-year-old-and-older telescopes are generally open for use.

5. Gaze at stars in Mellon Park

Whatever the weather, you can always see 150 stars peeking up from the lawn of Mellon Park’s Walled Garden thanks to 7:11AM  11.20.1979  79º55’W 40º27’N, a memorial art installation.


6. Read Shakespeare in a Shakespearean garden

Whilst we speak of Mellon Park, o’er the hill of the Walled Garden thou must recite verses when alighting in the Shakespearean Garden.

7. Make a snowman or snowbeast

This is an anywhere, anytime activity. Let your creativity run wild. Just try not to sing that one song from Frozen when you’re out there; it’s contagious.


Telescope in Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park.

8. See the cityscape from Emerald View Park

The Mount Washington overlooks get a lot of love (deservedly), but seeing Downtown peek in and out from the undulating trails of Emerald View Park is always a rewarding experience.

9. Take a trip around the world with a visit to the Plaza

Immerse yourself in international flavors with the fares served in Schenley Plaza. Your hankerings for Chinese, Greek, Belgian, or the ever-changing cuisines at Conflict Kitchen are all conveniently in one square acre.

10. Traverse the tufas

The solid bridges along the lower and upper Panther Hollow trails in Schenley Park, made of a limestone variety (tufa) and built by W.P.A. crews, are straight from a storybook, covered in moss, lichens, and now snow. See these and other old-timey Works Progress projects sprinkled throughout the park.


Tufa under snow.

11. Latch a love lock and throw away the key

Make a statement with your sweetie by adding your own lock to the Schenley Bridge and throwing away the key — just as you do it in the proper waste receptacle. (Forgetting the combination also acceptable.)

 12. Tour the neighborhood, visit parkside cultural establishments

While you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Carnegie Museums, the Frick Pittsburgh, Phipps Conservatory, the National Aviary, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, and many other must-see institutions around the parks.

13. Think spring

Send warm thoughts to family, friends, or someone you’re flirting with this Valentine’s Day with the gift of daffodils in the parks. Make a donation of $25, and we’ll plant 50 daffodils in the park of your choice — and send your someone special a personalized e-card to boot. Get started here.


Check back next week for the second half of our park date ideas. Share your inspired date ideas below or through Facebook and Twitter!


The Matchmakers at the Parks Conservancy

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.

Know Your Native, Winter Edition

Believe it or not, staff at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy do not hibernate during the winter.

Angela, Jaci, and Jake taking care of a tree in Highland Park

While some of us cozy up in the office with woolly sweaters and Big Gulp-sized mugs of coffee and tea, there are those of us that are out in the parks in any weather. Two such dauntlessly awesome staffers are our horticulturist Angela and our gardener Jaci. Regularly spotted outside in ultra heavy duty winter wear, they recently visited the office clad in all-weather work boots carrying a box of treasures — seeds and buds and clippings from plants around the parks. These finds, hidden in the drab colors of winter, were an unusual learning experience and a fun way to study the parks in winter.

If you’re a regular reader of our blog/social media, you might have caught our Know Your Native or What’s In Bloom segments. During the growing seasons, Angela compiles pictures of blossoms and buds from the park gardens for her monthly What’s in Bloom series. Our more sporadic Know Your Native highlights local plants that staffers find and photograph around the parks.

This week, we’re meshing the two. And adding a fun mnemonic twist. We’re also bending the rules; technically, none of these finds are currently in bloom. And a couple of them aren’t natives, but we’re throwing them in, too. Let’s get started! (Note: Information about these plants came from the great Missouri Botanical Garden.)

Tulip (Liriodendron tulipifera)


A large deciduous tree native of eastern North America, the tulip tree, otherwise known as the yellow poplar, is easily identified by its tulip-shaped flowers seen here. The flowers can be tough to spot in spring since they bloom after the tree’s leaves pop open. Its genus name comes from Greek leirion (lily) and dendron (tree). Tulipifera means tulip bearing.

Fun fact: Native Americans made dugout canoes from tuliptree trunks. Source.

Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)


Tripping over the large spiked fruits that we think look like boot spurs is an easy way to identify the invasive horse chestnut, or conker tree. When the skin of the fruit breaks, you can find one or two dark brown horsechestnuts, a relative of the buckeye (but not the chestnut), inside. Check back with these trees in the spring when they show off white, red and yellow flowers.

Fun fact: The alternate name for this tree, conker tree, comes from a British-Irish children’s game that dates back to the 1800s. For this “game,” children would tie strings to the spiked fruits and bop each other over the head until the fruit broke. We’re not sure if you win when the fruit breaks…? Don’t try that at home.

