Exploring Pittsburgh’s Parks | Schenley Park

Exploring Pittsburgh’s Parks is a biweekly blog from staff writer and nature enthusiast Nick Suarez.

By Nick Suarez, Staff Writer

I had almost crossed the Charles Anderson Bridge, heading into the park from South Oakland, when I caught the orange-red blur out of the corner of my right eye, down in the public works storage area, which a few of my acquaintances much more poetically refer to as “the quarry.” My bike skidded as I halted it. Down amid the piles of dirt and stone, a fox was trotting up from the trail that passed below the bridge.

It was still young and quite small. “They’re the software of a dog on the hardware of a cat,” I remembered one of my friends joking when I told her about the fox and fox kits I’d sighted. The animal disappeared as it lunged into the underbrush at the base of a tree. From the bushes I could hear chirping screams, and a moment later it darted back out from the brush with a limp squirrel in its mouth. It looked back at me over its shoulder with its prize, then disappeared down into the hollow as I fumbled in my backpack for my camera.

In the early days of the outbreak, I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. All of my research and academic projects had transitioned to remote work relatively easily, and I was quite aware of how fortunate and privileged I was while all the world around me seemed to be falling apart. What that didn’t change was the fact that I was not going to see my family or most of my friends for the time being, and that a good portion of my hobbies all took place at nonessential businesses.

In short, I was bored and not sure what else to do. I started to walk and ride my bike into Schenley Park, which is just across a bridge from my house in South Oakland. I went first on the weekends, then early almost every morning before work. Despite having grown up visiting that park, and living within walking distance of it for years, I still managed to find something new or unexpected each time I visited. Now, months later, I still do.

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For the Oakland-dwelling Pitt student who wants to escape the now even more restricted (and immunologically dangerous) urban realm, Schenley is the perfect place to start. It’s only a short walk away from the heart of campus, but the park itself is far from the well-groomed City parks many students hailing from other cities might be more familiar with. It boasts an impressive array of wildlife. Deer, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, hawks and various songbirds are ubiquitous, and with good timing — and a little luck — I’ve been able to spot raccoons, red foxes, turtles and tortoises and 2-foot-long garter snakes (a fortunately harmless species).

Crossing into the park along the Boulevard of the Allies, the easiest route for students living in South O, you arrive first at the the Anderson Playground and the pool (closed for the entire summer due to the pandemic), which acts as a hub for the trails that circle the park and cut through its interior.

The most popular of these are the Bridle Trail, which runs along the southern edge of Schenley, and the upper Panther Hollow Trail, which follows the hollow toward Squirrel Hill. Both gravel trails are frequented by runners, walkers and cyclists. The upper Panther Hollow Trail eventually crosses the hollow via one of the park’s two tufa (a porous variety of limestone) bridges and doubles back as the lower Panther Hollow Trail. This, in my opinion, is where the fun begins — from here you have the option of following the main trail, or either dropping further down toward the stream to follow the narrow Hollow Run Trail, or climbing up a stone-block ramp to the Steve Faloon Memorial Trail.

While neither trail is a proper hike, you’d be forgiven if you were tricked for a minute or two. The Hollow Run Trail rises and falls as it follows — you guessed it — the run through the ravine, starting with some of the more difficult terrain in Schenley, and ends with a series of stone bridges, which seasonally have vibrant orange and yellow wildflowers growing beside and beneath them. Eventually the trail recombines with a branch of the lower Panther Hollow Trail and arrives at the bottom of the hollow — and the not-quite-aptly named Panther Hollow Lake.

The Panther Hollow Lake (really more of a pond) is the confluence of the Panther Hollow Watershed — namely the Panther Hollow and Phipps Run. You’ll likely find the water quite murky — not unlike our City’s polluted rivers — making it unsuitable for most recreation (although you may still find locals playing hockey on it if you return during the winter). The Parks Conservancy and City of Pittsburgh have been working to rehabilitate the pond and the adjacent wetlands since 2005. Despite its muddy waters, the marsh at the front of the pond is teeming with life during the warmer parts of the year. In the fall, a silver mist often hangs above the pond in the early parts of the morning, before it is burned away by the sunlight.

Following Phipps Run out from the “lake,” you can then climb the cobblestone path or stairs that circle behind the Phipps Conservatory. Reentering open air and daylight at the top, you would find yourself behind Flagstaff Hill (not far from where the Steve Faloon Memorial Trail meets its terminus by the Westinghouse Monument and pond, where I have seen baby turtles swimming among the reeds). Flagstaff Hill’s lower slopes are often swarmed with flocks of Canada Geese in the late days of summer and the early fall, but the upper slopes are firmly the domain of students and local families — at least until the winter sets in.

In the crisp fall weather, though, there’s no better place to end your trip outdoors than with a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate, watching the sun set over Oakland and the Hill District behind it as the sky turns pink and orange and then at last dark with night.