The tidal marsh at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.

Finding Peace at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

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If you are a self-proclaimed nature junkie living in or around Philadelphia, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum better be on your list. The largest freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania may be just 20 minutes outside of Philly, but this natural oasis bears little resemblance to the bustling city. 

With 1,200 acres of land, broken up into walking trails, boardwalks reserved for wildlife observation, and a canoe ramp leading into the sunlit Darby Creek, this offers not only a sanctuary for wild animals but is also an outdoor retreat from chaotic city life. 

History of the Refuge

The John Heinz Wildlife Refuge has seen many evolutions since it was diked and drained by early Pennsylvania settlers in the 1600’s. Over time, urbanization began to chip away at this sizable marsh, only halted by Gulf Oil’s land donation to the city of Philadelphia in 1955. 

This land became known as the Tinicum Wildlife Preserve and was declared a National Natural Landmark by 1965. Following his efforts to preserve the marsh, officially opened to the public in 1972, the late Senator John Heinz became the wetland’s namesake in 1991.

A bird among reeds in the water
A bird among the reeds

Currently, the refuge is home to over 300 species of bird, the state threatened American red-bellied turtle, the coastal leopard frog, and many more. Marked by informative signs, every trail offers a new learning opportunity to visitors. 

Activities

One glance at the refuge’s Facebook page makes their mission obvious: providing a safe, non-judgemental environment for people of all ages and backgrounds to study nature. 

Reeds and grasses growing in water

If you want to fish, the Visitor Center offers free fishing rods. If you want to canoe, you can join the Caretakers of the Creek, a volunteer paddling group that removes litter from Darby Creek as they paddle. If you want to hunt, the refuge hosts an orientation on hunting and its role in conservation, deer biology, and crossbow safety. For the nature-lover, there is little to want for at the refuge. 

While the most notable activities at the wetlands are canoeing, fishing, and hunting, the staff at the Tinicum park also prepares an extensive list of events each season. And the refuge began providing even greater access to these programs by offering get-togethers every Tuesday and Thursday.

But bird watching is one of the most popular activities here. From the walkways, visitors can stalk and observe birds in their natural habit. From the marshes to the trees, you can see nearly a hundred different species.

Visiting the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

The wildlife refuge at Tinicum is open every day of the year from sunrise to sunset, free of charge. The Visitor Center and outdoor restrooms are generally accessible during daylight hours and signage exists throughout the park to guide and inform. 

Reeds and plants in a marsh

There are two entrances to wildlife refuge. The primary entrance on the eastern side of the refuge is located at 86th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard near the airport. This entrance provides access to the Visitor Center, wildlife observation structures, as well as trails and fishing areas. There’s ample parking at the Visitor Center.

A secondary entrance on the western side of the refuge is on Route 420, just north of I-95. Fishing and walking trails are available from this entrance.

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