Goldenrain (Tree Sapindaceae)

In the winter, you can identify the invasive goldenrain tree by the papery seed capsules that are a bit reminiscent of Chinese lanterns. The tree blossoms in early summer with flowers of varying shades of yellow, which make a golden yellow carpet under the tree. This tree is air pollution resistant, helping it thrive in urban areas.

Eastern beech (Fagus sylvatica)

The European beech has been a popular ornamental tree in the United States since the mid-1700s. The trunk has a distinctive smooth, gray texture that seems to fold and melt around branches. Leaves of the beech tree aren’t abscissed in fall, meaning they hold on to their leaves all winter. Female flowers give way to two triangular nuts held in spiny capsules, seen here:

Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

A native to eastern North america, no doubt you’ve noticed the sweet gum’s signature ‘gumballs’ spread out at the base of these trees. These spiky globular fruiting clusters are the product of female flower. The name of this tree comes from the sweet-smelling ‘gum’ that the tree exudes when cut.

Fun fact: The tree’s gum has indeed been used for chewing gum. It’s also been used to make incense, perfumes, folk medicines and flavorings.

Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina)

Identifying this native tree is a bit of a gimme. Shown here are the nut-like fruits that cluster like bells. Watch in April when the trees flowers start to bloom in even more obvious bell shapes. Like a bell rung for dinner, these gorgeous flowers seem to bring in warmer weather.

Like to learn more about what makes up our park flora? Follow us on Twitter or Facebook to catch our Know Your Native features, or subscribe to our blog at the bottom right corner. And if you haven’t picked up a copy of our gorgeous Invasive Plants of Pittsburgh guidebook, order one today! 

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

We just have to throw in one more, because we can’t resist. We’ll leave you with Staphylea trifolia, otherwise known as bladdernut. While not the most attractive name, this native does show some pretty flowers in spring!

This blog was originally posted in February 2014.

The Brisk is Worth the Reward: Winter Activities in the Parks

The Brisk is Worth the Reward: Winter Activities in the Parks

We have to admit, Jack Frost nipping at your nose is not always as cute as it sounds; getting outdoors and exploring the parks in Pittsburgh winters is a challenge.

But the brisk is definitely worth the reward. The parks in winter are a wonderland; and more often than not the parks are quieter and less crowded, almost like you have them to yourself.

A good place to start are the parks trails, which are open all year. Take care to watch for icy and snowy conditions, though, since trails are not salted so as to protect the park ecosystems. And the Citiparks Schenley Skating Rink is a must-do activity.

We highly recommend joining the slew of groups that aren’t afraid of a little cold and are out and about in the parks all winter. Get to know them if you don’t already:

Urban EcoStewards on a hike at the annual Winter Gathering.

The mighty, mighty Urban EcoStewards

The exceptionally friendly Urban EcoStewards use the winter as a time to hone their skills for the warmer months, and are always looking for new recruits. After the annual Winter Gathering (held this year on January 10th), various partner organizations will host a free and open training once a month covering a range of topics. Join them for sessions on crew leading, dump site cleanup, stream flow monitoring, and more. And while you’re at it, feel free to sign up to steward your own piece of the park!

Find more information here.


Students hike through Schenley Park.


The hiking aficionados 

The Pittsburgh Hiking Meetup Group eats, sleeps, and dreams in their Keens. Hikes span a range of difficulty levels and terrain, and are led entirely by volunteers who love the outdoors. Pick and choose the times and places you’d like to meet up, and don’t worry, there are a number of treks that end at eateries.

Sign up to meet up here.


Hawk spotted in Schenley Park. Photo courtesy Melissa McMasters.


Three Rivers Birding Club

The Three Rivers Birding Club (3RBC) takes full advantage of the fallen leaves to go bird in the parks. Sign up for their mailing list for daily updates on bird sightings and upcoming events and dig into their active forum to connect with local birders. Then, gear up for one of 3RBC’s organized events in the parks and around the region.

Cross country skiing in Schenley Park. Photo courtesy Melissa McMasters.

Venture Outdoors

Follow the fearless volunteers at Venture Outdoors on hikes with themes like Soup of the Month, Winter Tree ID, or Cocoa and Cookie Adventure through the parks. Or, pick up skills like snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Offering over 500 public programs a year, you’re bound to find something that will inspire you to venture outdoors.

Find more information here.

There are countless ways to enjoy the parks even on the coldest days. We’d love to hear what inspires you to play outside — share your thoughts below!

