Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X

Thru-hike in a Weekend: Denver urban hiking the Highline Canal Trail

 

Urban hiking: the new frontier. Photo courtesy <a href="https://instagram.com/thejcarr/">Johnny Carr</a> (instagram: @thejcarr)
Urban hiking: the new frontier. Photo courtesy Johnny Carr (instagram: @thejcarr)

Despite my declarations that the Selma to Montgomery Hike took me over my Pavement Walking Quota for the year, this past weekend, I headed off again on another hardpacked adventure. This time, I completed my first significant urban hike in the town where I live, Denver. I’ve done a fair amount of walking in Denver before, but nothing to this scale and magnitude.

Highline Canal Trail sign in Aurora.
Highline Canal Trail sign in Aurora.

My long distance hiker friends Steven “Twinkle” Shattuck, John “Cactus” McKinney, Johnny “Bigfoot” Carr, Samantaha “Aroo,” and Nathan “Cookie” Harry, Swami and I started off on a two day, 66-71 mile long hike from Waterton Canyon—the start of the Colorado Trail—to near Denver International Airport.

The canal/trail starts in Waterton Canyon. Photo courtesy Steven Shattuck
The canal/trail starts in Waterton Canyon. Photo courtesy Steven Shattuck

The Highline Canal was created more than a century ago to bring water from the South Platte River to settlers and farmers. Now owned and operated by Denver Water (who even puts out the guidebook for the trail), it is now open to hikers, cyclists, runners, and equestrians. Because the irrigation ditch was leaky, an entire ecosystem sprung up around it.

On trail shenanigans. This rope swing that Aroo is playing on goes over the canal.
On trail shenanigans. This rope swing that Aroo is playing on goes over the canal.

Until 40 years ago, there was no public access to the canal—even as it remained a skinny natural park in the middle of the city. With the hard work of residents who lived anywhere near the 71 miles of trail, the canal opened to the public and is now listed as a National Landmark Trail. Now the trail is protected by the Highline Canal Trail Preservation Association.

Large cottonwood trees more than 100 years old line the canal. Photo courtesy <a href="https://instagram.com/thejcarr/">Johnny Carr</a> instagram: @thejcarr
Large cottonwood trees more than 100 years old line the canal. Photo courtesy Johnny Carr instagram: @thejcarr

Although this is an urban hike, the Highline Canal Trail ecosystem boasts 199 species of birds, 28 mammals, and 15 reptiles. I was expecting the trail to be mostly paved or gravel, but a majority of the miles were on dirt or had a dirt path next to it.

Although the route is mostly straightforward, many intersections require a map and guidebook. Photo courtesy <a href="https://instagram.com/thejcarr/">Johnny Carr. </a>instagram: @thejcarr
Although the route is mostly straightforward, many intersections require a map and guidebook. Photo courtesy Johnny Carr. instagram: @thejcarr

Our wildlife highlights included seeing a bobcat (a first for me and many of the other serial hikers with us!), great horned owls, two types of snakes, numerous deer, squirrels, praririe dogs, and rabbits. The HCLT underscored that though humans have claimed significant land from animals, that we don’t own it completely. Our habitats coexist.

Much of the trail is very pedestrian friendly. This crosswalk even had a two buttons to stop traffic–one for pedestrians to press and one higher up for equestrians to press!
Much of the trail is very pedestrian friendly. This crosswalk even had a two buttons to stop traffic–one for pedestrians to press and one higher up for equestrians to press!

The HCLT was such a cool way to see the city and general metro area of the place that I’ve called home for the past few years. We ventured through neighborhoods I didn’t even know existed, and places I had never been before. The route finding was not as straightforward as one would think for a bike path in the city.

Utilizing a beaver dam during a cross country route. Photo by Johnny Carr. instagram: @thejcarr
Utilizing a beaver dam during a cross country route. Photo by Johnny Carr. instagram: @thejcarr

There were intersections that required navigating, and we were happy to have our map and guidebook. Additionally, certain sections went through private property, and we had to navigate—sometimes even cross country through fords and swamps—in order to keep the route on open land.

Fording a creek during the cross country part.
Fording a creek during the cross country part.

The HCLT ended up being not just educational, but a lot of fun, providing some clear bonuses, especially compared to most other thru-hikes. We had pizza delivered on trail and actually had to pass up many restaurants and convenience stores because we were too full.

On trail pizza delivery! PC: S. Shattuck
On trail pizza delivery! PC: S. Shattuck

It was easy for friends to join in for a few miles and Twinkle even met a friend randomly who was going for his morning run right on our trail. Because we could take advantage of the limited amount of gear required for an urban hike, we packed heavy food and beverages and ridiculous luxuries like Frisbees. Traditional trail towns rarely have ethnic food, but on the HLCT, Cactus and I had Pho for lunch—a first for both of us on a long distance trail.

Time for frisbee on trail. PC: J. Carr.
Time for frisbee on trail. PC: J. Carr.

Much like my Selma to Montgomery hike last weekend, I was struck by the level of economic inequality the trail highlights. In the Cherry Creek Village area, we woke to houses that I didn’t even know existed in Denver—Hollywood-esque mansions, castles, villas. By the end of the day, we were walking through immigrant neighborhoods in Aurora and Section 8 housing in Green Valley Ranch.

