Video: Wandering through the Wissahickon with Gregg Gethard

Roxborough writer and comedian Gregg Gethard says he considers the 1,800 acres of Wissahickon Valley Park one of the best natural resources Philadelphia has to offer, and an oft-overlooked one at that. 

Gethard, who has lived in Roxborough for six years, showed NewsWorks around some of his favorite – and lesser known spots in the Wissahickon area. Among them is the Kelpius Cave, home of a fraternal brotherhood of Christian mystics led by the German-born Johannes Kelpius. Kelpius and his fellow monks settled in the Wissahickon in 1694, convinced the world would end with the coming millennium. Life went on, and they eventually dispersed, but the stone-enforced cave remains, marked by a monolithic plaque near Hermit Lane.

Gethard says he visits Wissahickon five to six times a week to walk his dog and clear his mind to focus on writing.

“If I had my way I would live in the woods all my life, but my wife is a city person and she’s really on the go with things,” Gethard says. “This is the best of both worlds.”

A place for hiking, biking and jogging 

Although Gethard has gotten familiar with the lush green hiking paths and their countless twists and turns, he says his friends are often surprised such a sight exists within Philadelphia, even those who live in the city.

“Most of my friends who live in the city, they live down in Fishtown or Northern Liberties, South Philly, kind of the neighborhoods everyone considers cooler,” Gethard says. “Out this way in Roxborough, you don’t have the cool vibe, but it’s one the safest neighborhood in the city, and you have [the Wissahickon Valley Park].”

The wooded trails are a favorite spot for mountain bicyclists and joggers, Gethard says, many of which zipped past Gethard as he led this reporter to the intersection of trails near the Wissahickon Creek. Just a few hundred feet upstream, the Walnut Lane bridge towered over the creek, its staggering concrete archway peering over green tree tops like a watchful mother. The bridge was the largest reinforced concrete structure of its kind upon its construction in 1908.

While modernity is never too far away, one might feel like they traveled to the colonial era if they make a turn into Rittenhouse town, located between Wissahickon Avenue and Lincoln Drive. The flawlessly-preserved village is where William Rittenhouse – yes, that Rittenhouse – and his son built the first paper mill in North America in 1690. The Rittenhouse family would continue to expand their industrial base in the area for the next 200 years, and earned quite a bit of local clout elsewhere in the city along the way.

A quiet escape 

Gethard says he’s most amazed by how much he still has yet to see within the Wissahickon Park area.

“The trails in our neighborhood all connect together and they have different ways from different blocks to get to everything within the trails. It’s crazy,” Gethard says. With summer imminent, in all its muggy and sun saturated glory, Gethard will continue to cool off and refresh his mental energy in the Wissackon, just a one-minute walk from his home on Dawson Street.

The Wissahickon Valley Park is a 1,800 acres across, located within the larger Fairmount Park network of greens.

Volunteer groups like the Friends of the Wissahickon scour the woods to remove trash and clear debris blocking trails. The Friends volunteer coordinator Dan Mercer says around 700 people help out his organization in their free time.

“One of the nice parts of the Wissahickon is that it is nicely integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods, particularly in the adjacent Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Manayunk neighborhoods,” Mercer says. “You can go from being surrounded by houses to feeling alone in the woods in just a few minutes.”

To learn more about the Wissahickon Valley Park, visit www.FoW.org.

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