As fall gradually gives way to a long, cold pandemic winter, it’s important to remember — you can still go outside. Pittsburgh’s parks, in particular, provide a great deal of opportunities for socially-distanced wintertime recreation.

“There’s something so calming about the parks during the winter,” says Alana Wenk, of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “It’s as though everything becomes still, and you can really embrace the beauty of nature. Also, the parks are absolutely magical when it snows. Since we don’t get an abundant amount of snow in Pittsburgh, it makes it a really special experience — everything glistens, and you really get to enjoy the parks in a completely new light.”

We’re not quite there yet, but we will be soon enough. Outdoor recreation remains vastly safer than indoor activities in this time of coronavirus.

“We recognize that Covid-19 will likely remain part of our lives during the coming months, so it’s super important that people continue spending more time outdoors versus indoors,” says Wenk. “We also want to change the narrative that parks are only for exploring during the warmer months. Parks are open year-round, and now more than ever, it’s important for Pittsburghers to get outdoors, enjoy the fresh air, and safely explore the beauty of nature.”

Frick Park in winter. Photo by Melissa McMasters.

What to do?

You can take a winter hike through Riverview Park with a thermos of hot chocolate, or wrap up snugly in a blanket with a good book.

There’s ice skating at the Schenley Park rink, enjoying the holiday lights at Schenley Plaza and searching for that perfect picturesque skyline shot at Emerald View Park on Mt. Washington and high up in the Hill District at August Wilson Park.

Sledding is, of course, the classic wintertime draw for all ages. Frick Park is famous for it.

“We’re so fortunate to have many epic sled riding spots in Pittsburgh,” says Wenk who recommends Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park, as well as Mellon Park, Highland Park and Riverview Park.

Sledding in Frick Park. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

People tend to exercise less in the winter and move around less in general.

“The most important thing is not to sit,” says Ron DeAngelo, director of sports performance training at UPMC. “Sitting is the new smoking. As an organism, we were meant to move. We’re not meant to be stagnant. Stagnation creates a lot of issues: (with the) heart and lungs, or soft tissue-type things, gaining weight, even from an orthopedic nature, where you get achy joints.”

He recommends activities such as snowshoeing, ice skating and cross-country skiing.

“In North Park, there are cross-country trails and places you can snowshoe,” he adds. “Most of the time Pittsburgh is 20 degrees or more. There’s no reason you can’t get out there and walk.”

If there’s snow and slush, DeAngelo recommends using ski poles to help balance during a winter hike. It’s important to take it easy, at first. “You want to start out slow,” says DeAngelo. “Obviously, dress for the temperature and have a nice mask to keep you from breathing in cold air. Start with a casual walk and pick up speed as you’re going. For Wenk, it’s the company you keep that makes for a perfect wintertime stroll.

“I love walking my German Shepherd Dog, Sullie, in the parks during the winter,” Wenk says. “She’s a big fan of meeting new people and loves being outdoors during the cooler months. When I see her excitement, it makes me happy, so it’s a win-win for both of us.”

Riverview Park

Snowy path at the Allegheny Observatory in Riverview Park. Photo by Melissa McMasters.

Though the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy doesn’t have concrete numbers, the parks are a lot less crowded in the winter, with the exception of those sledding hills when there’s good snowfall.

“It’s so important for people not to experience Covid fatigue as we enter winter,” says Wenk. “Park visitors should continue following CDC and local guidelines as it relates to Covid safety, which includes wearing a mask when visiting public spaces and maintaining a six-foot distance from others.”

Other cold-weather cities and countries famously embrace the cold, so we can too.

“People tend to think parks are for warm-weather use only, but studies from cold-weather countries, like those in Scandinavia, show that people are happier when they spend time outdoors, even with their very cold winters,” says Catherine Qureshi, chief operating officer of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. “It’s a season we would all benefit from learning to appreciate more.”