A scenic day of biking in about an hour

Posted: August 20, 2014

LIVING IN a large city doesn't seem to bring thoughts of nature to mind, but nature is on my mind as I lay in bed in the predawn hours, awakened by a chatty bird perched on my windowsill. And my thoughts aren't especially cordial toward nature in general, or this particular bird at this moment.

Then the sun bursts through the curtains and paints a brilliant swath across the wall and I give up on the concept of sleep and decide that the bird has the right idea - it's a beautiful morning and I should get out and experience the good side of nature.

I like to experience nature in the city by saddling up on my trusty Lightspeed bike and heading out to the relatively wild and less-traveled corners of Fairmount Park.

I've dubbed this route "The Morning Quickie" because it can be completed from door-to-door in Center City in under an hour by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness, but I've found that I've been taking longer and longer to complete this ride as I discover more places to stop and take in the view.

The bike lane along Spruce Street in Center City provides a safe route to the Schuylkill River Trail (with a new connection to the South Street bridge opening soon), along what was until several years ago a weed-choked no-man's-land between the railroad tracks and the river.

This trail has proven to be very popular, so is usually crowded with joggers, walkers and bikers, but threading through this type of traffic beats navigating city streets at rush hour.

The trail passes behind the Art Museum, between the beautifully restored cliff garden and the Greek temple that is the Water Works, and onto the recreational path along Kelly Drive.

Instead of following the path along the river, and its steady stream of rush-hour traffic on the adjacent Kelly Drive, we head straight across and up Sedgley Drive and across Girard Avenue along a short stretch of busy 34th Street to access the park.

The turn onto Reservoir Drive reveals a green canopy of trees arching over the road with ample bike lanes - a welcome relief from the traffic of 33rd Street.

Past the golf driving range, disc-golf course and the Smith Mansion (home of the famed wooden sliding board), a quick left turn onto Mount Pleasant Drive twists down across Fountain Green Drive and the Mount Pleasant mansion reveals itself straight ahead through a long, landscaped row of mature maple trees.

Here it's easy to imagine that you're riding along an English lane toward a manor house, as the symmetry of the architecture and the outbuildings reveal themselves through the trees.

The route then loops back to Reservoir Drive along the edge of an open field that hosts rugby, soccer and softball matches throughout the year, but at this hour is quietly hung with golden mist as the sun breaks over the trees.

Further on, we pass Laurel Hill and Strawberry mansions, and more grassy fields before the descent past the Dell Music Center (a/k/a the Robin Hood Dell concert venue) to the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, a landmark worthy of its own excursion.

The wide boardwalk on the side of the bridge provides a panoramic view of the Schuylkill and the flotillas of rowing crews gliding below the arches of the bridge. Hawks also favor this perch to survey the riverbanks below and swoop down upon unsuspecting pigeons or mice below.

From the bridge, the route follows Greenland Drive and crosses the Schuylkill Expressway, where city-bound commuters can be seen squinting into the sunrise as traffic jerks forward in spurts.

The expressway noise and smell is quickly replaced with the aroma of pine trees as the road rises through a small forest and past a grassy meadow as we climb out of the river valley into west Fairmount Park.

Near the final steep pitch at the top of the hill, the fragrances become a bit more rural as the Chamounix Equestrian Center comes into view. A few horses are out at this hour, munching on hay and otherwise looking very content with their place in the sun.

The road loops back toward the city in front of the Chamounix Mansion, now used as a youth hostel for student travelers.

In addition to encountering deer, foxes and other forms of wildlife along this quiet stretch of road, I have been flagged down several times on my rides by backpack-laden foreign students wondering where the city might be.

Along the route back, the skyscrapers of Center City play hide-and-seek through the trees, confirming that we are, in fact, within the city limits.

At the end of Chamounix Drive, the route forks, and to the left takes in the broad view of the city from Belmont Plateau; but at this hour, on a weekday morning, prudence dictates that we take the right turn, diving through the short tunnel under Belmont Avenue to avoid the treacherous task of crossing busy Montgomery Avenue without the benefit of a stop light.

This scenic detour passes the Mann Music Center and descends George's Hill Road across Belmont Avenue and with a quick right turn, we are into the peaceful setting of the Horticulture Center.

The manicured grounds of the center are enveloped in quiet, and the many large specimen trees stand tall against the sky.

The small road winds past the large greenhouse and past various statues of famous composers, wrestlers and wild animals before circling the Japanese House and Garden, a blissful spot of serenity within the city.

Shofuso, as it is also known, is a perfect spot to stop and take in the beauty of the traditional Japanese teahouse and dwelling, which was originally situated in New York's Central Park. (Their loss, our gain!) One of the best views of the house is from the bridge overlooking the koi pond, where you can smell the pine trees overhead and catch silvery and orange flashes of the exotic fish below.

Continuing on Lansdowne Drive, the former Centennial Hall, now the Please Touch Museum, rises above the trees with its distinctive squared-off dome, and only hints at what was the grand expanse of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, for which this edifice was the centerpiece. The remnants of pathways, water features and other structures of the exposition are still evident if you look closely.

The Comcast Center now looms larger above the tree line, and with a quick descent on Lansdowne Drive past the Sweetbriar cutoff, we pass under the stone arches of the railroad bridge and onto the Girard Avenue bridge for another view of the skyline, the river and more stalled traffic on the expressway.

A quick right onto Sedgley Drive and another right on Lemon Hill Drive twists quickly down and up a steep hill, and the names of bike racers painted on the roadway from the annual bike race roll beneath your wheels as you imagine the crowds cheering you on.

Lemon Hill Mansion is a splash of yellow on the left, and a striking view of the Art Museum with the towers of Center City rising behind reveals itself around the next bend. The boathouses lining Kelly Drive below completes this postcard view. Time to glide down the hill, across Kelly Drive and on to the path back into "the city."

Now I'm ready to join the crowds on my commuter bike and pedal off to work.

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