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Walking the world’s first urban thru-hike

Crossing toward Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.Photo by <a href="http://www.kevsteele.com">Kevin Steele</a>.
Crossing toward Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.Photo by Kevin Steele.

If someone 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.

This month, 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 3 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 20s and 30s, 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.

This stairway in Echo Park is just one of the hundreds of public pedestrian thoroughways in Los Angeles.
This stairway in Echo Park is just one of the hundreds of public pedestrian thoroughways in Los Angeles.

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 Hills 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.

 

 

Urban hiking along Broadway in downtown. Photo by <a href="http://www.kevsteele.com">Kevin Steele</a>.
Urban hiking along Broadway in downtown. Photo by Kevin Steele.

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 was 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 one of 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 trips.

It’s true that my experience on the Inman 300 was different than on a wilderness walk. Yet, the Inman 300 confirmed my suspicion that the answer to the question “why do you hike?” is strongly tied into my love of walking.

Hiking, whether urban or mountain, is exploring; despite living in Southern California for four years, the Inman 300 was my first visit to most of the 53 neighborhoods on my hike. On both urban and wild hikes, I get to have a fun time navigating (and the gratifying feeling of getting navigation correct). Both kinds of trail allow a walker to learn through experience. These are aspects of hiking that are universal regardless of the setting.

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 sees views the driver will never know.

Crossing in front of the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by <a href="http://www.kevsteele.com">Kevin Steele</a>.
Crossing in front of the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Kevin Steele.

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.

While these aspects might convince a veteran mountain walker to urban hike, I hope that my stories from the LA route might convince 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 for a walk in their own neighborhood.

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.

Comments

Mara S.

Nice article! It seems contrary to the way people perceive LA, as only accessible by car, but walking through LA can yield big rewards. Years ago the LA Weekly published a series of urban adventures that required walking through various neighborhoods. We followed a few of them and found out a lot about our city – that you can’t experience from a car!

Eric Brightwell

I’m not sure why anyone would think of Los Angeles as flat except that people raised with ideas of 19th century cities only see verticality in skyscrapers. The most iconic image that springs to my mind of the city is the Hollywood sign on the side of a mountain — part of a range that cuts right through the city. I can’t think of any other American city with anywhere near the dramatic topography of Los Angeles!

Anyway, the hike sounds like amazing fun. I walk (and bike and bus and ride trains) all over the Southland. My last car broke down in June 2011 and I feel so much better off without it!

admin

Pretty much everyone I mentioned the hike to before I headed off (admittedly, a lot of Coloradans), were surprised there was much topography in LA. As I’m sure you know as a biker, as far as major cities go, LA has certainly got some steep ones!

Jen Ruby

Hi there– I wonder if your route included the areas in Eastern LA County (foothills, chaparral, Mt. Baldy).
-Jen

admin

Hi Jen, the farthest east I went was San Marino and the farthest northeast was Flintridge. If you know of any public stairs that connect two public streets in Eastern LA County, it’d be really interesting to hear about them!-Liz

andy mitchell

Seattle has a lot of steep hills, even downtown to the Sound. There are great views of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains, and even 14000 ft Mount Rainier 60 miles away.

admin

Hi Andy–Seattle is definitely a go-to spot for public stairway lovers. According to http://publicstairs.com/index_000002.htm, Seattle has the most public stairs in the US after Pittsburgh and LA. I’d love to see some of the views from the stairs up there! -Liz

GreenwayDennis

Some other great urban thru-hiking is going on for 2,900 miles throughout the East Coast on the East Coast Greenway! Key West to Canada 🙂

Enjoy the hiking!

Dennis

admin

Hi Dennis-I’ve been following the progress of the East Coast Greenway and am excited for the great opportunities for hikers and bikers on that trail. Keep up the good work!-Liz

Jeff Hester

Brilliant! I am going to do some more research on the Inman 300 — especially after meeting Bob Inman this morning at the Big Parade. This would be a great urban hike, and it’s right in my backyard!

City Walking | A Walker in LA

[…] hits 300 public stairways in the city of LA, which has been completed by several people including Liz Thomas, a famous thru-hiker. There’s also a Blurb book about it you can preview online and […]

Ryan Carpenter

So… where is the route for the Inman 300 listed? I’d consider doing it! Even add it to the list of “trails” I’m creating on http://www.walking4fun.com/

I’m currently working on an “epic thru-hike” of Seattle which, when completed, will likely be close to 200 miles. I’m just making up my own route here, though, and it’s a heck of a lot of work. I’d rather follow a path someone else already laid out for me! =)

— Ryan

admin

Ryan–That’s awesome that you’re working on a Seattle stairway thru-hike. Seattle has a ton of public stairways so imagine that it’s going to be a fun trail. Working on routes for stairway hikes *is* a lot of work. I’m so thankful for all the work Bob Inman, Dan Koeppel, and Andrew Lichtman did beforehand for the route. You can find some information on the route in Bob’s book (which you can preview for free) and Bob’s guidebook which is available as an e-book and Andrew’s website . Hope that helps! -Liz

Ryan Carpenter

Thanks, Liz! I’ll check them out! And maybe you might see me tromping around LA within the next couple of years. =)

— Ryan

[…] had the honor of giving the first presentation of the Gathering about the Inman 300, an urban thru-hike of LA. Since the room was filled with nature-loving hikers, I was concerned […]

[…] miles on long distance trails in my Altras, covering terrain as dissimilar as the Grand Canyon, the streets of Los Angeles, the glaciers of Olympic National Park, and the temperate rainforest of Japan. The Lone Peaks have […]

Rebecca Curtis

Liz – I love the fact that you are encouraging urban residents to get out and walk. Day hikes, like the Big Parade, seem ideal as it would be difficult to find lodging for out of town thru-hikers a place to land. Where did you sleep and how did you find out about these areas?

[…] route achieved initial publicity when Triple-Crowner Liz “Snorkel” Thomas completed the Inman 300 in 2013. At the time, the route was not publicly documented. Snorkel (her trail name) holds the FKT […]

[…] bin sicher nicht der erste, der sich diese Frage stellt. Aber wenn man sogar durch ganz Los Angeles wandern kann, dann wird das wohl auch in meiner kleinen, feinen Heimatstadt Graz möglich […]

Gert

Awesome! This post inspired me to thru-hike my own city. It’s not quite the size of LA, in three hours you’re done. But it was a great, green hike:

https://gipfelrast.at/2015/06/experiment-wandern-in-der-stadt/

P.S. sorry, it’s a German language post, but Google Translate is glad to help… 😉

Liz "Snorkel" Thomas

Thank you for sharing this! I will have to show it to my German-speaking friend and look forward to hearing about your adventure!

A Place to Put Things – Hiking Los Angeles

[…] are a few Big Hikes I want to do, such as the Inman 300 which I’ll be starting next week, and many more one off walks I’d like to explore such […]