Anya Sostek, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hiking was always an option for parents and their kids. Amid the coronavirus closures, it’s one of the only options. And while some families might be experienced woodspeople, others are just starting to dip a toe into the great outdoors.
“The outside is still a safe place to be,” said Rachel Handel, communications director for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. “Most kids, truly, when they get outside, start having fun and running. When they get in sunshine and fresh air, they just feel rejuvenated.”
Some communities have closed basketball courts and playgrounds, but most trails remain open. Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home order issued Monday still allows people to exercise in parks and trails, provided they follow the CDC’s six-foot social distancing recommendations.
“For right now, parks are open,” said Camila Rivera-Tinsley, director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “We caution you not to get onto any of the playground equipment and make sure you’re not touching a lot of surfaces — we just need to stay aware of that.” Because of COVID-19, facilities such as nature centers and public bathrooms may be closed.
For little kids who have never hiked in the woods before, Ms. Handel recommended that even a backyard could be a starter hike. Parents can create their own scavenger hunt with easy options like a cardinal or a worm, or animal footprints or use one of the many printable options available online.
Once in the woods, Ms. Rivera-Tinsley suggested having kids look for signs of spring, such as buds on trees or a parade of ants. Older kids might enjoy bringing a camera or tablet to take pictures on the hike, and could even keep busy once they get back home editing the pictures into a slideshow or putting filters on them. Kids can also create a map during or after their hikes, trying to draw a route and labeling things that they saw along the way.
Families should keep in mind that spring in Western Pennsylvania brings mud, and appropriate footwear and a change of clothes may be warranted.
It is also virtually always tick season in the Pittsburgh area, said Ms. Handel, and hikers should take appropriate precautions to protect against Lyme disease. She recommended long pants tucked into socks, as well as a quick check for ticks before getting back home or back into the car. Once home, families should change their clothes and shower, and strip children down to check for ticks. Bug repellent that protects against ticks is also an option.
“I don’t want this to be something paralyzing for parents,” she said. “It’s just a caution that you need to take. It doesn’t need to be frightening.”
For families with small children just starting out hiking, Ms. Handel recommends hikes that are about half a mile or a mile. “That will take you a good part of an hour — that’s a point where smaller children will be ready to be done with it,” she said. “It makes a lot of sense to keep it short at first.”
Trails marked as ADA-compliant will also be good for strollers, she said, and families can also bring a ball or a favorite toy to keep kids busy on trails that are flat and paved.
Some of her favorites are the Pie Traynor loop at North Park, which has ample parking and also allows for bike riding or scooters, the Goldenrod trail at the Audubon Society’s Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel and all of the trails at the Audubon’s Succop Nature Park in Butler.
Apps such as AllTrails can also help families find easy (or more ambitious) trails nearby.
Ms. Rivera-Tinsley said that the Pittsburgh parks have been busy this week, with children home from school and many parents not working or working from home. She recommended the paved “exercise loop” at Frick Park, just past Blue Slide Park, noting that parents should keep a close eye on their children to keep them from touching too many surfaces, and bring wipes with them if possible.
“It has been proven that spending time outdoors, in view of green things can decrease the amount of physical stress that is happening to our bodies,” she said. “It’s something that is accessible and free to all. We should definitely take advantage.”
7 Good Starter Hikes in the Pittsburgh Area
Braille Trail, North Park: Short, .4 mile loop on a trail originally designed for use by the visually impaired. Posts with scannable QR codes link to YouTube videos specifically designed for the trail, including topics such as deer and vernal ponds. Trail can be extended by crossing the street and looping around a pond.
Succop Nature Park, Butler: An Audubon Society-maintained park with multiple beginner, flat trails that are easy to navigate for all ages.
Frick Park, Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze and Regent Square: The exercise loop just past Blue Slide Park is paved and wide open, with room to run in grass nearby. If families want to avoid the temptation of Blue Slide Park, the 1-mile loop of North Clayton and South Clayton trails is another option.
Fern Hollow Nature Center, Sewickley Heights: The park offers a Native Tree Walk, with a short loop and longer trail dotted with 32 species of native trees (and a printable map).
Fall Run Park, Shaler: This 1.4-mile out and back trail follows a stream to a 30-foot waterfall. The trail got a $1 million facelift two years ago, with new wooden pedestrian bridges and a new viewing platform for the waterfall.
Beechwood Farms, Fox Chapel: The .3 mile Goldenrod trail is an excellent starter trail that explores a meadow and pond. Beechwood Farms also has five miles of additional trails, including a cool tree top viewing platform.
Gilfillan Trail, Upper St. Clair: A wide, wood-chipped, easy 1.2-mile loop around a farm right across from South Hills Village that feels nicely like it’s much more distant from the developed world.