The concept of hiking for most people conjures visions of dirt paths, rocky trails, mountain passes, or grassy river banks. But what about metropolitan skylines, side streets, bridge passes, and old rail yards? We Grokkers are a variable mix of urbanites, suburbanites, and country folk. When it comes to talk of hitting the trails and enjoying an outdoor workout, those of us in cities can occasionally feel boxed in. Sure, there are the parks, city beaches, and lake shore routes, but the opportunity for wilderness immersion is likely lacking. If we can’t take in a natural vista, we’re often inclined to just hit the gym. At that point, we might ask, what difference does it make? I’d argue we’re majorly missing out. Though many of us live in dense, heavily human terrain, there’s plenty of adventure to be had, ample chance for discovery, and abundant opportunity for the rich, contemplative experience we often seek in the most secluded wood. It’s all about embracing the whole of the world just outside our doors – and journeying into it with new eyes and an open mind.
Urban hiking first garnered major attention with the story of Dan Koeppel as told in the famous Backpacker article. Through his own explorations through L.A.‘s Echo Park and Silver Lake areas, Koeppel designed an elaborate urban trek connecting staircases in the city. In all, Koeppel’s trek included nearly 5,000 steps as well as forays into intimate neighborhood nooks and unexpected natural havens. With the Backpacker article, the L.A. Times follow-up, and Koeppel’s own website detailing his adventures, urban hiking took root as a movement.
National Geographic did a “Best U.S. Hiking Cities” spread a while back. Though it focused on the natural “escapes” within easy reach of the cities themselves, the treks include experience of the cities themselves, even if it’s the trail’s end “return.” Every metropolitan area offers incredible routes, and many cities now boast active urban trekking communities. Local groups across the country offer up maps and events that vary from the casual rag tag to the urban “walking poem performance.”
For the solitary journeymen and women out there, you can find best urban hike suggestions and reviews on sites like Yelp and your local trail association. Others begin with the “seminal” routes promoted by cities (e.g. the Grand Rounds of Minneapolis or the Freedom Trail in Boston) or by the natural bounds of their areas (e.g. the perimeter of Manhattan). Still others, the do-it-yourselfers, chart their own courses in true wayfaring style. Any way you undertake it, you’ll find no shortage of possibilities.
As urban hiking enthusiasts will tell you, the advantages of urban treks include the ready availability of any necessary supplies and facilities along the way. Hungry? Stop in at a fun-looking (and Primal friendly) cafe. Nature calls (the other kind)? Duck into a public building or convenience store. Bring only what you want to bring rather than what you need. Without the massive water bottle, you can bring an extra lens for the camera.
Most of all, however, the ready access calls urban hikers. As those of us who don’t live in far flung settings know, we don’t always have time (or inclination) to drive into the wilderness. If we limited our explorations to the get-out-of-Dodge escapes, we’d be sad souls. We all yearn for the expedition and need the benefit of regular retreat. Although a wholly natural setting offers a kind of unique and essential nourishment, there’s plenty of sustenance to be had roaming the urban landscape.
An urban hike gives us the chance to explore the terrain we live in, to contemplate how we live and interact with the urban space we call home. We break out of the limitations of our daily agendas and how they circumscribe our perception of where we live. I think we’re more likely to give nature its due as independent, animated space. How do we perceive the shape and spirit of the cities we live in? We too often disconnect from our urban spaces, but in doing so we forget that we’re always creatures of habitat. Whatever place we reside, we learn to “be” in that place – survive, thrive – just as our ancestors did. What can change in our “being” (or being there) when we come to know the city we call home?
Likewise, urban hiking can help us reclaim our own natural wayfaring instincts. As with nature hiking, we can explore our urban environments with the trekking mindset. Urban hiking isn’t just a walk after all: like any hike, it’s a journey we undertake, a physical and sensory passage we retreat within. We engage with a place by acting within it, moving within it, taking it into our senses and imagination – not as isolated landmarks but as a full and continuous terrain. As much help and assurance as cells phones and GPS can be, take it in on your own terms. See where your whim takes you, where the landscape of people and activity and architecture lead you. Absorb the chance for deep, contemplative solitude or relish the opportunities for new acquaintance and conversation. Lose yourself for a fall afternoon in the complex configurations and meanderings of the place you’ll never see the same way again.
Thanks for reading today, everybody. Have a great end to your week!