MY HIKING PARTNER, Marley, is a blind 10-year-old pit-bull / boxer mix. She rides passenger, her eyes (blind from glaucoma) searching wildly, anticipating our next discovery.
Philadelphia summers are hot, without any breeze or hope for redemption, save for a busted-open fire hydrant. Marley and I try to leave our small, non-air-conditioned row home whenever we can in search of refuge. Gratefully, southeast Pennsylvania does have a stretch of forests, streams, rivers, and swim-holes along well-defined and easy-to-find paths, often within city limits.
1. Forbidden Drive, Wissahickon Valley Park
This was our very first hike together, and I had to keep Marley off the gear-shifter in my VW while I read directions I’d scribbled on a receipt. We drove west on I-76, exited Lincoln Drive, and looked for the landmark for trailblazing: the Valley Green Inn, a roadhouse and restaurant along the creek.
Once parked, start north on the dirt path outside the inn along with the cyclers, families with strollers, runners, and other dog walkers. Follow along the Wissahickon Creek, which joins Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River to the south and runs back into the thick forest to the north.
Autumn is my favorite time to visit to watch the changing leaves, and I sometimes leave Marley at home so I can run the smaller paths that snake up and loop through the steep river gorge, letting out along the main 7-mile drag. Check out the red covered bridge along the way, where I always try to spot the Indian and Toleration statues tucked into the hills of the gorge and imagine weary travelers drinking out of Philadelphia’s first drinking fountain (circa 1854, defunct in 1957).
2. Devil’s Pool, Wissahickon Valley Park
Devil’s Pool is one of the only natural swim holes in Philadelphia, and is one of my favorite places to visit in the summers. Park at the Valley Green Inn and cross the bridge to find the trailhead just east of the river. Follow the path and head right at the fork. When Marley and I first eased down the craggy cliff, I was inspired by her sureness in step, despite her blindness, down the rocky terrain.
At the bottom of the cliff, situated underneath a 100-foot bridge, is Devil’s Pool. It’s small (50ft diameter), but ideal for cliff jumping, depending on how brave you feel. Marley prefers to relax in the shade while I swing from a rope tied to the bridge into the pool.
It’s technically illegal to cliff jump into Devil’s Pool, so don’t get caught.
3. The Water Works, Fairmount Park
The Fairmount system includes 63 neighborhood parks, but one of my favorite spots for a walk is on the Ben Franklin Parkway behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the Water Works.
Marley and I come here to chase geese (mostly her), walk along the east bank of the Schuylkill River, and check out views of Boathouse Row. I bring her here sparingly, though, because of how “friendly” the dogs can get. Holding back a strong and curious pit-bull around other excited dogs isn’t my idea of relaxation.
Walk up and through cliff-side paths overlooking the water to watch the rowers glide past on the Schuylkill.
4. John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, Southwest Philadelphia
More often, Marley and I drive south on I-95 as if we’re headed to the airport, but exit a mile shy to pull into the 200-acre freshwater tidal marsh of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.
Navigate around the nature photographers and bird watchers to walk the Impoundment Trail. The trailhead begins outside the visitor’s center. Once at the marsh, Marley barks at a few snapping turtles, and occasionally we’ll see a beaver scuttle off into the bush.
The refuge houses real wildlife (surprising to find so close to city life) including bald eagles, opossums, and wild turkeys, which a local warned me to stay away from because they attack. That’s been an interesting lesson to teach a curious blind pit-bull.