Philadelphia offers bike trails for anyone and everyone

Illustration by Kathleen White

Illustration by Kathleen White

by Alex Vuocolo

There are over 300 miles of trails in the Philadelphia region, ranging from paved riverfront paths to winding dirt tracks. For those just learning the system, there are a number of factors to consider when planning a trip: How challenging is the trail? What is there to see along the way? If you’re bringing kids, is there a bathroom, a place to eat, something fun to do? There are enough trails in Philadelphia alone, let alone the surrounding area, for almost every type of trip, but here are three perfect—albeit very different—rides you can take.  

1.
THE OFF-ROAD WORKOUT

Philadelphia’s most celebrated bike facilities are accessible to almost all cyclists. For experienced and even intermediate mountain bikers, finding challenging trails inside the city can be a struggle. Yet, nestled around the Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park is a cluster of short trails that test the mettle of even professional mountain bike riders.

These trails are loosely referred to as the Belmont Trails, but the Department of Parks and Recreation is still in the process of identifying and labeling them in an effort to make them more well-known and navigable. For now, the best way to find them is to go to the Belmont Plateau and take any one of the trails that snake into the woods. A basic map of Fairmount Park can help you find the plateau, which sits at the center of West Fairmount Park, just off Belmont Avenue. It’s also a short hike or ride from Girard Avenue in West Philadelphia, or from East Falls on the other side of the Schuylkill. 

The trails are tight, rocky and often quite steep. A good mountain bike is essential. “It really makes good riders, because you’re forced to learn how to ride something that you don’t find in a lot of places,” says Harlan Price, a mountain biking skills instructor and formerly a professional rider based in Philadelphia. He notes that a lot of people start off hating the trails, then loving them a year later after getting a handle on them. “There’s always a section or a place that’s going to challenge you,” Price says. 

2.
THE SCENIC ROUTE

The Wissahickon Trail is a classic, of course, but for good reason. The mostly-flat 20-mile trail passes through one of the most beautiful natural areas in the region. The trail winds through a deep-cut gorge surrounded by deciduous forest that follows the course of the Wissahickon Creek. The trailhead is located in Philadelphia, but the trail extends into Montgomery County.

All along its length, early 20th century stone bridges arc overhead. Side trails branch off from the main path for those who want to combine biking and hiking. The Valley Green Inn, a historic inn and restaurant located toward the end of the Philly section of the trail, offers public bathrooms, benches and a snack stand. A mountain bike is best for rolling over the crushed gravel that constitutes most of the trail, but a hybrid bike or street bike with thicker tires should be able to hack it.  The trail begins just above the Wissahickon Transportation Center, located on Ridge Avenue, just south of the neighborhoods of Manayunk and Roxborough in the city’s Northwest section. 

Riders can also reach the Wissahickon Trail via the Schuylkill River Trail, which is a scenic route in its own right. The trail, which runs down the east bank of the Schuylkill River, contains a number of civic monuments and historic architecture. It also contains a cross-section of Philadelphia, from joggers and families pushing strollers to skateboarders and marathon trainers.

3.
THE FAMILY FIELD TRIP

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge Park is an open secret of sorts in Philadelphia. Tucked against I-95 in Southwest Philadelphia, the 1,200-acre refuge is a little off the beaten path but nonetheless perfect for a bike trip with the little ones.

Dena Driscoll, a family bike advocate and coordinator for Kidical Mass Philadelphia, which holds periodic group rides for parents and young children, says that the best bike trails for family trips include amenities such as bathrooms, places to eat and things for children to interact with. “For my kids, it’s throwing rocks into water or climbing a tree,” she adds.

John Heinz has all 0f the basics, including bathrooms, parking and a number of areas for children to play and interact with nature. The trail, which roughly follows the perimeter of the refuge, is flat and meandering, making it ideal for slow-paced trips. In addition, it is completely insulated from the city around it: children can ride freely along the path without parents worrying about traffic or speedy adult riders.  The refuge can be reached via I-95 or Lindbergh Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia. The Circuit, a local coalition of trail advocates, has a comprehensive map of the regional trail network on its website if you want to bike to the refuge. 

Safety concerns aside, the park is filled with wildlife and lush natural environments. So, there is more than enough to keep parents engaged as well. “When you go out on a trail, you want a sense of adventure for everyone,” Driscoll says.