North Park. Photo by Tyler Woodfill.

This post was originally published on Jan. 12, 2015. It was updated on Feb. 23, 2023.

In 1927, county commissioner Edward V. Babcock personally bankrolled 4,000 acres of farmland to create North and South Parks.

Pittsburgh steel was cranking and immigrants were pouring into the city for jobs. Babcock wanted to give them an escape from the polluted river valleys where they could experience nature and ride horses, swim, skate and picnic – they would be “the people’s country clubs.”

He really went for it.

Native Americans from the Blackfeet tribe in Montana were invited to live in the parks and care for two herds of bison.

Paul Riis, a landscape architect with a hand in creating Yellowstone, was recruited to design and direct the parks. He used large stone works, waterfalls and other features to blur the lines between nature and the buildings, and set the tone for the rugged, naturalistic design style still found in the parks today.

The story of the Allegheny County Parks continued with seven Regional Parks – Boyce, Harrison Hills, Hartwood Acres, Round Hill, Settlers Cabin and White Oak – created between 1958 and 1974.

“Leaders envisioned a constellation of parks around the region and a park near every resident,” said Caren Glotfelty, president of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation. “They must have seen the county was going to grow and develop beyond the urbanization of the ’20s and that these parks would become important amenities.”

Today the nine county parks cover 12,000 acres of land and attract more than two million visitors per year. They are rich with history and offer an eclectic variety of activities all year-round. Here is a snapshot of each one:

The oldest and biggest: North and South Park

Ice skating at North Park. Photo by Michele Fetting.
Ice skating at North Park. Photo by Michele Fetting.

North Park

The five-mile paved trail around the 75-acre North Park Lake sees year-round action. Serious athletes in training, dog walkers, cyclists and rollerbladers all enjoy the largest of the county parks at over 3,000 acres.

The lake has seen a rebirth with new occupants in the historic boathouse (designed by prominent architect Henry Hornbostel who is also known for the City-County Building and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall). Kayak Pittsburgh rents stand-up paddleboards, canoes, kayaks and pedal boats from May through October. And if the lake freezes over in winter, you can add cross-country skiing and ice fishing to the activities.

Kayaking at North Park Lake. Photo by Mary Lynn Marsico.

The swimming pool at North Park was once considered the largest in the world. Built for the 1936 Olympic trials, the 2.5-million gallon pool was not finished in time. Today it remains a great spot to swim laps for fun or train for the North Park Triathlon.

Post workout, the Over The Bar Café serves up a great view of the lake from the Boathouse. Grab an Adirondack chair around one of the eight fire pits for the best seat in town.

Cool History
A 45-foot Story Pole stood in North Park for more than 80 years. It was carved by a chief from the Tulalip tribe and is now located at the Latodami Nature Center awaiting restoration.

The landmark North Park Water Tower, built in 1936, features 154 steps, unique ironwork and a domed overlook with a terrazzo floor. The tower was designed to hold 300,000 gallons of water but is no longer functional for water storage, and has been closed to the public for about 30 years.

You Might Not Know
In 2009, over 400,000 cubic yards of sediment were removed from the lake. Lake depth was restored and the cooler water can now sustain more aquatic life.

North Park has 43 miles of trails used for hiking, mountain biking, free riding and horseback riding. The trails also connect to the 4.3-mile Harmony trail and the 35.7-mile Rachel Carson Trail.

Other Highlights
Marshall Island Wildfowl Reserve, Latodami Nature Center, Go Ape Zip Line and Treetop Adventure, golf course, remote control airplane field, tennis/paddle tennis, ice skating, equestrian events, observation tower (closed to the public, but cool to see from the outside), off-leash dog area, arboretum, lodge and picnic groves.

North Park is 15 miles northeast of Pittsburgh located in McCandless, Pine and Hampton Townships. 303 Pearce Mill Rd, Allison Park

Bison at South Park.
Bison at South Park. Photo courtesy of Margaret Stanley/Allegheny County.

South Park

Chief Wild Eagle and the last of the Blackfeet tribe returned to Montana around 1931, but the last of the American bison herd can still be found roaming the hills of the Game Preserve. They are big. And so is South Park – the oldest and second largest county park with over 2,000 acres.

