There and Back Again: The Upper Parking Lot Loop
By John Holback
There are approximately 50 miles of trails in the Wissahickon Park. Three trails (Orange, White, and Yellow) run parallel to the creek for more or less the whole length of the park, while two smaller trail networks (The Lavender Trails and the Andorra Trails) fill in some of the gaps. Because of this relatively high trail density (and several bridges over the creek), there are tons of great options for loop hikes; short loops, long loops, figure 8 loops, or the infamous “The Loop” (a loop of the park going all the way up the Yellow Trail and back on the Orange or White). I have several favorite loops and this one starts and, due to the nature of loops, ends at the Wissahickon Environmental Center’s Upper Parking Lot. This hike is just under 3.5 miles long, climbs two hills, and takes about 1.5 hours at a leisurely pace.
There are several ways you can get to the upper parking lot trail head. You can drive to 990 Northwestern Avenue and park in the lot. The lot closes at 6:00 pm in the winter and 8:30 pm the rest of the year. Times are posted on the parking lot gate. You can also get there using SEPTA and take the 27 Bus to Northwestern Ave and walk down Northwestern 6/10th of a mile to the parking lot. Follow the sign on Northwestern located next to the Friendly’s. The trails in the Andorra Natural Area are not open to bikes, but the sections of the Yellow and Orange Trails we will be exploring later are open to all park users.
Start this hike in the Environmental Center’s upper parking lot and take the “Red Trail” which starts in the north-west corner of the parking lot. The trail parallels Northwestern Avenue for a bit before it bends to the left and heads towards the meadow. At the bend, look around and notice that you are walking through a tunnel of Japanese Maples, remnants from the Andorra Nursery that once occupied this ground. Stay right at the trail fork to briefly enter the meadow for only a few yards when the trail bends right again and dips back into the woods. Don’t worry, this trail takes you to the beginning of the “Outer Meadow Loop” trail, which meanders through the meadow.
The Andorra Meadow is one of my favorite spots in the park. I like to picnic here, take family photos, bird watch, and one time tried to view the Aurora Borealis (dud). Follow the Meadow Loop trail all the way around the meadow, passing the deer exclosure fence on your right and then the Black Family farm ruins on your right again shortly before you reenter the woods. Back in the woods, stay right and follow the Green Trail to start descending down to Forbidden Drive. After a few hundred yards, the trail bends around the hill. There is a bench here to sit on and observe the meadow before passing through a grove of mature Sugar Maples growing in a conspicuously straight line (another leftover from the Andorra Nursery days.) These trees provide most of the sap needed for The Maple Sugar Festival, held annually in February on Forbidden Drive at Northwestern Avenue. Look close and you can see the “belly button” scars from previous tap holes. Continue along this trail, zigzagging your way to Forbidden Drive and cross over Bell’s Mill Road. Take a moment to reorient yourself at the map kiosk.
Just past the kiosk on the right is the entrance to the Yellow Trail and the base of “The Monster”, one of the steepest climbs in the park. Don’t be intimidated, as it is a relatively short climb and there are plenty of places to stop, rest, and look around on your way up. That said, if it looks like it’s too much for you, stay on Forbidden Drive for about half a mile and wait for us at the Covered Bridge.
On your way up the hill, notice that you’ve entered a different forest type. On the Andorra side of Bell’s Mill Road the woods are dominated by mature Tulip Trees, and on the South side of Bell Mill Road Beech and Oak dominate the canopy. Once you make it to the top take a moment to catch your breath and if the leaves are down, enjoy the view down into the gorge.
Follow the Yellow Trail to the left and begin heading downhill. On the right side of the trail, at foot level, you’ll notice some stone drainage structures built by the WPA in the 1930’s. These drains appear throughout the park and are mostly non-functioning, but still nice to admire. Stay to the left when the trail forks, leaving the Yellow Trail. This connector trail is an old roadbed that may have carried carts full of grain headed towards one of the Wissahickon’s many mills. You’ll emerge after a few minutes onto Forbidden Drive almost directly across from the Covered Bridge. Walk up the drive and cross the last remaining covered bridge in Philadelphia (or any major US city for that matter.)
Once you cross the bridge you will be on historic Thomas Mill Road, another historic mill road that ascends all the way to Chestnut Hill Avenue. Both the Orange and White Trails cross Thomas Mill Road, but we’ll be taking the Orange heading north, back upstream. About 100 feet after the Covered Bridge, take the stone staircase on the left up to the Orange Trail. This is a particularly beautiful segment of trail that winds its way up and down the hillside, all while keeping hikers generally within sight of the creek. A short while after entering the trail, you will come to a small concrete bridge that spans a small, bubbling tributary coming down from Chestnut Hill. Take a minute to hangout here and enjoy the sound of water falling over the rocks and down to the Wissahickon Creek. In 2016, a Screech Owl was regularly seen in a hole in one of the big Sycamore trees across the creek. If you have your binoculars, scan the holes to see if it’s still around.
At this point in the hike, there are options to head up into the Lavender Trail system (which is basically a figure 8 loop) and extend your hike. This route is a hiker-only trail, so bikers or horseback riders should continue on the Orange Trail. Staying on the Orange trail will bring you to a flood plain area close to the water. This is a good spot to see Bladdernut, a native shrub of the bottom lands. Look for the hanging white flowers in April and May and later the papery, egg-shaped pods after the flowers are done blooming. This section of the Orange Trail was rerouted and repaired in 2008, one of the first Sustainable Trails Initiative projects known as the “Early Implementation Trail.” Note the raised causeway, drains along the hillside, and culverts passing under the trail. All these measures were important for controlling stormwater runoff along this trail.
In a quarter mile or so you will reach Bell’s Mill Road again, but now on the opposite side of the Wissahickon Creek. You can cross the bridge on the road and zip back up Forbidden Drive to the Environmental Center, but I recommend continuing on the Orange Trail. Cross Bell’s Mill Road at the crosswalk and walk straight through the parking lot to get back on the Orange Trail. The trail becomes fairly rocky and wanders along the creek banks offering a few soft, sandy areas to sit and watch the water or cast your fishing line. Continue on as the trail bends away from the creek, rising a little before ending at Germantown Avenue on the bridge over the creek. Turn left after crossing the bridge to descend a broad stone staircase which leads you into Harper’s Meadow. Follow the path through the meadow until you come out on Forbidden Drive, this time just south of Northwestern Avenue. From Northwestern Avenue, head up the driveway back to the Environmental Center and follow the signs for the upper parking lot.