Happier trails ahead: Nonprofit to connect parks, systems across Allegheny County

Updated 7 minutes ago

In just a few years, outdoor enthusiasts won’t have to drive to get from one of the region’s popular parks to another.

The Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy plans to connect the dots for several major parks and trail systems in the Alle-Kiski Valley and Pittsburgh’s North Hills.

The nonprofit’s “Many Trails – One Community” effort will, in the next two to five years, link a number of popular outdoor destinations:

• Hartwood Acres in Indiana and Hampton townships to Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel. From there, the roughly 8-mile trail would stretch to other trails in O’Hara Township and, ultimately, the Allegheny River.

• The Rachel Carson Trail in Harrison Hills Park in Harrison to the Baker Trail in South Buffalo and Allegheny townships.

• The Allegheny Valley and Plum Creek Greenway would link existing trails in Harmar, Oakmont, Verona, Plum and Penn Hills.

“We want to make sure trails are available to all residents of Allegheny County so they get the green space closer to their back doors,” said John Stephen, trail development coordinator for the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy.

The Trails Conservancy is best known for sponsoring the one day, 34-mile long endurance hike, the annual Rachel Carson Trail Challenge.

Stephen is in the process of securing easements on private properties and making other arrangements for the connector trails. The exact route of new trails won’t be known until the conservancy has the agreements it needs with property owners for the easements.

Harrison-Freeport-Allegheny Twp.

The Trails Conservancy already acquired 20 acres between the northern edge of Harrison Hills Park, where the Rachel Carson Trail ends, and the southern trail head of the Butler-Freeport Community Trail in Freeport.

Arrangements are underway to connect to the Baker Trail in Allegheny Township, just across the Allegheny River from Freeport.

But it will take two to four years to blaze a trail, which would be more than 2 miles, according to Stephen.

“This is the easiest segment, but there is still some railroad property to address,” he said.

But that section likely will be anything but easy for walkers: The Trails Conservancy will etch out a trail descending from the bluffs of Harrison Hills Park to the river valley below that will be “carefully done,” Stephen said, adding, “but it will be a climb.”

Hartwood to Beechwood Farms

One of the more difficult connections will be the 2 miles of trail between Hartwood Acres and Beechwood Farms, according to Stephen. There are large land parcels between them with options to wind the trail along some roads, such as Harts Run Road.

The trail from Hartwood to Beechwood will cut through some beautiful scenery, according to Tom Armstrong, 69, a native of Indiana Township who lives in Squirrel Hill and who is a trail steward for the Rachel Carson Trail.

As a youth, Armstrong scampered through those woods when the Lawrence family owned the mansion and grounds for what is now Hartwood Acres. The area was laced with horse trails.

“This is really wonderful land,” Armstrong said.

Leaving Beechwood Farms, crossing Harts Run Road to its intersection with Saxonburg Boulevard is relatively untouched land too steep to build on, according to Armstrong.

“There are spectacular views of the valley when the leaves are off the trees,” he said.

Adding a connecting trail will make it more accessible to more people who live near it, he said.

The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, which is headquartered at Beechwood Farms, is thrilled to have a trail connected to Hartwood.

“The two properties share some common ancestry and there previously was a bridal path between the two estates,” said Jim Bonner, Audubon’s executive director. “Reconnecting them and extending the trail to the Allegheny River would help connect several wonderful assets.”

Stephen said creating the eight-mile trail connection from Hartwood to the Allegheny River will require securing easements and winning community support and recruiting trail stewards to take care of sections of the trail.

Oakmont: ‘Trail renaissance’

Upriver in Oakmont, there is a trail renaissance.

The borough’s existing network of pathways through Dark Hollow Woods, a borough park, has been supplemented in the last year with a new biking trail along Plum Creek.

Oakmont’s recreation board, which installed the new trail, has proposed trail extensions into Plum and Verona.

“Our plan here is to make this trail system family friendly,” said Tom Bland, chairman of Oakmont recreation board.

As Dark Hollow is known to hikers, the board wants to develop wider trails with a surface smooth enough for bikes and families.

“Our goal is to develop this trail system between neighboring communities so residents can get on the trail and feel safe,” Bland said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or [email protected].

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