Explore The Panther Hollow Watershed On This Self-Guided Tour

September 15, 2016 by A Parks Pal

The Schenley Parkthat you know today has changed tremendously throughout history. 

Land development has caused a ripple effect throughout Schenley Park and the Panther Hollow Watershed. Stormwater that falls on this key watershed (all of the land that drains into a particular body of water) enters and often overloads our sewer systems, and then our waterways. 

The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy and project partners have been working for over a decade to restore this critical watershed that drains into Panther Hollow Lake and includes parts of Squirrel Hill and Oakland. Read more about this work here. 

Take a break from the bustle of the city and discover the Panther Hollow Watershed on this self-guided tour. Hike along streams, meander through the wooded ravines, and enjoy the natural and built features. This hike is approximately two miles and includes alternative routes for easy to moderate hiking.

Get turn-by-turn directions using this Google Map. 

Stop 1: Bartlett Meadow

Stop 1: Beacon Meadow

Begin your tour at the Bartlett Shelter. Notice the difference between the shelter's mown lawn and the meadow on this side of the street and the other just across the street. The meadow, located between Beacon and Bartlett streets, was once also a lawn.

Why did we make it into a meadow? 

To understand the job of this built green infrastructure (landscaping elements designed to naturally manage stormwater), we have to think about the flow of water. As with all grass lawns, very little water was absorbed into the ground on this hillside when it rained or snowed. As this water runoff flowed, it collected debris, waste, and salt; eroded soil; and became polluted. All of this stormwater runoff entered streams and underground pipes carrying both rain and sewage, eventually making its way to the Monongahela River.

Image of Beacon Street trenches under construction.With just an 1/8” of rain, sewage would join stormwater in combined sewers, ultimately flowing into the rivers.

The Beacon Street Meadow was created to absorb and filter stormwater while also providing a habitat of native grasses and wildflowers. Plants that are particularly good at absorbing water were chosen for this meadow. The diverse plantings attract many species. Keep your eyes open for American goldfinches, song sparrows, meadow jumping mice, eastern cottontail rabbits, monarch butterflies, and grasshoppers!

Walk the meadow trail towards Beacon Street and you'll be near two infiltration trenches (construction photo seen here) that also capture stormwater. These trenches gather and infiltrate stormwater from Beacon Street. If they become full, they have what's called "level spreaders", which slowly release water into the meadow. This is a green infrastructure practice that eases the amount of stormwater that enters sewers during rain events. This reduces erosion, ultimately improving the watershed.

Stop 2: Panther Hollow Woodland. Image: Jeremy Marshall

Stop 2. Panther Hollow Woodland

From the meadow, head back to the Bartlett Shelter. Head towards the intersection, where you'll see another meadow and a trail. As you enter the woods, veer left on the Upper Panther Hollow Trail, then right onto a small path called Hollow Run Trail that winds down along the Panther Hollow stream. Note: This part of the trail is narrow and can be slippery.

In this woodland grows hardwood deciduous trees intermixed with invasive tree species. In 2005 the most common trees were Norway maple, white ash, tree-of-heaven, sugar maple, and red oak. The understory is made up of a mix of shrubs, seedlings, and forbs (nonwoody, herbaceous plants such as milkweed or clover). This forest provides wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, clean air, and nice respite while in the city. 

Oak Wilt. Image: U.S. Department of Agriculture  Forest ServiceWe care for these great park places by watching out for threats. Trees like oaks are susceptible to threats like oak wilt, a fungus that attacks their vascular system, killing them within a year. Oak wilt enters the tree's vascular system and can infect neighboring oak trees through their underground root systems. You can identify the disease by looking at oak leaves: Oak leaves will start to wilt and turn yellow or brown in summer, earlier than they would in the fall. Stands of oak trees have been saved because of early detection - notify City Forestry or the Parks Conservancy if you see this.

Another threat to our urban forest is the Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB). ALB is a black insect with white spots; its larvae eat live tree material and will kill the host tree. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is working hard to keep ahead of the next invasive and non-native insect. 

Gaps in the forest canopy are important for seedlings to receive sunlight and grow. But too much sunlight allows invasive species the opportunity to thrive and take over. Standing dead ash trees (killed by another invasive insect - the Emerald Ash Borer) on the upstream section of the Panther Hollow Wetland provide snags for perching birds and will ultimately fall down and decay but work is being done to replant native trees to replace the ash in Schenley Park. 

Stop 3: Geology and soil

Pittsburgh’s geology is unlike any other city. Millions of years ago Pittsburgh was situated on the shifting edge of a shallow sea. As erosion in rocks and the earth’s plates shifted and slid, Pittsburgh’s topography was molded into steep slopes and valleys. The soil in this area consists mainly of shale and claystones.

As you walk along Panther Hollow Run you can see the shale-lined stream. This rock is very soft and gives way to constant water pressure, deteriorating quickly and making the hillsides unstable. Geology and soil together make this area highly susceptible to landslides. The solution? Preserve vegetation. Trees and plants soak up water, reduce erosion, and stabilize hillsides.

Stop 4: WPA bridges

Stop 4: WPA bridges

A walk through Schenley Park will take you over, under, and up four stone bridges and staircases that have “WPA 1939” chiseled in the side. These historic bridges were constructed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration program in an effort to provide work during the Great Depression.

