Every year, summer seems to last a little longer, bullying its way into October with humid afternoons as our sweaters wait in the wings. Then, just like that, it’s the dead of winter and you hate the world. The fall window is short, and rather than walk around at festivals where vendors are selling gutter protectors and superabsorbent squeegees, you need to hit the pumpkin spice hard on a Saturday morning, grab a nice flannel and hiking boots, and hit the trails.
Hiking doesn’t have to be hellish, unless you want it to be or you don’t have the right gear, and if you’re looking for something that won’t take up an entire day, there are some hikes within 15 minutes of Center City. Pennsylvania’s a big state, though, and if you’re willing to boil water and forgo a shower for a day or two, there’s even more autumnal splendor waiting for you out there in higher elevations.
Here’s a wide mix of five hikes you should check out, plus where to eat and drink on your way out or back.
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Distance from Center City: About 7 miles
The Wissahickon is a Philadelphia treasure, though not a hidden one. It’s a three-season destination that’s crowded on weekends, but a handful of trails there that range from easy to moderate will quickly make you feel like you’re far from the city. In fall, a simple walk down the stone path of Forbidden Drive will put you directly beneath a canopy of fluttering trees. Just remember to avoid the cyclists.
While it’s easy just to drive there and get moving, the Wissahickon’s upper trails can be rocky and often wet, and you shouldn’t just tie on a pair of Vans and think you’ll be fine. You might need to scramble in a few spots. The Wissahickon Gorge’s North Loop trail is 4.7 miles and, according to the popular hiking app AllTrails, it’s considered a moderately intense hike that should take about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
There’s food at the quaint Valley Green Inn if you’re hungry and in need of public restrooms next door, or Dalessandro’s cheesesteaks in Roxborough on the way back to the city, which is often more cramped than the trail.
Accessibility: Starting your hike at the Valley Green Inn is best for those looking for an ADA accessible route. The Forbidden Trail is the only accessible trail at the Wissahickon.
Parking: Free parking can easily be found throughout the park near several of its entrances, including near the ADA accessible Valley Green Inn.
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Distance from Center City: About 36 miles
If you want to avoid crowds but not the drive, New Jersey’s Franklin Parker Preserve, about halfway to Atlantic City, is a 11,379-acre nature preserve in the heart of the Pine Barrens. The hiking here, almost entirely on soft sand roads and trails, is considered easy, but don’t discount what long walks in loose sand can do to your thighs.
In the fall, when the trees turn, Franklin Parker explodes with color, the pines standing out among the reds and oranges and the tall grasses that line the former cranberry bogs. Sunsets there are remarkable and it’s a particularly choice location for photographers.
The trails at Franklin Parker Preserve are broken down by color, with the white trail being just a three-mile loop that should take about an hour, but you can string them all along and make it a whole day. It’s good to print out a colored map before you go or download AllTrails, because while the hiking isn’t too hard, the flat geography tends to blend together and you could get turned around.
If you’re hiking at night, make sure to look at the surprising number of stars and keep your ears open for the Jersey Devil, a regular in the Pines.
On the way in, pick up breakfast at the Red Barn Cafe on Route 206, or grab one of Penza’s pies on the way home.
Accessibility: Additionally, there are plenty of wheelchair accessible options. For example, be sure to check out the Bald Eagle Valley Trail, a roughly six-mile loop, to enjoy some beautiful views and do some bird watching.
Parking: Parking for the preserve can be found at the entrance to the park.
Distance from Center City: About 80 miles
My colleague William Bender, an avid hiker, recommended the Hawk Mountain Loop in Berks County for the list. It’s a great trip that will take up a Saturday or Sunday, just about 80 miles northwest of Philly. It’s considered a hard hike, with lots of rocks that all lead to some breathtaking vistas and some of Pennsylvania’s best bird-watching. Hawk Mountain is a gathering point for raptors (the sanctuary tracks the various species there on a daily basis). Bender says bring binoculars.
Hawk Mountain’s website lists multiple trails, including the Golden Eagle, which includes “ankle bending rocks” and a “rigorous climb on large jagged rock formations.” You could be hopping from rock to rock, so good boots, with ankle protection, are a must.
And, because you’ll deserve it after the hikes, head over to Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in New Tripoli for whiskeys and live music.
Accessibility: Many portions of Hawk Mountain are wheelchair accessible, including a new trail from the parking area to the amphitheater, visitor center, native plant garden, and the silhouette trail to the South lookout.
Parking: $10 admission gets you into the parking lots, which are located throughout the expanse, including at the visitor center and the amphitheater.
Distance from Center City: About 135 miles
A few years ago, I recommended Ricketts Glen State Park in Columbia, Luzerne, and Sullivan Counties as one of the best places to camp in the summer because it offered up a little bit of everything: swimming, fishing, ice cream, etc. One thing I failed to mention, is that for actually camping, the place you pitch your tent can be very close to someone else pitching a tent. Sorry!
But that’s not why I go there.
The Falls Trail there is a dream and though I’ve never been there in the fall, I imagine it would only be dreamier. It’s only a 3.3 mile loop, but for most of the time, you’re walking up narrow, rocky staircases that can be wet. Throw in dead leaves on the trail, and you definitely have to pay close attention. And if it’s late fall, you need to check the weather (it’s much colder there) because ice on the trails may close them.
The trail has 21 waterfalls, an overload for your senses and an Instagrammer’s dream. Just don’t fall off the trail taking a selfie.
A longer version of the falls trail is 7.2 miles long. Ricketts is about two-and-a-half hours away from Philly, so you might as well pitch a tent. Bring warm clothes. If you want a hot meal, head to the Ricketts Glen Hotel, a mile west of the park on Route 118.
Accessibility: Note that this trail is steep and can be slippery, meaning it isn’t very accessible. For accessibility accommodation, more information can be found on their website, but the park recommends that you call ahead to plan your trip.
Parking: There are three parking lots that get you access to the falls.
West Rim Trail in Colton Point State Park
Distance from Center City: About 235 miles
This 27.8 mile, point-to-point trail in Tioga County has been described as the “definitive trail for Pennsylvania backpackers,” at least by the outfitter that helps drive people to and from the trailheads for a fee. This trail can be your graduation to ultimate backpacking. It includes some climbs and elevation changes and requires an investment in gear before you go: good boots, a tent, sleeping bag, food, and a way to boil or purify water.
Pine Creek Outfitters, out of Wellsboro, will rent you most of that stuff. They’ll even take you back to your car, or drive your car to the terminus because you’ll be doing the trail in multiple nights. Pine Creek Outfitters says you should plan on devoting two-and-a-half or three-and-a-half days to the trek.
Reviews on AllTrails mention all the different animals you can see along the way, including bald eagles, porcupines, and even bears. The vistas are some of the best you’ll see in Pennsylvania, particularly in the fall.
After the West Rim Trail, head into downtown Wellsboro, an all-American throwback of a town where dining options abound. When you’re done, just go home and get a shower.
Accessibility: This specific trail is not recommended for wheelchair users, but among the other four-miles of trails, the park has accessible accommodations — just be sure to call ahead to plan your trip to the park accordingly.
Parking: Parking is free, and several lots can be found around the park for day use, but if you plan on parking overnight, be sure to park in the lot by the campground.