The South Park Fairgrounds once attracted hundreds of thousands for the annual Allegheny County Fair. A $1 million renovation is now underway on the 77-acre site to reconstruct the half-mile former horseracing track, add ball fields and make other improvements. The amphitheater is home to the popular Summer Concert Series.

The South Park BMX track is considered the best in the country. Originally built in 1978, the track still follows the same design and serves as a model for courses around the world. ESPN has filmed racing, obstacle and extreme jumping events here.

Cool History:
The Whiskey Rebellion broke out in 1794 near the site of the Oliver Miller Homestead, which still stands in South Park. Take a self-guided tour of the log cabin on Sundays May-October.

You Might Not Know
The proposed Skybus never got much farther off the ground than the 1.7-mile elevated test track built around the fairgrounds in the 1960s. Dismantled in 1972, it is now the stuff of urban legend.

There are 17 miles of trails in South Park with a connection to the 54.9-mile Montour Trail. Users can connect to the Great Allegheny Passage and a continuous 335-mile trail to Washington, DC.

Other Highlights
Ice skating, wave pool, golf course, tennis courts, sand volleyball, inline skating/deck hockey, model airplane field, Girl Scout cabin and the Boy Scouts’ Camp Rolling Hills.

South Park is located 15 miles south of downtown in the municipalities of Bethel Park and South Park.  3730 Buffalo Dr., South Park Township

Regional Parks

Boyce Park
Photo courtesy of Allegheny County.

Boyce Park

In November 1758, George Washington and his troops camped in what is now Boyce Park. It was just days before General John Forbes’ army captured Fort Duquesne (now Point State Park) from the French.

Today Boyce Park is a winter wonderland. Downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing and miles of cross-country skiing trails weave through this 1,096-acre park, anchored by the Four Seasons Activity Center.

Visit the Nature Center, organic greenhouse, arboretum and museum, or take classes in art or horticulture.

The 1st Lt. Neil Anthony Santoriello Memorial Archery Range was named for the Verona resident who was killed in Iraq in 2004. Mr. Santoriello had renovated the archery range for his Eagle Scout project.

Cool History
Archaeologists excavated a Monongahela village and 26 burial sites dating to the 14th century AD in the park.

You Might Not Know
William D. Boyce Park was named after the founder of the Boy Scouts who was born in the area.

Boyce Park has 21 miles of hiking and biking trails.

Other Highlights
Wave pool, 3 Bs (Board, Bike and Blade) Action Park, Carpenter homestead and log house, model airplane field, tennis courts, ball fields and picnic shelters (named with Boy Scout themes)

Boyce Park is 15 miles east of downtown in the municipalities of Plum and Monroeville. 675 Old Frankstown Rd.

Wagman Observatory at Deer Lakes Park.
Wagman Observatory at Deer Lakes Park. Photo by Michele Fetting.

Deer Lakes Park

Atop one of the highest points in Allegheny County, the Wagman Observatory attracts stargazers from across the region. Star Parties are held throughout the year where visitors can get a “tour of the sky” from a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh. Star clusters and distant galaxies are visible through the two powerful telescopes – a Brashear 11-inch Refractor and a Manka Memorial 21-inch Newtonian Reflector.

Deer Lakes Park is known for its three spring-fed lakes that are managed for recreational fishing by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The lakes provide year-round opportunities for anglers to catch stocked trout, largemouth bass, bluegill and sometimes catfish.

Cool History
The communities around Deer Lakes Park have a long history of coal, oil and gas mining. Companies like Bessemer Coal, Republic Steel and LTV Steel all had sites in the area.

You Might Not Know
An 18-hole disc golf course opened in 2010 with funding from the county and the volunteer efforts of the Pittsburgh Flying Disc Society.

Deer Lakes has 21 miles of hiking and biking trails.

Other Highlights
Children’s play area, ball field, water spray park, nature walks, picnic shelters (named for types of fish)

Deer Lakes Park is located 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in West Deer and Frazer Townships. 1090 Baileys Run Rd, Tarentum

A birder at Harrison Hills. Photo by Jerry Andres.

Harrison Hills Park

From the Watts Memorial Overlook, at 400 feet above the Allegheny River, visitors can see four counties – Allegheny, Westmoreland, Butler and Armstrong. At only 500 acres, Harrison Hills may be the smallest county park, but it is ecologically important. Between 1970 and 2012, Paul Hess, an expert birder and National Geographic author, identified 186 species of birds.

