The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania has its headquarters at Beechwood Farms, off of Dorseyville Road. Beechwood Farms is probably best known for its annual Apple Jam, which usually occurs in September. The Apple Jam is basically a fall festival geared towards kids, with all the usual activities; face painting, hay rides, etc. Although I haven’t attended in recent years, I have fond memories of the Apple Jam from when I was very young, and if the intense traffic in the area during each year’s Apple Jam is any indication, the quality has not suffered since then.
For years, Beechwood Farms was one of my favorite places to go for a walk; it was always easy and pleasurable to spend an hour or two wandering around. However, I regret that, at this time, I cannot fully endorse the quality of the trails at Beechwood. Recent years have seen drastic renovation and construction projects that have essentially torn up the entire opening sections of the reserve (i.e., much of Spring Hollow Trail, which is Beechwood’s centerpiece, the trail that leads around the reserve and connects all of the other trails). The new pavilion by the pond is nice, but the removal of several old trees does incalculable damage to the view from the other side and the general ambience of the area. Given the lack of attention to the trails and the concurrent focus on other aspects of the park, such as renovating the nature store, one suspects that the Audubon Society has found other priorities at this time.
Of the trails that haven’t been actively rerouted or stripped of their vegetation, many feature problematic areas. The most significant was on Pine Hollow Trail, where a bridge was seemingly near to collapse; I’m happy to report that the bridge has since been replaced, but the old one had been in appalling condition for years. However, other trails still continue to be aesthetically attenuated by inappropriate clearings and other visual problems; as of January 2011, the pond is drained, something I don’t recall from previous years. Admittedly, this may be a forced decision on the part of the Audubon Society, but there is no excuse for not clearing fallen trees from the trails (the recent orgy of construction and vegetation-destruction proves that there are no “keep it natural” motives at work here).
It hasn’t helped that the old trail signs have been replaced by new markers. These new intersection markers appear comically out of place, distracting from the beauty of the trails rather than subtly blending in; the old signs were easily sighted yet worked with their surroundings, rather than against them. Apart from this aesthetic problem, the new signs are simply not very helpful; a dubious font is used (with white coloring, to boot), the lettering is uncomfortably printed vertically along the entire length of the post, and because arrows are not given “tails,” occasionally one is not sure if a character is a letter or a “V.” Ill-advised abbreviations add to the confusion; one sign reads “MDWVW^ SPR HLLW< UP FLDSV" (translation: Meadowview right, Spring Hollow straight, Upper Fields left). Even more problematic, in at least one instance, I noticed that a sign indicates the wrong direction for a given trail; in other cases, the direction is so ambiguous that novice walkers will almost certainly be lost. ...so why is Beechwood Farms one of the reasons why I love Pittsburgh? Well, it's not just because of nostalgia or my hope that, someday, the entrance and its accompanying trails will be returned to their former splendor. In truth, once one gets past the disappointing contemporary revisions and the dilapidated quality of some of the trails, Beechwood Farms is still an impeccably beautiful place, with so many memorable places that one can walk there countless times without becoming bored (the waterfall off of Pine Hollow? The treehouse off of Spring Hollow, not to mention the weather vane? The pine grove in Woodland? The pump house on Meadowview?). At present, there are three trails that remain relatively untouched by recent "improvements" and other activities, trails that you should definitely make an effort to check out. Woodland, despite a detour to a "vista" that is bound to confuse novice walkers, is a lovely, modestly difficult (by Beechwood Farms standards) trail that, more than any other trail at Beechwood, feels removed from the bustle of civilization (this despite its proximity to Harts Run Road). The trail alternates between tight, twisty sections and grand, spacious areas, providing a great sense of unpredictability and variety. Violet, which begins by the pond and ends at Spring Hollow, near the entrance to Woodland, is one of the shortest trails in the park, but it is also one of the most pleasurable. On one side of the trail is a valley in which a small creek trickles, and on the other side is a hillside; in winter, one can see the treehouse from this trail (as well as from several points along Spring Hollow). Ignore its apparent status as a mere "shortcut" trail, as the map would indicate; it's worthy in and of itself. That said, I've never seen any violets along its length... Pine Hollow, the longest trail at Beechwood, can only be accessed from Meadowview. As the only trail to not connect to Spring Hollow, it has a remote feel that is amplified by its length (a mere mile, but seemingly longer due to the myriad of different settings it traverses). Parts of the trail are unfortunately closed during certain seasons (due to deer mating habits and all), severely diminishing the totality of the experience. Visiting in the summertime is definitely preferable. If you plan on hiking the trails at Beechwood, I highly recommend printing off a copy of the map offered online. This is the “classic” map that was once available at Beechwood; in recent years, it has been unfortunately replaced by a more kid-friendly but far less accurate map (to begin with, scale has been completely eliminated). Although the older maps are occasionally available, it’s nice to have a backup just in case.
It’s also worth noting that pets and bicycles are prohibited at Beechwood Farms.
Directions: Beechwood Farms is located off of Dorseyville Road, in Fox Chapel. From Harts Run Road, make a right onto Dorseyville Road; Beechwood will be on the right not far up the road. From Rt. 28, take the exit for Etna. If you were bound north on Rt. 28, you’ll have to go through Etna and turn to access the light for Kittanning Street (it’s also the intersection of Rt. 8). If you were heading south on Rt. 28, you’re in luck; just stay in the right lane after exiting, and make a right at the light. Kittanning Street essentially becomes Dorseyville Road at the top of the hill, so just keep following Dorseyville Road for a few miles. Beechwood Farms will be on the left.
