Urban Trails Guide

SCA’s Urban Initiatives introduce over a thousand young people each year to parks and other recreation sites near home. The youth, underrepresented in the conservation field, gain work skills through community service improving local parks, trails, and gardens while getting paid. And they find new places to hike, paddle, and explore with friends and family from communities that are often limited in access to green spaces.

Explore some of these incredible places, from Washington, DC to Anchorage, and in cities in between. Discover new place and discover the stories of these young people, who are the future of the conservation field.

Urban Trails Guide: ALASKA: Spencer Glacier Lake / Spencer Beach Trail

In summer 2017, the Student Conservation Association partnered with the U.S. Forest Service - Chugach National Forest at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. The Alaska Railroad drops hikers and campers at this remote wilderness area. Two regional crews, comprised of Alaska youth ages 15-19, improved the trail around Spencer Glacier Lake and Spencer Bench Trail, which leads to a popular trapper-style cabin, with views of alpine meadows and surrounding glaciers.

Alaska Railroad offers the only land access to the Spencer Glacier, which officially opened in August 2007. Since that time, over 10,000 visitors have enjoyed hiking, camping, and water-based activities in the backcountry. Visitors can hike the 1.3-mile trail to Spencer Lake and a 1.7-mile extension to Spencer Glacier. The Spencer Bench Trail is a 5.4 mile hike to Spencer Bench Cabin, located at 1,900 feet elevation. Camping is available on portions of the trails.

For crew member Mickinzie Maxwell, who wants to pursue a career in environmental science, possibly with the Forest Service, the experience was remarkable. “This crew made a drastic change in my future. I become more connected with my peers and my national forest. I have a new passion and respect for conserving our trails and a deeper understanding on how to treat our forests.”

Urban Trails Guide: CHICAGO: Hegewisch Marsh Park

Hegewisch Marsh is the largest wetland in Chicago. Situated amid Chicago’s industrial Southeast Side, the 130-acre marsh is a mix of wetlands, woodlands with vernal ponds, and wet prairie that host migratory birds, coyotes, beavers, and muskrats. It is an important nesting site for Illinois’ endangered yellow-headed blackbirds. The Marsh is currently undergoing extensive resto­ration. In 2017, three separate urban crews partnered with the Chicago Park District to assist with site and trail maintenance.

SCA members removed invasive plants along the trails at Hegewisch Marsh via hand-pulling, brush-cutting, and herbicide application. Crew members also re-mulched the trails, removed debris and downed/dead trees from the trails, and helped stabilize trails by filling in deep ruts with logs, back-filling with gravel, and then re-mulching the surface.

Urban Trails Guide: HOUSTON: Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge

The Student Conservation Association’s Houston Urban Initiative crews partnered with the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge in east central Texas, 45 miles northeast of Houston. The refuge’s lake, cypress swamps, and bottomland hardwood forest provide important breeding, wintering, and migratory habitat for a variety of birds and may types of plants and wildlife. During the past 4 years, SCA crews constructed 15 miles of trails as part of the “From Crosswalks to Boardwalks Initiative.” The initiative is designed to connect the refuge with urban populations.

SCA crews come to the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge with their mattocks, Pulaskis, shovels, saws, loppers, and tenacity. In 2017, they built the 1.0- mile Knobby Knees Loop through bottomland hardwood swamps. A boardwalk was constructed across Palmer Bayou, connecting the Knobby Knees Loop with the 1.5-mile Leapin’ Lizards Loop. SCA crews return to the refuge every four months to maintain trail corridors by removing fallen logs, cutting back brush, repainting blazes on trees, and combating erosion with trail repairs and construction of water bars for drainage.

Urban Trails Guide: NEWARK, NJ: Branch Brook Park

Branch Brook Park is the largest park in Newark, New Jersey. The Student Conservation Association’s Community Crew part­nered with the park and Rutgers Master Gardeners to conduct landscape maintenance projects. The nation’s first county park, located in Essex County and Newark’s North Ward, is home to 360 acres of meadows and forests, trails, gardens, and many recreational amenities. Branch Brook is noted for the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in the United States, with more than 4,300 trees on display during its annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

In 2017, the SCA crew assisted with mulching, weeding, and pruning of natural landscapes and gardens in the Concert Grove section of Branch Brook. Each day for two weeks, the crew removed 30 bags of weeds and clippings. The park staff educated crew members regarding the plants in the areas where SCA worked, making the experience an impactful and practical learning experience.

Urban Trails Guide: NEW YORK, NY: Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, Van Cortland Park

The 22-mile Old Croton Aqueduct State Historic Park follows the aqueduct that transported water during 1842 to 1955 from the New Croton Dam in northern Westchester County to Yonkers, just north of New York City. This trail is enjoyed by walkers, bikers, hikers, joggers, and cross-country skiers.

In 2017, Student Conservation Association members repaired drainage features along the 1.1-mile section of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail located in Van Cortlandt Park. Members removed debris from the existing gully and added natural stones to create a rock retaining wall and paved gully. Crew members also rebuilt the steps that connect the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail to another trail within the park.