“The park is significant for birding because of the great variety of habitats such as forests, streams, wide open fields, ponds and meadows,” Hess says. “There is one bird in the park that doesn’t nest anywhere else in Allegheny County. The worm-eating warbler can be found in the near-vertical cliffsides above the Allegheny River.”

An Environmental Learning Center offers guided walks, a butterfly garden, outdoor classrooms and nature camps for kids.

Cool History
Ezra Clark Stiles designed Harrison Hills Park in the late 1950s. He was one of the top landscape architects in the region and worked for several prominent Pittsburgh families and corporations.

You Might Not Know
The vast amount of poison ivy found in the park in the early years may be the reason for the abundant bird life today. Poison ivy seeds are a bird delicacy.

There are 20 miles of trails within the park, including 3.4 miles of the 35.7-mile Rachel Carson Trail (you can hike the entire length of the trail between Harrison Hills and North Park in the Rachel Carson Challenge each June on the Summer Solstice). A recent state grant will soon connect the trails in Harrison Hills to the 20-mile Butler-Freeport Trail and the 2.5-mile Tredway Trail.

Other Highlights
Children’s play area, three soccer fields, hiking, biking and bridle trails, and picnic shelters (named after birds, trees and plants).

Harrison Hills Park is 24 miles northeast of downtown in Harrison Township. 5200 Freeport Rd, Natrona Heights

Hartwood Acres. Photo by Michele Fetting.
Hartwood Acres. Photo by Michele Fetting.

Hartwood Acres

Mary Flinn Lawrence built the mansion and equestrian estate at Hartwood Acres in 1929 with the inheritance from her father, State Sen. William Flinn. She lived in the mansion until 1974, and upon her death turned over the keys to Allegheny County. Architect Alfred Hopkins modeled the majestic 31-room home after a 16th-century English Tudor mansion and it is considered the “crown jewel” in the county park system.

“Everything is still there – the antiques, the furniture, the portraits – it’s like it was when she was living there,” says Jeffrey Lawrence, grandson of Mary and John Lawrence and author of an upcoming book on Hartwood. “People can come here and get a sense of life in a bygone era.”

Hartwood Acres is also known for its performance stage and Summer Concert Series. There are the regulars like the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Blues Fest, and a lineup of special guest musicians and groups like Ziggy Marley who drew a crowd of 30,000.

Cool History
A 1909 Aeolian pipe organ is located in the Hartwood mansion. There are four hidden panels in the Great Room walls that open to provide full sound effects when the organ is played.

You Might Not Know
The 12 sculptures by 12 different artists located throughout Hartwood Acres are listed in the Smithsonian Inventory of American Sculpture.

There are 15 miles of trails in Hartwood Acres and a connection to the 35.7-mile Rachel Carson Trail within the park. Many original bridle trails are still used and shared with hikers, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers.

Other Highlights
Mansion tours, tea parties, events, facility rentals for weddings and parties, off-leash dog area, horse cemetery, picnic shelters, Family House Polo Match and other events.

Hartwood Acres Park is located 10 miles northeast of downtown in Hampton and Indiana Township. 200 Hartwood Acres

Round Hill Farms. Photo by Michele Fetting.

Round Hill Park

Many of the round hills scattered between the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers are actually Native American burial sites. At the edge of the rugged American frontier the Mingo, Delaware, Seneca and other tribes thrived in the river valleys.

Today Round Hill Park is a modern working farm. The 1,100-acre park has cows, horses, pigs, and other animals, as well as a milk house, duck pond and herb harden. The educational exhibits and programs are a big draw for families, school field trips and community groups.

Cool History
Joseph Peairs purchased the property that is now Round Hill Park from the state of Pennsylvania in 1776.

You Might Not Know
Each December Round Hill Park conducts the annual Blessing of the Animals in conjunction with the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

There are 14 miles of walking and bridle trails in Round Hill Park. While there is no formal connection to the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, the trail is about five miles from the park by road.

