County parks are the workhorses of our park systems. Playgrounds, ballfields, tennis courts. For many dog owners most of their walks may take place on a jogging track in a nearby county park.
But when we travel with our dogs it is easy to overlook county parks in favor of more celebrated outdoor destinations. But county parks are usually more welcoming to your dog than state and national parks are. And some county parks can medal in the scenery competition as well. Below are some of the best county parks I've come across that you shouldn't pass by when looking for a place to hike with your dog. Do you live near an exceptional county park? let us know at email@example.com.
Wells Mills County Park (Ocean County, New Jersey)
The queen of Ocean County parks at over 900 acres, Wells Mills will be at the top of any list for canine hikers. For those intimidated by the vast wilderness of New Jersey's Pinelands this is an ideal introduction to the region's cedar swamps and thick pine-oak woodlands. Most of the going is on paw-friendly sand or soft dirt covered in pine straw.
But what truly sets Wells Mills apart from its Pine Barrens neighbors is elevation change. Nothing grueling but in the western part of the park the trails roll joyously up and down across small ridges and sandhills. The name- sake mound of sand on the Penns Hill Trail, the longest of the park's routes at 8.4 miles, reaches 126 feet. That white-blazed trail circles the perimeter of the park; a simliar shorter route is the green-blazed Estlow Trail at 3.5 miles.
Additional loops up to 1.3 miles can be hiked near the Wells Mills Nature Center, a standout among its kind with three stories and 1400 square feet of exhibit space. Climb up to the observation deck for a splendid view of the Pine Barrens and Wells Mills Lake. All told Wells Mills maintains more than 16 miles of trails.
Mt. Pleasant Palmetto Islands County Park (Charleston County, South Carolina)
This unique park was originally designed on and around 140 acres of tidal wetlands, marsh, sand barrens, and 16 spotted islands, some as small as three-tenths acre and the largest being 26 acres. As the park expanded into a busy 943 recreational acres with a playground and splash park it retains its naural feel thanks to its thick tropical plantings.
The marquee trail here is the Nature Island Trail, reached by an open boardwalk across a salt marsh. The island was energetically logged through the mid-1900s although it is hard to tell these days. This canine hike is on planks and pine straw that your dog will love under the palmetto, loblolly pine and live oak trees.
Back on the main island you can pick up various hard-packed multi-use trails that connect picnic shelters and skirts the salt marsh. Most of these paths, including the Osprey Nature Trail, pass maze-like through the walls of vegetation. County officials have made creative use of the wasted space under some power lines by creating a permanent dog agility course and a dog park.
Claude Moore Park (Loudoun County, Virginia)
Claude Moore Park serves up a pastiche of a dozen short trails that add up to more than ten miles of canine hiking. Two trails - the white-blazed Little Stoney Mountain Trail and the blue-blazed Scout Trail - both follow essentially the same route to explore the entire park so you only have to choose one.
A popular destination for first-time visitors is the scenic overlook at the north end of the park on Little Stoney Mountain (at 442 feet, the hill's name dates to a 1779 survey map). The cobblestones your dog has to negotiate on this stretch of trail are pre-historic souvenirs from wave action ten thousand years ago, when the Potomac River washed against this hill. The scenic view is of the monolithic Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland (another great place to take your dog hiking).
The last known undeveloped section of the historic Vestal's Gap Road runs across the park. This trail, first used by American Indians, was used as early as 1692 by the Rangers of the Potomac under David Strahan. It became the major route for travel between Alexandria and Winchester. George Washington used the road frequently in his travels between Mount Vernon and the western frontier. General Edward Braddock's troops, including Daniel Boone, traveled Vestal's Gap Road during the French and Indian War and today your dog can hike a short ways on the ancient thoroughfare.
Hartwood Acres (Allegheny County, Pennsylvania)
William Flinn’s family left Manchester, England for Pittsburgh’s Sixth Ward
in 1852 when he was barely one year old. Young William left the Pittsburgh public schools at the age of nine to work the city streets. His father had been a small contractor but William eyed building on a larger scale. Mixing in Republican politics, Flinn won much of the paving and construction business in Pittsburgh during the exploding industrial times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Flinn’s daughter Mary used her inheritance to create one of the western Pennsylvania’s most magnificent country estates, pivoting around an elegant 16th century Tudor manor house. In 1969, she offered the estate to Allegheny County as a park and just like that the county had a ready-made crown jewel in its park system.
When you bring your dog to Hartwood Acres, you come to walk. There are
no recreation or sport facilities on its 629 acres. The manor house, stable and outdoor sculptures are still in place to admire before heading out on the rolling dirt and paved pathways through the wooded countryside. A spiderweb of short and long trails and immaculate bridle paths conspire to provide delightful canine hiking in Hartwood Acres. You can hike with your dog here every day for a month and never take the same route. For lovers of sunshine begin your dog’s day in the Middle Run Lot and enjoy the macadam paths through manicured fields around the Stage, a concert amphitheater. You’ll leave most of the trail users (many with a dog in tow) behind if you slip off the main paved paths onto the whimsically named natural trails. The Heebie Jeebie Trail utilizes tight switchbacks to climb a short hill. The Perfectly Good Trail is just that - a shady circuit in a remote corner of the park through a junkyard of fallen hemlock trees. Hartwood Acres also offers a large, fenced-in grassy off-leash area for your dog.
Middle Run Valley County Park (New Castle County, Delaware)
The White Clay Creek drains some 70,000 acres and 100 square miles in Pennsylvania and Delaware. In Dela-ware, where Middle Run is one of its three main tributaries, it seems that much of that watershed is choked by suburban sprawl. Beginning in 1975, local civic and environmental groups began piece-meal acquisition of pristine woodlands that has resulted in an 850-acre oasis in the center of housing subdivisions, shopping centers and busy roadways.
Middle Run features splendid canine hiking on five well-maintained loop trails that cover 14 miles and an additional five short spurs that lead to surrounding communites. All offer interesting - and sometimes challenging - switches in terrain. There is almost 200 feet of elevation change at Middle Run.
The purple-blazed Lenape Trail visits most of the property in its run of almost 7 miles, one of the longest loop trails in Delaware. The best choice for dog walkers only wanting to sample Middle Run’s sylvan charms is the pedestrian-only 2.15-mile Possum Hollow Trail. Another good ramble is the Earth Day Trail that drops out of the parking lot into a steep valley around Muddy Run. All the natural dirt and grass trails bound up and down hills but the Snow Geese Trail, marked in orange on the east side of the park, is an especially steep, heart-pumping loop for canine and human.
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