Hiking Pennsylvania: The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and the Case for Exploring Close to Home

Along the west side of the impoundment, a large body of water
in the middle of the refuge.
Ever found yourself passing up chances to visit a close-to-home outdoor destination because it was just that - close to home? 

As a weekend warrior, you can bet I'll pick a day hike or backpacking trail it takes some work to get to because I prefer to visit harder-to-reach destinations when I have the time. It seems intuitive; why spend a weekend at a park half an hour away when I could get deeper into the woods if I saddle up for a longer drive?

Though I prefer seeking more remote locations when I can, there something to be said for giving every outdoor spot a fair shot at making it into my schedule. When I found myself with a free weekday, I opted to visit a destination I'd put off going to because it's exactly 20 minutes from where I live in Philadelphia. Though I didn't find wilderness and didn't expect to, I found exactly what I was hoping for the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) at Tinicum

Established in 1972, the John Heinz NWR exists to protect Pennsylvania's largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh, Tinicum Marsh, to restore the natural area, and to promote environmental education in America's fifth largest city (by population). According to the refuge's Facebook page, once the ongoing land acquisition is complete, the refuge will cover 1,200 acres of varying habitats.

I didn't have high expectations for peace and quiet at John Heinz, given the refuge sits adjacent to the Philadelphia International Airport and one of the busiest major highways in the area. But when I pulled into the visitor center parking lot on a sunny weekday morning, it felt as though I'd left Philadelphia far behind. An oasis for those of us looking to escape from the city for a few hours, John Heinz NWR is thriving, as are the flora and fauna that call the land home.

Along the pipeline trail. So many different shades of green! Can you believe this is in Philadelphia?

After a quick stop in the visitor center to explore and pick up a map, I found a trail and started hiking along the east side of the impoundment and through Warbler Woods. I didn't get far before I took a turn west and crossed the impoundment using the little boardwalk. Birdwatchers armed with binoculars and cameras dotted the boardwalk, one of whom pointed out a group of great egrets in the marsh. John Heinz is a birdwatcher's paradise; egrets, herons, swallows, and a handful of shorebirds were easy to spot from the boardwalk. I also nearly walked straight into a flock of wild turkeys in Warbler Woods. I was reminded as to why I wanted to be an ornithologist for a good bit of my childhood.

I saw a dozen people on the trails near the visitor center, but the further along the tree-lined paths I got, the more solitude I found. After crossing the little boardwalk, I turned right on the dike trail, looped back through Warbler Woods, then followed the pipeline trail all the way down the impoundment. Though I didn't experience the quiet you'd find in places like the Loyalsock State Forest, the contrast between the planes, trains and automobile engines humming and the refuge's natural sounds was absolutely fascinating.

The little boardwalk gives visitors a chance to walk over the marsh, learn about birds in the refuge, and relax on a bench.

I followed the dike trail around the west side of the impoundment along Darby Creek, stopping for photos of birds and to observe the varying colors of plant life in the marsh. There's a two-story viewing platform on the west side of the impoundment that's perfect for wildlife watching, and after spending some time there, I followed the dike trail back up to the little boardwalk. There are benches to sit on along the boardwalk as well as signs helping visitor identify bird species that fly through or make their homes in the marsh areas. After looping back through Warbler Woods, I completed my 5.5 mile loop and realized I'd only seen about half of the refuge.

I couldn't have asked for a better day to explore the refuge.
Overall, John Heinz NWR is a beautiful place to visit if you're looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You won't find wilderness there and the sounds of city life are ever-present, but they're drowned out by the hum of insects and the songs of the birds there. I can't believe it took me seven years of living in Philadelphia to make it there for a few hours. On my next visit, I'll either take my bike or plan a trail run; it's a perfect oasis close to home for both of those activities.

Planning a visit to John Heinz? It's open from sunrise to sunset year-round. Be sure to stop in the visitor center, which is open from 8:30am-4:00pm, to look around, learn about the refuge, and pick up a map. The trails are all completely flat and most are accessible to bikes, which makes it easy to explore using varying modes of transportation. The impoundment is a short walk from the visitor center, as is the little boardwalk, and the ease of accessibility means the refuge is perfect for beginning hikers and families. There's plenty of parking and dogs are permitted in the refuge. You can wander on your own, or visit for one of the refuge's many planned walks and programs.

If you're in the Philadelphia area, even if you've got a few hours in between flights, it's a great little oasis to stop at! Are there spots close to where you live that you've been meaning to visit, but haven't yet because of how close to home they are? Have you been to John Heinz NWR? Sound off in the comments!

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