The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania also maintains Todd Sanctuary. This nature reserve, located in Sarver, is in one sense a true anomaly; it is a nature reserve that actually feels like humans have been successfully excluded from the premises. This makes exploring it an experience that is both unsettling and nearly-revelatory.
The trails are extremely well-marked, labeled with helpful names, and high-quality maps are available at the cabin (i.e., the building that one usually passes before entering the trails proper). In fact, in this case, the maps available at Todd itself are a significant improvement over the maps available online, and though it might be wise to bring a copy just in case, count on using the complimentary maps to guide your way. The maps at the cabin are larger and clearer than the version online, which looks like it was run through a few too many subpar fax machines.
Even better is the “Footpath Descriptions” section on the reverse side of the on-site maps. This information is slightly more extensive and thoughtfully organized than the descriptions available online. Actually, either incarnation presents one of the best trail descriptions I’ve ever found provided; not only are distances provided, but there are clauses indicating trails with difficult conditions (e.g., slippery rocks or muddy areas). This is not the vague easy-moderate-difficult system used for so many parks; specific obstacles are highlighted, which makes for an invaluable resource.
So yes, although there was a blazed trail off of Loop Trail that was not on the map, I had no problems finding my way around Todd Sanctuary. Not only are the blazes prominent and frequent, but intersections are marked with accurate and easily read signs! The system for trail labeling at Todd Sanctuary is simply unequaled in this region, and perhaps in most other areas as well.
The Loop Trail seems as if it should be the best way to become acquainted with the area, and although I certainly can’t complain about it, it was actually my least favorite of the trails I walked. It’s necessary to walk at least part of the Loop Trail to access most of the other trails, but I would suggest making a special point of walking the Polypody Trail (orange blaze) and the Ravine Trail (purple blaze). The Polypody Trail has a neat rocky section, and the Ravine Trail leads alongside Watson’s Run and crosses it at several points. The creek is modest but oddly endearing; maybe it has something to do with all the bizarre rocky formations on its banks…
The Indian Pipe Trail (white blaze) is highly entertaining, even if there are no features that really stand out, as with the Hemlock Trail. These two trails can be used to bypass much of the Loop Trail, if one desires.
Other features of note at Todd? The aforementioned cabin and the bridge/stairs one traverses in order to access it are rather attractive and excellent subjects for photographs. The pond is cool but also pretty much what you’d expect; it’s a nice diversion on the trail, but I wouldn’t say it really stands out. Oh, and that blazed-but-unmapped side trail I mentioned earlier? It has a red/white blaze, and it eventually leads to a wild meadow that one can walk around. This trail can be accessed off of the Loop Trail on the north end of the sanctuary (note that on the map, north is to the left, per the “compass”).
Directions: Making your way to Todd Sanctuary for the first time is almost certain to evoke “Did we miss the turn?” thoughts. Indeed, when I went, I actually missed the turn to the parking lot because it’s not properly marked and it’s a one-lane, extremely gravelly road. The following route is not the quickest, but it’s the easiest to follow.
First, off of Rt. 28, take the exit for Sarver (it’ll also be for Rt. 356). Follow Rt. 356 North and make a right turn on Monroe Road (unlike many intersections in this area, the sign is fairly clear and easy to spot; the turn will be at a traffic light). Keep a lookout for Buffalo Golf Course; make a right, as if going to the golf course, but stay on the road. In a few minutes, there will be a sign on the right announcing that the area is Todd Sanctuary; look for a right turn IMMEDIATELY after this sign; as stated above, it will be a very narrow, unimproved road. Luckily, it’s a very, very short stretch. Almost immediately, one will be in the parking lot. From there, a short foot trail will lead down a set of steps, a short slope, and over a bridge to the cabin.
Also of interest in the area…
One of the parking areas for the Butler Freeport Trail is located in the general vicinity of Todd Sanctuary. From Rt. 356 North, turn right onto Bear Creek Road (you’ll have to be heading north for this; the turn is too sharp for a left). At the fork, bear right to stay on Bear Creek Road. The parking area will be on the left, although there is also an unofficial parking area further up the road on the right; the designated parking area is very small and cramped, so it might be necessary to use the second pulloff.
In my opinion, the Butler Freeport Trail is best suited for cyclists; the trail goes through too many long straightways for those on foot to be sufficiently entertained. Joggers might have a different experience, but walkers will almost certainly become bored quickly. That said, the trail made me wish I had a bike rack for my car, because it seemed as if it would be a really neat cycling experience, and besides, the trail follows Little Buffalo Creek for most of its southern duration, providing a view that’s at least mildly engaging.
As the name suggests, the trail connects Butler and Freeport. The trail is twenty miles long, and mile markers are helpfully placed throughout the trail. The majority of the path stays away from major roads (save in the southern region, where it comes close to Rt. 356 and even passes under Rt. 28), which is a nice feature.
Somewhat frustratingly, the maps available on the Butler Freeport Trail website do not indicate parking areas; instead, one must consult a .pdf of the trail brochure and either flip the image or tilt one’s head at a 90 degree angle in order to properly read the image. Luckily, physical copies of the brochure are available at the trailheads (in the interests of full disclosure, I’m assuming this based on the fact that I found my copy of the brochure at the Sarver parking lot; the other parking lots presumably offer the brochure as well, but I could be wrong about that).