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Philadelphia’s Wissahickon is slammed with millions of visitors, increasing trash, noise, risks

Driven by social media, visits to Wissahickon Valley Park have jumped by 700,000, sometimes overwhelming those who take care of it.

Shawn Green, a volunteer with Friends of the Wissahickon, picks up litter as visitors cool off at Devil’s Pool in Wissahickon Valley Park. People are warned not to swim in the water, but it’s a losing battle.
Shawn Green, a volunteer with Friends of the Wissahickon, picks up litter as visitors cool off at Devil’s Pool in Wissahickon Valley Park. People are warned not to swim in the water, but it’s a losing battle.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

A big green tour bus carrying passengers from Brooklyn stopped in Philadelphia on a recent weekend, disgorging passengers into the middle of Wissahickon Valley Park. The group lugged generators to inflate their creek floats, set up grills, and cranked up the music, according to park volunteers, who say such scenes are becoming more common in what had once been a more peaceful place known mostly to locals.

So far this year, the park has unofficially drawn 2.8 million visitors. That’s roughly 700,000 more than in the same period last year, a 33 percent increase.

Friends of the Wissahickon, a nonprofit that works with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation to oversee the park, is glad to see more people enjoying the 1,800 acres of trails and creek. Yet there are concerns about the dramatic surge in visits on a city park. Some are coming from North Jersey, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, and beyond, but many also come from Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Visitors are welcome; what isn’t welcome is the increase in litter, including food waste, plastic bottles, diapers, and even condoms and human waste, with people defecating in the woods. Safety is another potential issue, with more people swimming in the creek, where powerful flows in front of dams can suck people under, or leaping off the rocks that rim one of the park’s main attractions, Devil’s Pool.

Biking, hiking, fishing, and swimming have all exploded in popularity in the park.

The park is in the Delaware River Watershed, meaning the creek and land drain, ultimately, into the Delaware River. The trash flows into the Wissahickon, especially during storms that are growing more intense as a result of what scientists say is climate change. The creek empties into the Schuylkill -- near one of the city’s drinking-water intakes, where water is pulled into a treatment plant.

The park was once mostly a Philadelphia-area attraction that also pulled in visitors from South Jersey. But social-media posts have lured in visitors from well beyond the city. In addition, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources designated Forbidden Drive, which runs alongside Wissahickon Creek, as its 2018 trail of the year, furthering its fame.

“It’s definitely a strain,” said Ruffian Tittman, deputy director for Friends of the Wissahickon. “The parking lots are full. There’s a lot of litter. "

Tittman said that as recently as 2011, the number of visits numbered 1.2 million for the entire year. So attendance has well more than doubled since. Her organization uses both infrared sensors and volunteers with clickers to count visitors.

»READ MORE: Is it safe to swim in the Delaware or Schuylkill? What about Devil’s Pool? It’s complicated.

“A lot of that is just social media and word of mouth,” Tittman said, noting that pictures on Facebook and Instagram can be especially alluring. “A visual is just so impactful.”

Volunteers from Friends of the Wissahickon have hauled out two tons of trash by hand this year, picking up broken glass, empty beer kegs, BBQ grills, and other detritus left behind. It’s no easy task: There are 50 miles of trails to scour.

“But our first priority is safety,” Tittman said. “Especially when people enter the waterway. In some cases, the water is not as deep as you think it is, and, in contrast, it might be deeper than you think it is.”

Calling for help in an emergency is hampered by spotty cell-phone service in the park. When a call does get through, vehicles parked illegally alongside the road make it harder for rescue vehicles to get through. Family members or friends who jump in to help rescue people can also get in the way and even endanger themselves.

Though swimming is not allowed in the park, there is little officials can do to stop it. From one to three rangers typically patrol the park at any given time. Between April and July they addressed up to 230 incidents of illegal parking, blocking driveways, walking unleashed dogs, smoking, making fires, swimming, alcohol use, loud music, littering, and curfew violations. Typically, they do not issue citations, preferring to educate. When they do issue citations, it’s usually for parking violations.

Information on the number of emergency visits wasn’t available. But, drownings, thankfully are rare; a father and son drowned in the creek in 2013.

A more likely danger is fecal bacteria: The Wissahickon is listed as an impaired stream by the state because of high bacterial indicators and is not suitable for swimming.

None of that seems to stop people from plunging in anywhere along the paths connecting to the five-mile-long Forbidden Drive, the main access road to the park. Increased trail use also means more erosion.

On Thursday, the lot in front of the landmark Valley Green Inn was full by early afternoon. A stream of visitors got out of cars and headed to various trails. One family, carrying food and coolers, asked Philadelphia Police Capt. Malachi Jones and Officer Maurice Scott how to get to Devil’s Pool -- apparently unaware swimming is prohibited.

Jones said there have been thefts from vehicles reported in the park, most often by drug users who know many people don’t think they need to lock their doors in such a leafy setting. One unwary park visitor recently had $4,000 worth of computer equipment stolen.

As for policing the trails?

“We don’t have people power to go on trails,” Jones said. “We work with the park rangers.”

Jones said the biggest issue he contends with is the increased demand for parking. Once the lots are full, visitors take over side streets, such as Wises Mill Road. These are already narrow roadways, so add some parked cars, and emergency vehicles can’t get through.

Trash is omnipresent.

Jack Violante, a visitor from Ambler, was getting ready to leap off a rock into Devil’s Pool on Thursday when he pointed to trash strewn about the rock.

“That’s unacceptable,” Violante said. “If people want to use the park, then they need to respect it.”

»READ MORE: Shad, trout, invasives: What three kinds of Delaware River fish reveal about our region

More visitors were hiking up a nearby trail, carrying beer and chips. A pair of flip-flops were left behind at one spot, next to used charcoal and bags of garbage, just off the banks of the Wissahickon. A fire in recent years burned a quarter of an acre.

Shawn Green, who coordinates volunteers for the Friends of the Wissahickon, said the scene was common. On another path near Magargee Dam, which creates a waterfall many flock to, Green was dismayed to see plastic garbage bags that had been ripped open by animals. An empty bottle of Scotch poked through, wedged next to rotting meat and more charcoal strewn about.

Green and four volunteers hauled out 10 bags of trash Thursday, astonished to see how visitors ignore the available trash cans.

“There are multiple trash cans right there,” he said, pointing to a spot 25 feet away. “But they still left trash all over the rocks.”

Someone has even started an Unofficial Custodian of Devil’s Pool Facebook page to show the amount of trash.

Kristine Soffa, a trail ambassador for the Friends of the Wissahickon, said the organization is “trying to change the culture” of the way the park is used. Volunteers have posted signs asking people to haul out their own trash. Ambassadors talk to visitors and inform them of issues facing the park.

Soffa fears for those who are unaware of dangerous conditions near the park’s five dams, which have become popular swimming spots because of the waterfalls they create.

“It’s a complicated issue,” Soffa said. “People have a right to use the park. [City residents] pay taxes to support it. But, at the same time, they need to be made aware.”