Urban Trails Guide: PHILADELPHIA: Forbidden Drive, Wissahickon Valley Park

Forbidden Drive is a multi-use trail that follows a creek through Wissahickon Valley Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Student Conservation Association partnered with the Friends of the Wissahickon to repair portions of the flood-damaged trail and install drainage. The park features 57 miles of trails throughout its 1,800 acres, crossing forest and meadow before plunging down to the Wissahickon Creek. Forbidden Drive is a 7-mile multi-use trail that follows the creek. The park is designated an “Important Birding Area” by the National Audubon Society.

In 2017, SCA Community Crews installed waterbars to redirect water flow away from the trail. Waterbar installation involves removing debris, digging ditches to transport water, and strategically placing rocks and logs within the ditch to control the direction of water flow. The crew also helped to protect the native habitat by removing invasive species, including stinging nettle and devil’s walking stick.

Urban Trails Guide: PITTSBURGH: Brighton Woods Greenway, Riverview Connector

Riverview Park, located north of the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Northside neighborhood, occupies the top of a hill with spectacular views of the skyline and the surrounding area. Riverview Park used to be connected by a pedestrian bridge to the smaller Brighton Heights Greenway, but the bridge was torn down years ago, and the two parks were separated by busy Woods Run Avenue. The Student Conservation Association partnered with the Hollow Oaks Land Trust, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, volunteers of Trail Pittsburgh, and the Buhl Foundation to build trails connecting Brighton Heights Greenway with the 259-acre Riverview Park.

In 2017, an SCA crew built two sections of trail—the first from the Brighton Heights Greenway to Woods Run Road, and the second continues across the road into Riverview Park and connects with existing trails. The half-mile of new trail increases the Riverview Park trail system by 10%, replacing unsafe social trails with a trail that meets all applicable standards for safety and accessibility.

Urban Trails Guide: SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA: Slide Ranch’s Tidal Pool

Student Conservation Association has partnered for several years with Slide Ranch, a nonprofit environmental farm and educational preserve with property located on the Marin Coast, north of Muir Beach. Slide Ranch is a partner of the Golden Gate National Parks. The 143-acre property is free and open to the public. It features organic gardens, a tidal pool network, and winding coastal trails.

In 2017, an SCA youth crew from Oakland, CA rebuilt the Tidal Pool Trail, which had washed out after weeks of heavy rain. The rebuild of Slide Ranch’s Tidal Pool Trail was physically and technically challenging. SCA crew members rebuilt trail treads, installed drainage, and created a staircase on the steep coastal trail. The project required carrying rock and timber to the site, crushing rock, and installing stairs made from the wood and rock.

Crew member Tiffany Whaley said of the experience, “Slide Ranch, I would say, was where I felt like I was doing amazing work. Just being out there the first time was motivating knowing I was doing something that would benefit a lot of people. So, going out there again and working on a major project that took all crews to make a dent into it was different.”

Urban Trails Guide: SEATTLE: Schmitz Preserve Park

Student Conservation Association teamed with the Washington Trails Association to establish a dry, stable walking surface over a wet section of trail at Schmitz Preserve Park in West Seattle, Washington. More than 7 miles of unmarked trails wind through the 53-acre Preserve, where visitors can experience old growth forest, skunk cabbage, Indian plum, salmonberry, Oregon grape, bleeding heart and trillium, as well as pileated woodpeckers, flickers and hummingbirds. The park is open daily and free to the public.

Since 2014, SCA youth crews have built a retaining wall and a culvert, removed invasive species, restored trail tread for safer walking, removed brush from park trails, and completed a stream restoration project. In 2017, the SCA youth crew hauled heavy wheelbarrow loads of gravel up a steep trail to improve the wet section of trail. The crew also smoothed the surface of the trail and contoured to divert water.

Urban Trails Guide: WASHINGTON, D.C. : Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a 700-acre urban oasis of water gardens, marsh, ballfields, and recreational facilities, is located in the northeastern corner of Washington, D.C. near the Maryland state border. Nestled near the Anacostia River, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens preserves rare waterlilies and lotuses in cultivated ponds. The gardens are home to 650 species of insects, 150 species of land plants, 76 species of birds, 18 species of fish, 9 species of mammals, and 8 species of reptiles.

In summer 2016, the Student Conservation Association partnered with the National Park Service to prepare for its annual Water Lily Festival. After SCA crews installed 70 coconut logs along trails surrounding the ponds, the crew transported one ton of soil by wheelbarrow to the site. Once the soil was laid, the crews meticulously leveled and hand-tamped gravel to ensure that trails and pond banks were safe for park visitors. In addition, SCA crews built a 24-foot bridge over a section of trail that frequently floods. All projects are helping to prevent erosion as well as improve visitor safety and experience.

Tyrese White grew up in the neighborhood that adjoins Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. In a letter to SCA sponsors, Ty noted, “You have helped an inner-city kid learn the value of parks and feel like he can accomplish something beyond his means.”