Never an Off Season

frozen dogwood

Dogwood on ice (photo by Taiji Nelson)

For many park users, the wooded trails they know and love during the spring, summer and fall are out of their minds from December to March. Long, lazy hikes seem like a distant memory. So when I tell people that I’m an environmental educator they often ask “how do you keep yourself busy in the winter?” My typical response is that I finally have a chance to get around to all of the projects and e-mails that have fallen to the bottom of my checklist.  It’s a time to regroup, catch my breath and prepare for the storm of back-to-back programs, busloads of excited students and constantly changing plans in our active seasons. To the outside world all seems quiet, but internally, the winter is by no means a time for hibernation for Pittsburgh Conservancy’s environmental educators. Plenty of planning, preparation and anticipation always preclude the crazy rush of school programs, volunteer days and summer camps.

a spice bush swallow tail butterfly cacoon

Students study a promethea moth cocoon (photo courtesy The Ellis School)

Similarly, to the unknowing eye, it could look like winter is the off-season for nature. Many woodland animals spend months storing energy as fat, before they migrate or enter torpor (a state of lowered activity and body temperature) for winter. Plants also spend much of their year storing energy in the form of sugars in their roots, stems, and buds before going dormant. On winter hikes, we tell our students that the trees around them aren’t dead, they’re waiting.

The plants and animals who stored energy weren’t just working to survive winter, they were also planning ahead to make a strong start in spring when the competition is fierce. The increase in sunlight, temperature and water in spring is like a starting gun at the beginning of a race. Right now, outside, something amazing is about to happen as the ground thaws. Plants and animals are stirring and patiently at the ready. Soon, buds will burst and eggs will hatch. A new year and life for some is about to begin.

PAEE staff shot

Our education staff hiking at the PAEE conference (photo by Taiji Nelson)

At the Parks Conservancy, our education team has also been preparing for spring. Our reach continues to grow as six new schools have signed up to participate through our K-12 programs this year. We’ll share outdoor experiences and adventures with hundreds of students from a diverse range of schools, as well as through family programs, like Earth Day and summer camps. We’ve hired and trained a passionate and talented crew of seasonal educators to use best-practices to connect children with nature through observation, exploration, inquiry and restoration. We’ve developed new programs and partnerships while making tweaks to improve our existing programs. At the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators Conference, our staff gained skills from expert naturalists and educators while sharing our own knowledge about connecting with nature in cities.

lydia plus skull

Lydia, long-time Frick Environmental Center educator, now a Naturalist Educator with the Parks Conservancy

The most exciting winter development for me was the merger of the Frick Environmental Center and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Our two organizations have been jointly running programs for the past few years, but by moving into the same office space and working side-by-side every day, I’ve gotten to know their personalities and talents. We’ve inherited an outstanding staff and a legacy of excellent programming.  When construction of the new Frick Environmental Center is completed, our staff, programs, and facilities will be the best they’ve ever been. We’re ready and waiting for this spring and beyond.

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The Winter That Was

Now I’m not foolish enough to think that these comfy temperatures and clear days mean that winter in Pittsburgh is really over…even though a certain puckish groundhog would like me to believe it’s true.  But I’m already looking ahead to another spring of photographing new blooms and returning wildlife, so now seems like as good a time as any to post a look back at the winter in photos.

There wasn’t nearly as much fresh snow this winter as there was last year, so a lot of the time I was trying to find some type of different angle.  I would try to look closer, or look at the world a little out of focus.  Truth be told, I spent a lot of this winter inside!  But here is what I managed to collect from the parks as a commemorative winter souvenir.

We’re currently planning some work in McKinley Park in Beltzhoover, restoring a stone entrance structure.  I went over in early December to grab some before photos, and the many red squirrels were the only things that popped against a brown landscape.

Red squirrel

This was a fun outing.  I was visiting Westinghouse Pond in Schenley Park, which is a small area that for some reason always yields some kind of photographic surprise.  There had just been a big snowmelt and the pond was flooding, buoying the last of the fall leaves on the ground, so I was looking downward and shooting the leaves and droplets…

Red-tailed hawk

…when a man walked over and told me that if I’d look up, I’d see some red-tailed hawks.  Even with the tree branches silhouetted against a flat white sky, I could not make out anything resembling a bird.  Finally he had to walk me over to where I was standing directly underneath one.  This is one of the birds shortly before being knocked off its perch by another.

Fall leaves

This is the first winter for the restored Mellon Park Walled Garden, so I was curious to see how the stars in the lawn would show up.  They’re very subtle–you can’t make them out too strongly in the wide view, but the garden is lovely nonetheless.

Mellon Park Walled Garden

You can see a couple of stars a little better close up.  I consider this a personal achievement, because the wind chill was 2 degrees, it was about an hour after sunset, and I handheld this for about 8 seconds.  Steady as she goes!

