Sunrise at the Belmont Plateau

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One of the lessons of the past year is how beneficial outdoor walks can be for mental health.

Park usership skyrocketed in Philadelphia during the pandemic, as people took advantage of the city’s ample green spaces to spread out, breathe deeply, and soak up the sun. While society continues to grapple with the struggle and grief of COVID, the harsh reality of racial inequality, and what feels like neverending political warfare, the fact remains: we’re floating in space on a rock circling a star.

That star feeds life to every corner of our world, and for every one of us, it boosts our immunity and vitamin D, lowers our blood pressure, and improves our mood.

I’d go so far as to say the sun improves our overall outlook on life. After five years of afternoon and evening college classes, an 8 a.m. class in my final semester gave me a convincing enough experience to transform me into a morning person. The walk across a silent campus in the pastel light of the rising sun was intoxicating.

There’s magic in the morning — and it gets no better than on the longest day of the year.

Sunrise on the summer solstice, which happens this Sunday, feels like a reward. The cool air, subdued colors, and nearly deafening silence plot the day ahead with fleeting poetry only known to the souls awake at 5:31 a.m. Maximum magic requires diving even deeper, as dawn begins a full two hours earlier.

Philadelphia sunrise over the Delaware Credit: Brad Maule

Down the shore, motivating yourself to catch sunrise over the ocean is a rite of passage for many Philadelphians. But the city itself is full of east-facing places that can provide morning inspiration: any of the newly-renovated park piers of the central Delaware River waterfront; Lardner’s Point or Pennypack as you go north up the Delaware; Bartram’s Garden or South Street Bridge on the Schuylkill.

But if it’s summertime, “a place called the Plateau is where everybody go.”

Beyond its immortalization in the iconic (and now 30-year-old) Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince song, the Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park holds deep meaning to a large swath of Philadelphia’s population.

It’s the site of family barbecues. Host for cross-country races. A launch point for mountain bike excursions. And it’s been recognized as a special place for centuries; it’s no coincidence the 1740s saw the Belmont Mansion constructed atop the hill.

The Plateau offers what’s arguably the definitive view of the city in its environment, with the Philly skyline rising gloriously over Fairmount Park’s forest canopy.

To sit under the Plateau’s venerable standalone sugar maple at sunrise, its long branches stretching horizontally out and arcing high over your head, is to see Philadelphia at its most peaceful and beautiful.

Summer solstice sunrise? Even better. And if you just can’t make it for sunrise, it’s pretty great at the long end of the day, too.

Bradley Maule is a photographer who lives in Mt. Airy and spends many hours in the Wissahickon. He has led hikes for Fairmount Park Conservancy since 2014.