A First Day Hike at Moraine State Park. (Tammy Veloski)

Holidays weighing on you in more ways than one? Think about kicking off 2024 with a First Day Hike for a healthy start in one Pennsylvania’s state parks.

Eight of the nearly 60 planned hikes on New Year’s Day will take place in southwestern Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources staff. The guided hikes are designed to promote a healthy start in the new year while offering families an opportunity to forge new and stronger connections with the outdoors, a DCNR news release stated.

State park and forest staff and others will lead the hikes, which are usually about 1 or 2 miles and will take place during daylight hours. Some hikes can be longer, depending on the park and its terrain, the news release stated.

State parks in the region scheduled to participate are Cook Forest State Park, Laurel Ridge State Park, Moraine State Park, Ohiopyle State Park, Point State Park, Pymatuning State Park, Raccoon Creek State Park and Maurice K. Goddard State Park.

Members of the Butler Outdoor Club will be assisting with the Moraine State Park First Day Hike from 10 a.m. to noon on January 1. Registration is required. 

Complete information on the hikes is available on DCNR’s website.  Just search the park for complete details and registration, if that is required.

The longest hike across the state for people who really want to stretch their legs — or work off those holiday food and treats — is 4 miles, according to Heidi Solley, DCNR regional environmental education program coordinator. Park rangers, volunteers and a mix of partner organizations’ members will lead participants. For example, the Friends of Cook Forest will lead the hike there, she said, and other parks’ organizations that join will provide hot cocoa or s’mores at the conclusion of the hikes.

The First Day Hikes have been an annual event, organized by the National Association of State Park Directors, to promote healthy lifestyles throughout the year and year-round recreation at state parks. All 50 states have cooperatively sponsored First Day Hikes since 2012, according to the news release. Pennsylvania is part of that organization, said Christine Ticehurst, natural resource program specialist for DCNR, and all of its state parks and forest districts have been invited to participate.

To make the hikes more memorable and accommodating, DCNR encourages its staff members, park rangers and educators to staff them. The department does not set goals for number of participants or hikes but reports the number of participants and miles hiked to the national association each year. Weather conditions can affect attendance, Solley said, but on a nice, mild winter day, the hikes at individual state parks can attract up to 100 participants.  In addition to the guided hikes, patrons can also set off on their own.

Ticehurst had a few suggestions for hikers deciding to join in. “Check the weather for your area,” she said, “and dress in wool layers but not cotton. Make sure you have comfortable shoes or boots, gloves and a hat, and waterproof boots. Bring a day pack — water, snacks and an inhaler if needed. Your sunglasses and sunscreen. We may have some wind blowing — you can get sunburn from the snow reflection or wind burn. Be prepared for where you are heading out. 

“One other thing to consider — have lightweight binoculars. You will see unique factors of our parks, but you may be able to catch a bird on your [watch] list, too.”

She said typically the hikes run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Some of the locations may have multiple hikes going on, and some may have only one. Some people may be combining a guided hike with a self-guided one.

Solley said the goal is always to connect people to the natural and historical resources available in the parks.

Ticehurst noted that the event is connected to DCNR’s Get Outdoors PA initiative. “We encourage people to get out and head out and explore their local parks,” she said, “and learn a little bit when they are out and meet some new friends and stretch their legs after the holidays.”

The First Day Hike at Ohiopyle also marks the start of a yearlong endeavor. “One of the things they have set out to do this year is to offer visitors the chance to join in the Ohiopyle Trailjourn series,” Solley said. “[It’s] kicking off that day. It’s the beginning of the series for 2024. Some parts require registration; others do not.”

She noted that Ohiopyle is “one of our most beautiful state parks” with 80 miles of trails. “If you sign up, you can go on guided hikes or bike trips for all these trails,” she continued. “If you miss one, you can do the trails on your own. You just need to provide them with your photo to prove you were there on your own.”

All First Day hikers will be able to brag on their participation in a tangible way, Ticehurst said. Each one will receive a sticker on Jan. 1 to adhere to a water bottle or backpack. And possibly it will be a reminder and inspiration to do more.

Complete details on the First Day hikes and a year-round events calendar is available on the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website. It also explains how to monitor winter weather conditions before setting out.

A First Day Hike at Moraine State Park. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.