If you had asked me a month ago what makes a foot-powered adventure a hike instead of just a walk, I would have said “nature.” After my most recent trip, a strenuous 5.5 day traverse of Los Angeles, I’m not so sure.
In April, I undertook what might be the world’s first urban thru-hike—a long distance hike entirely within the confines of a city. Much like a traditional hike, my urban adventure was designed to capture the world at three miles per hours. Despite LA’s reputation as one of the least pedestrian friendly places in the country, when much of it was built in the 20’s and 30’s, its early designers actually privileged those on foot by building public stairways—vertical parks formed into the hills that connect two parallel streets separated by elevation.
These stairways are as much a part of LA’s transportation system as its highways. Similar to a mountain trail, a stairhiker goes where the car can never go and give the walker a view the driver will never know.
LA has more than 300 of these public stairways, which function as upright sidewalks connecting the knolls of the city with the flatlands we usually associate with the metropolis. Don’t think of LA as hilly? Beverley and Hollywood Hills where the Hollywood sign can be found are some well-known highlands, but the cliffs along the ocean such as Pacific Palisades and Palos Verdes also provide elevation change.
The idea for a long distance stairway hike was conceived by Andrew Lichtman and Ying Chen, LA walking enthusiasts with a long distance hiking background (Ying has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail). The two hikers confronted Bob Inman, guru of LA stairways and author of A Guide to the Public Stairways of Los Angeles, who, on their urging, developed a 180-mile, 300 stairway route traveling across the city dubbed “the Inman 300.” My hike is a hybrid of Bob’s route that also includes a well-traveled course developed by another stairway guru, Dan Koeppel, called “Stairtrek.” If you’re in LA, you should go on Dan or Bob’s free guided walks around the stairs of LA, either Bob’s weekly walks or Dan’s annual Stairtrek or Big Parade trip.
The urban walk does have a leg up on mountain walking in some respects. Urban hikers don’t have to carry a tent or sleeping bag (there are plenty of hotels along the way). Restaurants are easily found and hikers don’t have to worry if there will be a water source in the near future. I always knew that if I became injured, that unlike a remote trail, getting help would be easy.
The urban hiker’s backpack is a lot smaller than the mountain walker’s. I found sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to be musts for urban walking. Since cement is notably harsher on the feet than mountain trails, I’d suggest bringing extra pairs of Darn Tough Vermont socks. When my feet started hurting on this LA hike, I switched out my socks and was astounded how much better they felt. As backup, I carried a little water, food, and a headlamp. In case my phone battery died, I also had a paper map in addition to the street maps on my cell.
Urban hiking is a way better way to explore a city than a tour bus. It’s even a fun way to see new neighborhoods and “hidden” corners of your own city. I hope that my stories from the LA route might convince some veteran mountain hikers and even some city folk to strap on a pack and explore places on foot that can’t be reached by car, even if they’re only going on a walk in their own neighborhood.