Other Highlights:
Water spray park, picnic shelters (with farm-themed names)

Round Hill Park is located 15 miles southeast of downtown in Elizabeth Township. 651 Round Hill Rd., Elizabeth

Settlers Cabin Park
The Waterfall Trail in Settlers Cabin Park. Photo courtesy of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation.

Settlers Cabin

Much of the land in Settlers Cabin was ravaged by a century of coal, oil and gas mining. The streams ran orange with acid mine drainage from abandoned mines. But that didn’t stop the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden from selecting the site for a 460-acre world-class garden.

“There are five to ten years of reclamation left, but we’ve turned this brownfield site into a success story,” said Greg Nace, president of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

The completed site will include a Japanese garden, woodlands, an amphitheater, research center and the Fred Rogers Garden of Make Believe.

At 1589 acres, Settlers Cabin Park is the largest of the regional parks. It’s known for rugged hiking and mountain biking terrain, and a wave pool, which draws visitors from West Virginia and Ohio.

Cool History
Settlers Cabin is named for a 1780s log cabin – the Walker-Ewing-Glass Log House – that once belonged to Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Walker.

You Might Not Know
Settlers Cabin is the only county park with a professional diving well. There are one- and three-meter spring diving boards, and three platforms, including a 10-meter concrete platform (that’s really high). The water depth is 17 feet.

There are about 22 miles of trails in Settlers Cabin Park. A short connector trail (in development) will link the park to the 29-mile Panhandle Trail, the 54.9-mile Montour Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage that connects to Washington D.C.

Other Highlights
Tennis courts and picnic shelters (with Native American names)

Settlers Cabin Park is located 15 miles west of downtown in Robinson, North Fayette and Collier Townships near the Pittsburgh International Airport. 608 Ridge Rd.

Biking in White Oak Park.

White Oak Park

White Oak Park may be one of the smallest and least visited parks, but it is filled with some of the oldest tree groves in Pennsylvania, including American elm, hickory, tulip poplar, sugar and red maple and white oak. The park is thick with woods, trails and rugged hiking. It also has a garden that is a popular spot for outdoor weddings.

Angora Gardens is a health and wellness center named for the angora rabbits that once lived in the barn and were part of a therapy program for disabled visitors. The renovated barn has been transformed into a rental facility and site for classes on nutrition and fitness. The Gardens feature a historic 1800s farmhouse, gazebo, and koi pond.

Cool History
It is believed that a tunnel in the basement of the colonial farmhouse on the property was part of the Underground Railroad.

You Might Not Know
In the 1960s, the park was almost doubled in size by a matching tract of land in Westmoreland County.

Other Activities
Soccer/sports field, playground, off-leash dog area, Bocce court, picnic shelters (named for trees)

White Oak Park has eight miles of trails. While there is no connection to the Great Allegheny Passage, the park is about five miles (on the road) from the 150-mile trail.

White Oak Park is located 15 miles southeast of Pittsburgh near the City of McKeesport in White Oak Borough. 3 Muse Ln, White Oak

What’s next for the Allegheny County Parks

For nearly 90 years the Allegheny County park system has been a regional treasure. But each park faces its own set of issues. The forest has swallowed many of the original natural and architectural features and others are awaiting restoration. Invasive species like the emerald ash borer wiped out thousands of trees and there are other environmental challenges. Plans for gas drilling, coal mining and development in close proximity to parks remain controversial.

There is no shortage of ideas for what could be next. Linking the parks with a trail to create a green necklace around Pittsburgh has long been discussed.

Despite needed investment, the Allegheny County Parks are much loved as they are and remain important parts of their communities.

“We have more acres of parkland per capita than most places in the country,” says Andy Baechle, director of the Allegheny County Parks. “If you want to fly model airplanes or play a round of golf or collect chanterelle mushrooms, we have something for just about everyone.”

These assets will continue to pave the way forward.

“The story of the Allegheny County Parks is a story of vision spearheaded by people who cared about the natural environment,” says Robert Gangewere, Pittsburgh author and historian. “We need to continue this work for the future so the next generation has something as good or even better than what we now have.”

Sounds like a plan.

Michele Fetting

Michele had every intention of ending up in San Francisco or Seattle but she fell in love with Pittsburgh. Spends most of her time working with nonprofits on planning and communications or running the trails. Believes clean energy is the answer. Dreams of turning her cancer blog into a Broadway show.