A boom in use during the pandemic fuels expansion of trails in Montco

The Perkiomen Creek dam at Lower Perkiomen Valley Park. (Courtesy of Montgomery County)

The Perkiomen Creek dam at Lower Perkiomen Valley Park. (Courtesy of Montgomery County)

Montgomery County is expanding and upgrading its network of trails, to meet growing demand during the pandemic. The Schuylkill River Trail will see a new connector to Route 422 near Pottstown, which will essentially help build the link from Chester County all the way south to Philadelphia.

“Whenever we are doing trail planning work, we always think about where the trails can go into Bucks or into Philadelphia or into Chester counties, because this network is well beyond Montgomery County’s boundary. So it’s really a regional effort to build out these trails,” said Bill Hartman, section chief of trails and open space planning for the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

The project has been in the works for nearly 20 years. In 2018, the county completed a vital portion of the trail near an industrial highway. Now, the new connector looks to loop under the Route 422 Bridge and extend into Chester County.

For those on the Planning Commission, the Schuylkill River Trail is more than just a long stretch of nature in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

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“Completing the Schuylkill River Trail really provides access to all those other trails that extended into Montgomery County and extend into Philadelphia County and Chester County,” Hartman said.

By 2025, Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, along with parts of New Jersey and Delaware, could be connected by 500 miles of trails. That’s the goal of the Circuit Trails Coalition, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission has already adopted the plan.

Zacharias Creek Trail in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Montgomery County)
Zacharias Creek Trail in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of Montgomery County)

Montgomery County’s trail expansion goes hand in hand with that massive planning project.

“The Schuylkill River Trail is one of the main spines of this circuit, and this will help build out the circuit,” said Donna Fabry, a senior planner with the open space trails section of the county’s planning commission.

As the coronavirus put a halt on many indoor activities, Montgomery County’s trails have seen a huge boost in visitors. County Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence Jr. said the trails saw about 2 million visitors within the past year.

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“There was a boom in trail use during the pandemic, and we’re really hopeful and optimistic that that awareness of our trails will continue going into the future, and that more and more people will use them,” Hartman said.

The Planning Commission hopes to make the trails more equitable for people of all demographics, Hartman said, so everyone feels comfortable visiting.

To encourage the use of the trails and promote better physical and mental health, the county has been using a contest to draw attention to them.

The Montco Trail Challenge

Through a Preventative Health and Health Services Block Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the county will kick off the 2021 Montco Trail Challenge on May 1. This will be the sixth year of the challenge, and it will add two new trails: the Perkiomen Creek Water Trail and the Schuylkill East Trail.

People will be allowed to canoe and kayak on the Perkiomen Creek.

“The challenge essentially functions as a scavenger hunt. This year, we have 15 parks and trails that are participating across the county — and each one has its own unique symbol,” said Kristi Goodwin, the community health program manager for the Montgomery County Office of Public Health.

With 15 trails on the itinerary, participants have until Dec. 5 to visit as many as they can. A kiosk at each trail will have a unique animal symbol that should be recorded by the visitor. There are prizes for reaching different levels of completed trails.

“The goal is to get people outside exploring the county, getting connected with the parks and trails, and just all the natural resources the county has to offer,” Goodwin said.

Data collected by the program found that there was a surge in interest over the past year, according to Goodwin. She hopes people will take advantage of the added mental and physical health benefits of being outdoors.

“It’s so important to be in a green space just to be able to clear your head — even if only for a few minutes. There’s a huge impact in being able to take a break from screens and just to get a breath of fresh air,” Goodwin said.

Registration for the Trail Challenge is free, and people can sign up online. If you participate this year, you might even cross paths with Lawrence, who has done the challenge every year since becoming a commissioner.

“Mental and physical health is important, and there’s no better way to do both than to get outside and explore,” Lawrence said.

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