Will Smith once quipped, “a place called the plateau is where everybody goes” in his 1991 hit Summertime. But chances are if you’re an outdoor enthusiast in Philadelphia, you may not know about the wonders that lie above the Schuylkill River on Belmont Plateau.
Not only is the plateau home to a large, grassy knoll with the best view of the Philadelphia skyline that you can find anywhere in the city, but there’s also vast system of trails hiding in West Fairmount Park, largely untouched by Philly trail-goers. So next time you have the urge to hit the trails with your mountain bike or trail running shoes, give West Philly a chance.
History of Belmont Plateau
The Palladian-style Belmont Mansion was built on Belmont Plateau in 1745 by William Peters, the land agent for the Penn family. During the 1700’s, the mansion was home to many secret chats between the Founding Fathers, located just four miles from Center City Philadelphia. One hundred years later, the mansion served as one of the first stops on the Underground Railroad, and is home to the Underground Railroad Museum today. Throughout the 1900’s, the plateau was, and still is, home to some of the most famous cross country races in the region. In 1991, the plateau became “The Plateau,” and was permanently ingrained in hip-hop history with Will Smith’s famous tune.
Today, you won’t find a lot trail enthusiasts at Belmont Plateau—most are probably enjoying the endless trails at Wissahickon Park just a few miles down the road. But Belmont offers a quiet, urban oasis in the city that is easily accessible by any form of transportation, and the added benefit of its emptiness makes it even more serene. The fact that it is adjacent to Interstate I-76 is laughable, because once inside the shady, singletrack trail paradise, one forgets the city exists at all beyond the trees.
How to Access the Trails
The quickest way to access the trails is via car from Interstate 76. Take the Montgomery Drive exit, and turn left at the end of the ramp if heading west, or turn right at the end of the ramp if heading east. Drive under the I-76 overpass, and make your first right into the “car barn” parking lot. Park there, and head down the road into the woods where you’ll find a wide, gravel fire road. This path traverses most of the trail area and splits off into many different singletrack branches along the way.
If coming on foot or bike from Center City, take West River Drive (Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) and turn left up the hill onto Montgomery Avenue. Cross under the I-76 bridge and turn right into the “car barn” lot. From there, follow the road down into the woods where you’ll find a wide, gravel fire road. This path traverses most of the trail area and splits off into many different singletrack branches along the way.
It’s worth noting that while the trail area isn’t huge, it’s still possible to get lost, so be sure to bring a phone or a paper map. There are very few trail maps in existence of the Belmont Trails, but that almost makes it more fun to explore. Most trails dump out onto the gravel fire road or one of the main West Fairmount Park roads: Montgomery Drive, Belmont Mansion Drive, Ford Road, and Chamonix Drive.
When in doubt, find one of these roads to get your bearings. For a special treat, bring a picnic lunch and your favorite beverage to enjoy post-hike or ride while watching the sunset over the city skyline.