For the first time in two years, dozens of state parks across Pennsylvania will participate in a nationwide New Year’s Day tradition called First Day Hikes.
The hikes are organized by the National Association of State Park Directors to promote both healthy lifestyles throughout the year and year-round recreation at state parks. All 50 states have sponsored them since 2012.
Last year, First Day Hikes did not take place in Pennsylvania because of the pandemic. This year, for the first time, Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County will host one.
Park manager Lexi Rose hosted a First Day Hike in 2019, when she managed Marsh Creek State Park in Chester County, and it drew dozens of enthusiastic participants.
Rose discussed the idea with the Friends of Ridley Creek, who maintain the park grounds, and they loved the idea, she said.
“People just heard about it and wanted to just get out and meet people, get a little bit of exercise. And so it is a really good kick-start to the year,” she said. “So I wanted to be able to bring that to Ridley Creek, and it seemed like there it was met with a lot of enthusiasm from our friends group, so I’m really looking forward to seeing how this one will go this year.”
Ridley Creek will host a 3-mile outing taking people to trails unfamiliar to even veteran hikers.
“We had a tornado hit the park in October of 2019,” she said. “So it’ll pass through a lot of that area … kind of right by our historic cemetery in the park, which a lot of people don’t know about if they haven’t been to that area of the park. And then they’ll bring them back down to the pavilion, where they’ll have hot chocolate waiting at the end.”
Christine Ticehurst, recreation and interpretation program coordinator for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the First Day Hikes promote a healthy start in the new year and encourages people to connect with their local parks.
“They can begin to have annual traditions with family and friends for the new year and head out to a local park,” Ticehurst said. “So it’s a really exciting opportunity for people to get out and meet their local educators, park managers, meet some new friends, and get out and recreate on the first day of the new year.”
Engagement at Pennsylvania’s parks dipped in 2021, compared to 2020. But overall, Ticehurst said, park use statewide remains higher than any other year.
“It’s a great example of how critical our public spaces are for our mental health, our activity level, just getting out and exercising. It was such a vital need for people to feel like they were getting out and doing something, so there was a ton of new visitors at our state parks,” she said. “Many people continue to get on hikes, bring their dogs and their kids and get out on the trail. So they’ve continued to, you know, explore parks that are nearby, realizing that we have a tremendous resource in Pennsylvania that we can use.”
Ticehurst said more people than ever have realized that Pennsylvania’s parks are free, which continues to be a factor in attracting visitors, even as the attendance numbers begin to stabilize.
“We don’t charge an admission fee for state parks. It’s all part of our taxes that we pay in Pennsylvania,” she said. “There has been sort of a drawdown on the amount of people that have been getting out to parks as we’ve begun to sort of reconnect with our daily work or school. But it’s still showing that the activity and the opportunity for our public spaces was tremendous for people during COVID, and they are still heading out and recreating.”
That same attendance trend was identified at Ridley Creek State Park during the pandemic.
“When COVID hit in 2020, the visitation just exploded. And now for 2021, I would definitely not say we’re back down to normal numbers,” Rose said. It’s “still an increase from 2019, much more of an increase than we would normally have seen. But we are still seeing those higher numbers, just not quite as drastically as we were when COVID first hit.”
Ticehurst said this is the most interest DCNR has ever seen for Pennsylvania’s First Day Hikes program. And while park numbers continue to stabilize, she anticipates this year will shatter previous First Day Hikes attendance records.
You can find a full list of participating parks by visiting www.dcnr.state.pa.us.
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