Frick Park, Schenley Park, Highland Park, Point State Park.
You probably know Pittsburgh’s big parks or at least some of their major attractions: Blue Slide Park, Flagstaff Hill, the Schenley Oval.
But Pittsburgh has SO MANY other parks that are worth seeking out. In fact, Pittsburgh has 163 parks, covering nearly 3,000 acres. They’re the lungs of the city, the deep greens (and the oranges, yellows and reds) that give the city its color and texture. Having a park within walking distance, even if it’s just a place to throw a football or walk the dog improves one’s quality of life.
So here’s a completely subjective compilation of some of our favorites. You’ve probably got your own (and if you don’t, go get some):
1. Emerald View Park, Mt. Washington
Take a big chunk of Schenley Park, tilt it about 45 degrees and slap it on the side of a mountain. That’s basically Emerald View Park, the newest of Pittsburgh’s regional parks. It’s 257 acres of wild, twisting sloped paths from the Grandview Scenic Byway atop Mt. Washington to the bottom.
Once known as Coal Hill, it was heavily mined, polluted and almost completely denuded of foliage in the industrial era. Now, it’s the opposite — a forested maze of ravines, cliffside trails and rough pathways for determined hikers.
Emerald View has been woven artfully into several neighborhoods with working-class houses perched on top of million-dollar views. Though, to be fair, you’re as likely to run into a wild turkey as a person most days. When you reach the bottom, you can take the Duquesne or Monongahela Inclines back to the top.
Not recommended if you’re not into heights.
2. Riverview Park, North Side
It’s all downhill from here, literally. This is one of Pittsburgh’s major regional parks, but it only gets a fraction of the visitors due to its isolated location, which is best approached by a flanking maneuver from the back (Ohio River Boulevard).
Riverview Park was created in 1894, and a lot remains of the “City Beautiful”-era Allegheny City. It’s a strikingly beautiful place, surrounded by 100-year-old trees, stately Observatory Hill mansions and broad, winding boulevards with well-trafficked bike lanes.
At the top is the historic Allegheny Observatory (built in 1859), which made many significant discoveries, and originated the “Allegheny Time” standard of timekeeping for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the first standardized time system. It’s currently undergoing significant restoration.
No idea what kids do here in the winter — but the broad, sloping lawn in front of the Observatory looks like the world’s greatest sledding hill.
3. West End-Elliott Overlook Park, Elliott
The West End gets so little attention from the rest of Pittsburgh that it’s ridiculous. I try to keep my East End-centrism in check, however, and would like to recommend the neighborhood of Elliott and its main attraction, the Overlook.
In fact, Pittsburgh is full of neighborhoods like Elliott: every street a rollercoaster of hills and valleys, full of affordable homes with incredible views. Those views are so unremarkable in Pittsburgh — not unlike fireworks displays — that we tend to take them for granted.
That said, the West End Overlook’s vista is spectacular. You’re looking at the Point head-on, which is its best angle, rising from the morning mists from the confluence of three mighty rivers. But turn around and there’s a panoramic view of the North Side, laid out like a vast model train set in a forgotten “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode.
4. Wightman Park, Squirrel Hill
If you’ve got kids, this new park (finished in 2020) is an absolute gem. Built into one of Squirrel Hill’s loveliest residential enclaves, this tiny park and playground were built in the shadow of the Wightman School/Carriage House.
The park is shaped like a bowl, with embankments separating the park from the surrounding housing, so a novel solution was found — a slide built into the hillside (not unlike Blue Slide Park). You don’t need flattened cardboard boxes to whiz down this one, though.
Artists Oreen Cohen and Alison Zapata of OOA Designs created metal sculptures, inlaid with colorful panes of glass that merge the forms of falling water and pollinating insects, that are child-safe and act as benches.
There are distinct play areas, one for toddlers ages 2 to 5 and another for children ages 5 to 12, with an array of slides, tunnels, netting and other climbing equipment. A covered wooden picnic pavilion is open to the community along with a walking track and a half-court basketball hoop. It’s even got a baseball diamond.
The park was designed to solve drainage problems that periodically flooded basements nearby. Large rain gardens and planters trap up to 2 million gallons of stormwater, keeping water out of people’s basements (and sewer overflows into the Monongahela River).
5. August Wilson Park, Hill District
Formerly known as Cliffside Park, this relatively recent addition is part of a larger renaissance in the Hill District. Again, the views here are spectacular, and in most other cities the neighborhood would be packed with astronomically-priced condo towers.
After a long period of neglect and decline, the park was restored with a new playground, half-court for basketball, walking paths and an art installation from the Hill’s legendary photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, a peerless visual chronicler of Black Pittsburgh.
6. South Side Park, South Side
Another hidden gem, South Side Park covers 65 acres, much of it extremely steep terrain headed down the South Side Slopes to the Flats. At the top is Arlington, a densely populated but quiet neighborhood. The ball field overlooking a cliff gives Little Leaguers a chance to bash a ball big league distances (off a mountain.).
The park is held together by walking trails, covered with a canopy of trees. This park isn’t heavily used, which makes it seem a lot more remote than in the heart of a densely-populated city neighborhood.
7. Allegheny Commons Park, North Side
You could hire the greatest landscape architects in the world, give them unlimited budgets and let them loose — and nothing they could create would match Allegheny Commons Park.
The secret sauce of great parks is in the trees; and these have been growing for one hundred years or more, towering above all but a few nearby apartment buildings. You can’t just plant trees and get results — you have to wait a long time.
Established in 1897, Pittsburgh’s oldest park isn’t as overlooked as the others on the list. But it’s also less prominent than it should be, and perhaps Pittsburgh’s most picturesque park in the fall and spring.
There’s a small manmade water feature, Lake Elizabeth, that’s clean and shallow and irresistible to geese. There’s also a sunken cut through the park that funnels through train traffic with surprising efficiency and relative quiet.
Along its edge is a row of Gingko trees, whose bright yellow leaves bathe the ground in a golden carpet as the year’s last garish blast of autumnal colors, before everything shifts to winter whites and greys.
And the soundtrack to this park is the occasional slightly unnerving squawks and yelps from the National Aviary next door.
This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.