Mellon Park Stars

Winter isn’t winter without a shot of snow on a witch hazel branch.

Witch hazel

Some more snow-on-plants from behind the Highland Park reservoir.

Snow on leaves

There’s an area near Clayton Hill in Frick Park with lots of moss and interesting little heart-shaped plants growing on a rocky wall.  These were the only green things I saw on a gray day.

Green hearts

I have lots of photos of Schenley Plaza’s holiday lights; I have lots of photos of the Mary Schenley Fountain.  But I never shot the fountain through the trees.  In a funny way it looks like it’s snowing.

Holiday lights and fountain

This was the final day the holiday lights were up.  This time I decided just to fuzz everything.  I’ve been finding the lack of edges in deliberately out-of-focus photos sort of cool lately.

Lights out of focus

A leaf during a snowstorm and the reservoir following one.

Leaf and reservoir

This one was an instance of looking closer.  There wasn’t a lot of snow on the ground so wide shots weren’t looking all that nice, and I really wanted to see if there were any flowers that had survived the cold.  I found these along the Nine Mile Run Trail in Frick Park, and they were so faded and lovely that I decided to give them the full antique-photo treatment.


This one was from that same walk, shot into the sunset.

Sunset grass

I just love happening upon a brand-new tree.  This little oak sits underneath a stand of larger ones in the bed where all the daffodils are planted on Bartlett Street.  The photo on the right is of the parent trees; once again I thought the spaces between the branches were almost more interesting than the branches themselves, so I went out of focus.

Oak tree

And finally…the sure sign that Schenley Plaza has shifted its focus to the season ahead.  Photos of real daffodils are just around the corner.  I can’t wait.

Plaza daffodils

Beautiful but monstrous

That was the phrase that popped into my head while I was walking through Squirrel Hill on a nearly silent Saturday night.  The evergreen trees were piled high with snow, making them look even taller than usual, and because I was walking in the middle of the street due to impassable sidewalks, my perspective had changed.  It felt like a scene from a movie and not a walk through my familiar neighborhood.

Because my car is still marooned (and my snow driving skills are minimal anyway), I’ve had to make the most of my geography and limit myself to taking photos in Schenley and Frick Parks.  Yesterday in particular was absolutely gorgeous and worth trudging through snow-packed trails to experience the snowy trees against that brilliant blue sky.  It was disheartening to see that some trails were blocked or impeded by some trees that didn’t survive the snowstorm, but given the amount of snow, it seemed like it could have been a lot worse.  Phil says that most of the damage seems to be broken limbs–he’s going around assessing the situation this week, and we’ll post an update soon!

For now, here are some pics from the Snowpocalypse in the parks.  First up, Schenley Park, where I headed almost as soon as the snow stopped on Saturday afternoon.  I partially waded up Beacon Street through several house-lengths of unshoveled snow until someone finally shouted at me from their porch, “Walk in the street!  It’s much easier!”  He was not wrong… The “Welcome to Schenley Park” sign was almost totally buried, as was this bench.

Schenley Snow 1

The view up Beacon Street was gorgeous.

Schenley Snow 2

Intrepid cross-country skiers, two of the handful of people I spotted in the park.

Schenley Snow 3

The snow started blowing off the trees, creating a really beautiful soft cascade downward.  In this shot you can see in front of the playground equipment that the birch tree has bowed over under the weight of the snow.  It didn’t look to me like it had snapped, so perhaps it’ll find its way back upward again.

Schenley Snow 4

Yesterday I walked over to Frick Park, noting that the now much colder temperatures were barely noticeable since climbing through all the snow and icy sidewalks was such a workout.  Here’s a shot of the sled tracks near the Blue Slide Playground, and then one from the Falls Ravine Trail.  The contrast of so many tall trees and the one that didn’t make it was interesting to me.  The rest of this tree was also blocking the trail, so I had to turn back.

Frick Snow 1

This one is just one of those shots where you realize how indispensable the woods are.

Frick Snow 2

This was my “wow” moment, coming up the Riverview Trail Extension toward the Environmental Center.  The sky was an amazing blue, and then right in the direction of the sun, the snow started to slide off the trees in thousands of tiny sparkles.

Frick Snow 3

There were lots of mourning doves (and a couple of quick-moving cardinals) hanging out around the Environmental Center.

Frick Snow 4

Good to see the snow isn’t piled too high to get inside the gatehouses!

Frick Snow 5

For more park snow photos, check out John Moyer’s Nine Mile Run pics from Saturday on Flickr.  Really beautiful!