Hiking at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

Last summer, the husband and I traveled to Maine for our 10th anniversary.  We spent the week hiking in Acadia National Park and I loved every minute of it.  When we returned home, I resolved to get the kids out for hikes more often.  We did actually manage to do a couple of local trips over the past school year, but with the start of summer, I decided we were going to make it more of a priority.

Yesterday, the kids and I hit up the blue trail at Ridley Creek State Park.  Unfortunately we forgot the camera at home, but we had a great time.  Four miles of hilly, shaded hiking was a perfect way to officially kick off summer.  When we got home, we made a list of all of the places where we hoped to hike this summer.  So far we have 20 spots on our list.  I hate to have a list without anything checked off, so we added Ridley Creek, and Haverford Reserve, where we hiked 3 miles last week.  That means that we just have 18 more spots to hit in the next 10 weeks.

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Mike had the morning off, so in an attempt to check another spot off the list, we took the kids to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.  The main entrance to the refuge is just off 95, but I thought that we could make life a bit easier by just parking at the western entrance off 420.  From looking at the map online, I reasoned that it would take us about 2.5 miles to reach the Environmental Education Center, giving us a 5 mile hike overall.  That would be the kids’ longest distance, but knowing that the terrain would be flat, it seemed entirely reasonable.

First lesson of the day – don’t make assumptions on distance based on the scale of the map.  Second lesson – always carry more water than you think you’ll need.  On the bright side, even though we were headed out shortly after 8am, we lathered on the sunscreen and wore hats.  The trail was actually more shaded than I had expected, but since I was way off on the scale, we ended up hiking 6.5 miles and we didn’t even reach the Environmental Center.

I was really impressed by the Refuge.  Yes, there are a couple of spots where you are right along the highway, and those sections are noisy and far from tranquil.  For most of the hike, however, it was easy to forget that we were right next to a major city.  We did see and hear many airplanes overhead, but I’ve had that happen in much more remote locations, so that noise didn’t bother me at all.  The birds did their best to drown out all of the other sounds, as did the soothing noise of the wind whistling through the reeds, and the scents coming from the marsh helped us all feel as if we were at the beach.

The kids were thrilled that there was so much to see on this hike.  Granted, they tend to get excited when we find a lot of fungi and fallen leaves, so they are easily amused, but this hike really brought us a wide variety of wildlife.  We were constantly surrounded by birds.  I’m far from an ornithologist, but I was able to identify robins, swallows, doves, goldfinches, ducks and a red-winged blackbird.  We also saw a beautiful blue heron in the marsh.  Within minutes, I was regretting my decision to leave my telephoto lens at home.

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Along with the birds, the kids were excited to find many small fish in the water and numerous turtles that were sunning themselves on logs.  My daughter, who currently has an intense love for rabbits, was thrilled to count no less than 6 bunnies along the way.  Our find of the day might have been the snapping turtle that was just hanging out along the side of the trail.  We made sure to keep our distance while carefully observing him.

I would definitely recommend a return trip to John Heinz.  In fact, we are already looking forward to going back and parking at the Education Center so that we can make sure we make it all the way around the main loop.  While we were there, the trails were mainly empty, but had just enough activity from other visitors to keep me from feeling uncomfortable.  The large variety of wildlife was fascinating, and the numerous trees provided frequent shady breaks from the hot sun.  What a great find!

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