Fairmount Park Trolley Trail
Hike along the former route of the Fairmount Park Trolley Line, a surprisingly secluded walk in the woods just minutes from Center City Philadelphia.
*Note: Most of the ~4.2 mile loop described in this post is along unmarked trails, and may require some minor route-finding as a result. A link to a map can be found in the section at the end of the post.
Everyone in Philadelphia is at least vaguely aware of Fairmount Park, the sprawling tract of land northwest of Center City along the banks of the Schuylkill River. Bisected by the river into West Fairmount and East Fairmount, the urban park covers over two thousand acres and includes well known landmarks like the Philadelphia Zoo, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and Boathouse Row. Athletic fields are numerous, along with paved paths, gardens, and historic buildings. Less well know are the opportunities to leave the city behind, and escape into nature.
Hidden in the woods of the Belmont Plateau is a web of paths winding through the forest. Many are no more than social trails created over the years by hikers and mountain bikers. But one particular circuit is part of Philadelphia history, following the route of the Fairmount Park Trolley Line that once provided access to points throughout the park. The line was put into service in 1897, but was closed in 1946 as a financial failure. The infrastructure was later dismantled and auctioned off, but remnants of its presence can still be found in the woods of West Fairmount Park.
Start your hike at the Chamounix Mansion where you’ll find parking along Chamounix Drive near the stables. Pick up one of the two unmarked trails in the woods to the left of the Mansion. The first is slightly more direct, and can be identified by the defunct bus stop sign visible a short distance into the forest. After a short walk, you’ll come upon one of the most impressive and enduring vestiges of the trolley system, a stone and brick archway known to riders as the Chamounix Tunnel. Consisting of 15 arched ribs of brick offset to form a skewed tunnel, the structure is a lasting example of the sights that greeted visitors along the trolley’s route.
Continue along the path that passes through the tunnel, heading southwest along the straight and level ground paralleling a small creek. Several smaller trails branch off of the main path, but continue straight through the forest until you emerge at Ford Road. Turn left and follow the sidewalk under the overpass and climb the steep stairs on the far side. At the top of the stairs, the paved Chamounix Path extends to your left and right, but head straight, into the woods towards the far railing, turning left along a social trail. With the exception of some minor twists and turns, the trail parallels the paved Chamounix Path westward, but trades concrete for dirt single track shaded by a lofty tree canopy.
The trail again emerges onto a road, Belmont Avenue. Turn left, crossing over Chamounix Drive and then another left back into the woods. Pass under a stone archway and continue along the well worn path, eventually passing under a rusted pedestrian walkway that arches over the trail. Cross a gravel service road and back into the woods. A short distance down the road is the barn once used to house the trolley cars, still in use today as a garage for park vehicles. Stone foundations hidden in the woods along the path periodically remind yourself of the trail’s history.
Stick to the main path as it winds under stone arches and crosses gravel roads, ignoring side trails overgrown from disuse. A map will be linked in the section below. Portions of the trail through this section are in the process up being updated, maintained, and permanently established as the official Trolley Trail. Alternate side trails are common, but the main path should be obvious. Keep an eye out for mountain bikers, and possible the occasional horse, as this is a multi-use trail. The trail will emerge from the forest one last time near the Chamounix Mansion.
Though the din of the expressway never quite fades away, the loop of the former trolley trail is almost entirely in the woods along a narrow dirt footpath. Several more miles of forest trail exist within the park’s boundaries, many intersecting with the trolley trail forming loops and alternate routes. Though downtown might be minutes away, nature is just a few steps off the sidewalk, where the city fades away, its existent only hinted at through various bits of history left to be swallowed by the woods.
Distance: Approximately 4.2 miles, though it can vary depending on which trail is followed.
Difficulty: Easy, but with some minor route-finding.
Trailhead: Chamounix Mansion, with parking along Chamounix Drive.
Route: A mix of social trails, none are marked in any way. Look for the map in the links below.
Overnight Possible: No
Best Time To Go: I’ve only been out in early autumn, but I imagine the trail is fine any time of year.
Where to Poop: Fairmount is a technically a city park, so go before you go. You might be able to find portable toilets near athletic fields along the way.