For people who relish the outdoors, few times of the year offer the opportunity to enjoy the peace and tranquility of nature as do the winter months. Gone are the majority of campers, hunters, anglers and warm-weather hikers who visit Penn’s Woods during the busy spring-through-fall outdoors season. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons the First Day Hike initiative was started six years ago – as an alternate way of celebrating the New Year while promoting outdoor recreation and exercise.
Launched nationwide in 2012 by America’s State Parks Alliance, First Day Hikes are guided hikes designed to encourage people to explore the outdoors during a beautiful, often less crowded time of the year. Since the initiative’s inception, the number First Day Hikes across the country has grown steadily, with state parks in all 50 states now offering them, as well as countless conservation and hiking groups. Last year, according to America’s State Parks, almost 55,000 people took part in New Year’s Day hikes, covering more than 133,000 miles on these guided excursions.
“Pennsylvania has participated each year and the trend in attendance has been on the uptick,” says Rob Neitz, park manager at the Bushkill Township-based Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, which offers two hikes on New Year’s Day. “We typically have between 25-30 parks offering hikes with 1,500-1,800 hikers statewide.”
Leaders of First Day Hikes note that attendance varies from year to year depending on the weather, but in general participation in these outings is on the rise. In fact, more and more groups are offering First Day Hikes with each passing year.
“Interest in our hike in particular has experienced growth over the years, but in general many other organizations and Meet-Ups are more often offering First Day opportunities,” says Diane Motel, education programs director for the Emmaus-based Wildlands Conservancy, which offers a First Day Hike at its oldest preserve, South Mountain, on Jan. 1.
At Jacobsburg, park staff lead two hikes on the park’s trails. The treks, which are about two miles in length, take participants through Henry’s Woods to see the park’s old growth forest, as well as provide an opportunity to catch a glimpse of a variety of winter birds and other wildlife.“Many people set New Year’s resolutions to increase wellness and activity levels,” Neitz says. “First Day Hikes provide them an opportunity to get started right away. Exercise in the outdoors at any time of year has been shown to be beneficial to both physical and mental health.”
During the Wildlands Conservancy’s hike, now in its fifth year, participants explore the preserve’s many trails, a number of which contain ponds and seeps, important habitat for several rare species of amphibians. The hike culminates with a cup of hot cocoa to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, an ideal way to take the edge off a cold winter’s day.
“Winter is the best time to see resident birds, discover stories in animal tracks and experience the quiet that winter nature brings,” Motel says. “This is a terrific opportunity to put away our technology and simply be present, savoring the beauty of our South Mountain gem with an experienced guide. If there is enough snow on the ground, hikers can use our snowshoes to experience the trails in a new way.”
For parents with infants or toddlers, one of the most family friendly-hikes in the region is Hike It Baby’s outing at Trexler Nature Preserve in North Whitehall Township. The hike, which kicks off at 11 a.m., takes place over relatively easy terrain and is especially geared toward participants with little ones in tow.
“Hike it Baby offer opportunities for parents to share their love of nature with their children while connecting with other families in the outdoors,” says Cathy Reuscher, who coordinates the hike. “This hike is less than two miles, and is completely accessible for jogging-type strollers.”
Dressing appropriately for the elements is always important when enjoying the outdoors, but it’s essential during the winter when weather can range from frigid, snow-covered conditions to slightly warmer temperatures that require people to come dressed with garments they can take off as they warm up.
“We encourage everyone to hit one of the many trails in the Lehigh Valley Trail Network and spend some time outdoors,” Neitz says. “In our business there is no bad weather – only bad gear – so dress in layers, stay well hydrated and enjoy some time outside.”
Lehigh Valley Audubon’s Youth Bird Count Set for Jan. 12
Kids ages 8-15 are invited to experience the fun of birding when Lehigh Valley Audubon Society holds its 5th annual Christmas Bird Count for Kids Jan. 12, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., in Allentown.
Based on the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, the kids’ bird count includes a classroom session about birding and the importance of conservation, tour of Muhlenberg College’s Acopian Center for Ornithology and a visit to Allentown’s parks to observe and count birds. Pizza lunch and binoculars for kids to use are included. Cost is $8; registrations can be made at www.lvaudubon.org/shop/kids-bird-count.
FIRST DAY HIKES
Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Meet: Visitor Center, 400 Belfast Rd., Nazareth 18064
Length: 2 Miles
Register/Info: Rick Wiltraut at [email protected]
Beltzville State Park, 2-4 p.m.
Led by: Friends of Beltzville State Park
Meet: Beltzville Environmental Interpretive Center, 2950 Pohopoco Dr., Lehighton 18235
Length: 3.5 miles; dog friendly hike
Register/Info: www.fobsp.org or call 610-377-0045
South Mountain Preserve, 10 a.m.-noon
Led by: Wildlands Conservancy
Meet: Boro Line Park Lot, 554 Alpine St., Emmaus 18049
Trexler Nature Preserve, 11 a.m.
Led by: Hike It Baby
Length: Less Than 2 Miles
Contact Catherine Reuscher at [email protected] for meeting location and details.