After the short set of stairs on Hollow Run Trail you'll spot a meadow that was installed in the early 2000’s on the left. This meadow was seeded with similar species to the Bartlett and Beacon Meadows but allowed to continue growing and progressing through ecological succession. Succession is the process by which an ecological community evolves into another community type. This meadow is succeeding into a young forest. You can start to see larger trees and other species that naturally entered this habitat.

Stop 5. Wetland

Continue along the Panther Hollow Stream. You'll notice that there are sediment deposits along the stream. These deposits result from stormwater traveling through Panther Hollow’s watershed, picking up loose sediment that gets deposited when the land levels out and flow slows. Green infrastructure like meadows reduces erosion and sedimentation like this, ultimately improving water quality.

Image of a grasshopper on cattails. Photo: Stan FranzosBe sure to take in the wetland upstream of the lake. The wetland improves water quality by collecting and filtering pollutants, reducing soil erosion, storing runoff, and recharging groundwater. It is also home to an array of native wetland plants that trap sediment and nesting birds. How many different species of birds and wildlife can you spot?

See any cattails growing in the wetland? Cattails provide a myriad of wildlife benefits. Birds such as marsh wrens, yellow-headed blackbirds, and red-winged blackbirds perch and build their nests on them; both fish and waterfowl like mallards and Canada geese nest among them; frogs and salamanders lay their eggs in the water on and between them. Many birds use the seed fluff to line their nests. Deer, raccoons, cottontails and turkeys use them as cover. Insects eat and live on them. Even humans get in on the action. Every part of the cattail is edible. American Indians prepared the parts in many ways and used the leaves for baskets, chair seats and mats. The fluffy seeds are used as insulation for pillows and coats, and glue can be made from the stems. The pollen can be used like flour and is sometimes used in fireworks. The silky down surrounding the seeds can be used to stuff life jackets and mattresses.

Stop 6: Panther Hollow Lake

Stop 6: Panther Hollow Lake

While at the iconic Panther Hollow Lake, notice where Panther Hollow Run and Phipps Run join the lake. The soil in the lake has been deposited here throughout the years. Previously 10 - 12 feet deep, the lake's high sedimentation rate has caused it to become two feet deep.

The City of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy aim to restore the lake to a functioning and aesthetically pleasing space to enjoy. However, in order to achieve this, actions upstream must be taken to reduce sedimentation and erosion to improve the water quality and increase the dissolved oxygen levels to support aquatic life. Although there is not much aquatic life being sustained by the lake, you can see still see birds like great blue herons and hummingbirds.

Stop 7: Lower Panther Hollow Trail tufa bridge. Image: Jeremy Marshall

Stop 7: Lower Panther Hollow Trail tufa bridge

From the lake, you'll pass under the Panther Hollow Bridge again, veering towards the left onto the Lower Panther Hollow Trail. Here you'll see one of the largest Tufa stone bridges in the area, built in 1909 by park superintendent George Burke. Tufa stone is a carbonate rock made of sea-dwelling animals such as clams and snails. When the animals die, their shells mix with other residue on the seafloor and are preserved as fossils, remnants from millions of years ago. Over time chemical reactions cement this material together forming a hard rock that is resistant to physical weathering, making it a durable and strong construction material.

Stop 8: Westinghouse Memorial. Image: Jeremy Marshall

Stop 8: Westinghouse Memorial

Choose to return to the Bartlett Shelter via the gentler Lower Panther Hollow Trail (the red route on the map), or continue straight for a more adventurous hike to the Westinghouse Memorial along Phipps Run (the blue route on the map). Note: this trail is slippery! Be careful of low-hanging vegetation and of walking on rocks. Follow the trail along the stream and take the stairs to the top where you'll find the Westinghouse Memorial.

Dedicated in 1930 to the Pittsburgh innovator George Westinghouse, the Westinghouse Memorial was recently restored by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh. In addition to restoring the actual bronze and granite monument, rain gardens and native plants were added around the pond to filter and absorb stormwater.

North of the Westinghouse Memorial is newly added retentive grading, concealed within a deep-rooted meadow. These graded areas slow down the water as it hits the bumps, allowing for water to sit and infiltrate, reducing runoff and erosion. The retentive grading was also added to various sections of the Bob O'Connor Golf Course for this same purpose.

Stop 9: Steve Faloon forest. Image: Jeremy Marshall

Stop 9: Steve Faloon forest

Near the memorial is the Steve Faloon Trail, which will connect you to the Lower Panther Hollow trail and back to the Bartlett Shelter. You'll see more mixed hardwood forest along this trail. The dominant tree in this part of the park is the northern red oak, with a high presence of black and white oak, birch trees, white ash and shagbark hickory. The understory consists of shrubs such as spice bush, with asters and spring ephemerals in the herbaceous layer. As you make your way back out enjoy the rich landscape and diversity of trees.

Wrapping up 

Wherever you live, work, and play, you are in a watershed. After this tour we hope that you'll be inspired to care for the watersheds that you love!

 The Panther Hollow Self-Guided Tour was created by Ana Flores. 

Ecological Restoration, Trees and Urban Forestry, Panther Hollow Watershed, Restoration Projects, Schenley Park, Stormwater and Green Infrastructure