For most of us, getting outside has been the perfect antidote to being cooped up these past few months. Natural Lands, the Media-based conservation group with over 40 preserves covering 23,000 acres in the region, saw visitor numbers quadruple this spring. And with an average of 14 hours of daylight and the trees providing a leafy canopy for shade, summer is a great time to hit the trails on the vast swaths of preserved land in southeastern Pennsylvania. “[The increase in visitors] underlines the importance of having access to open space available for outdoor recreation and a little mental health break … to connect with nature and find some comfort and joy in the outdoors,” says Kelly Herrenkohl, Natural Lands’ vice president of communications and engagement.
Cut with six-foot mowers, many Natural Lands paths are wide and clear. “The good news about our preserves is that they’re plenty big and spread out—we’ve got thousands of acres,” Herrenkohl says. “Even if a parking lot is full, once you get onto the preserve, you can really keep your distance from other hikers.”
To combat crowds, some preserves have closed facilities—including restrooms—and capacity may be controlled to some extent, so plan accordingly. Though guidelines may be vague about wearing facemasks when exercising, you should have one with you—especially if you’re at a busy park. “It’s really to protect others,” says Ruth McDermott-Levy, director for the Center for Global and Public Health at Villanova University, who notes that cloth masks don’t significantly impact breathing.
Among Natural Lands’ most popular spots is Stroud Preserve in West Chester. Named for the man who bequeathed his farm to the organization, this 571-acre space combines grasslands, woodlands and former farmland. The property is also used by the Stroud Water Research Center for scientific research. You’ll find four main hiking trails that range from an easy .8-mile loop to a moderate 4.1-mile trail. Whatever you opt for, expect to find sweeping vistas over gently rolling hills, plus a few relatively steep ascents.
For those looking to spend more time in the woods, Chester Springs’ Binky Lee Preserve is home to over 10,000 native trees, offering plenty of shady spots, along with meadows that are a draw for birds and butterflies. The serene setting has a robust trail system, including a .5-mile loop perfect for those with little ones. A 1.5-mile loop traverses varied terrain, and the relatively flat elevation makes it ideal for all skill levels.
Located in Elverson, just a few miles from French Creek State Park, Crow’s Nest Preserve is part of the expansive Hopewell Big Woods, which encompass 73,000 acres. The four trails on the 712-acre preserve range from moderate to difficult. It’s 2.5- and 2.6-mile trails are for more experienced hikers, as are the more strenuous .3- and .6-mile trails. (Don’t let the short distance fool you—each connects to longer routes.) One trail leads to Hopewell Furnace, a 19th-century iron production facility. French Creek runs through the property, so fox, deer, beavers, and other wildlife abound.
At the neighboring French Creek State Park, serious hikers can explore more than 35 miles of trails, including the 5.5-mile Lenape Trail. On the six-mile Boone Trail, you’ll ascend more than 900 feet through the woods, passing lakes along the way. Bisecting part of the Boone, the Lenape Trail offers a similar experience with slightly less elevation.
Media’s Ridley Creek State Park encompasses over 2,600 acres and 13 miles of trail systems. The easy walking paths around the stunning Hunting Hill Mansion are a must for visitors. Demarcated by colors, nature trails run the gamut from two to nearly eight miles. If you have the time, try the 7.6-mile yellow trail, which crosses the creek and winds through the woods.
If you’re looking for water, Downingtown’s Marsh Creek State Park is the place. Its 1,700 acres are home to a 535-acre lake and 18 miles of trails. For a quick jaunt, try the .9-mile fishing trail or the .7-mile white-and-blue loop. The 7.4-mile Marsh Creek Trail starts along the lake before eventually cutting inland and returning to the water. You can nearly double your hike by continuing past the starting point for a 15-mile loop, gaining moderate elevation.
The 119-acre Black Rock Sanctuary in Phoenixville is unique for its inclusiveness. It offers an ADA-accessible .8-mile interpretive trail. Black Rock is a recipient of Chester County Parks Department’s Green Park Award.