Easy resupply along the HLCT. PC: J. Carr
Easy resupply along the HLCT. PC: J. Carr

 

In my everyday life, I would never visit either of those neighborhoods, and yet the HLCT brought me through both. No matter how much our modern society tries to insulate social classes from one another, that such disparate places are close enough to walk from one to the other underlined for me that Denver is one community and not just a collection of rich and poor neighborhoods.

Walking for hours with friends. PC: J. Carr
Walking for hours with friends. PC: J. Carr

The best part of the Highline Canal Trail was the opportunity to have 48 hours to talk with, laugh, joke, and accomplish something cool with friends. For two days, we set aside the distractions of the modern world and just lived. I’ve enjoyed urban hiking for a couple years now, and it was so cool to expose the idea to some of my thru-hiker friends. I was so touched that they not only took it seriously, but had a great time. At a time of the year when long mile days and thrus aren’t as possible, we got to feel like we were back on the PCT again—if only for a weekend. On Monday, we all woke up and went back to our spreadsheets, but even as we squirmed in our desk chairs, relished the memories of a weekend well spent.

For more info on the High Line Canal Trail, check out these links:

Twinkle (Steven Shattuck)’s write-up about our hike

Denver Water’s High Line Canal page

Highline Canal Trail mapped in Googlemaps

Walkride Colorado Interactive Map of the Highline Canal Trail

Highline Canal Trail Guidebook (this is available at multiple locations of the independent Tattered Cover Book in Denver Metro)

Highly informative Wikipedia Page

Greenwood Village’s Trails Map

Douglas County’s Highline Canal Map

 

Tina Fey’s modeling advice for outdoorspeople

 

Liz Thomas crossing South Hill Street toward the corner of Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.
Liz Thomas crossing South Hill Street toward the corner of Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.

In Tina Fey’s Bosspants, the comedian dedicates a chapter to how being a Vogue cover model is nothing like anyone would like to believe. She doesn’t get to keep the clothes, heck, the clothes doesn’t even fit her (she describes how they squeeze her into a too small designer dress and then don’t even zip it up).

Before I’d done a lot of hiking, I thought that the ladies I saw in the outdoor gear catalogs were just rugged looking models, but it turns out (at least if I’m showing up in print) that at least part of the time, the outdoor industry uses real people in their ads.

Yes, a lot of the big companies, especially the ones who make “lifestyle clothing” are hiring real models to look hot in their products. But as a long distance hiker, no one is investing that kind of money in models, and instead, they’re getting real people who really use their gear.  As I join a crew of GG ambassadors headed to do a photoshoot in the canyons around Moab this weekend, here are a few things I’ve learned about being (perhaps the most ironic term ever) a hiking model:

 

Liz Thomas hiking through the Grand Central Market in downtown LA. Since 1917 the largest open-air market in Los Angeles.
Liz Thomas hiking through the Grand Central Market in downtown LA. Since 1917 the largest open-air market in Los Angeles.

1)      No one is doing your hair or make up. Bummer. Because I really wanted to look hot in this photoshoot, and instead, I look like I’ve got about a week without a shower (yes, I know that’s true but…)

 

2)      Wear brightly colored clothes-they show up better in the shots

 

3)      Bring a full backpack-because, a partially filled pack looks 20 pounds heavier , extra dumpy on camera

 

4)      Bring an extra change of clothes. When I did the photoshoot for Brooks Range, I brought a couple outfits, and we tried out what l what looked best on camera.

5)     Be prepared to walk back and forth A LOT. When Kevin Steele got his first page shot for the article in Backpacker, I walked an LA downtown crosswalk at least ten times. Meanwhile, he laid down in the center of traffic to get the angle on the shot he wanted. It was worth it—the photo turned out awesome—but there were certainly some extra miles made that day.

6)      Know a lot of shots that were taken will never see the light of day: Sometimes, you’ll take 100 shots from 15 different angles of that one mountain—and it will never make it to print or the web. I have yet to have a photographer get an awesome portrait shot of me, but a lot have tried.

7)      After the shoot, be sure to credit the photographer and use photos only with permission: People taking photos are artists, which means that a lot of them are starving and struggling. Be sure to send them some future customers by acknowledging and recognizing their work.

 

Are you a photographer or have you taken a lot of outdoors photos from people? What tips would you have for hiking “models”?

ALDHA-W Gathering 2014

ALDHA-W 2014 Gathering at Meany Lodge. Photo by Jeff Kish.
ALDHA-W 2014 Gathering at Meany Lodge. Photo by Jeff Kish.

Once again, the most fun weekend of the year was the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West Gathering. Held at Meany Lodge at Stampede Pass—just a few miles from the PCT—the Gathering attracted 150 people from across the country and a few globetrotters. Hikers enjoyed great activities, stories, presentations, and comradery around the keg. With each hour of the Gathering, attendees became more and more fueled to get back on the trail with their friends.

What makes the Gathering unlike any event is the passion and diversity of the attendees. This year in particular, I met and had meaningful conversations with people of all ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and political beliefs. In a world so fragmented and stratified, it is so easy to just hang out with our own demographic, but at the Gathering, I was stoked that there was such a good spread of so many different people there, especially older folk (because anyone who hiked the PCT or CDT in the 90s or earlier is a badass and I want to hear how they did it). The Gathering felt like a family reunion except that we are brought together by a love of hiking that, for some of us, feels stronger than ties of blood.

ALDHA-W President <a href="http://www.allgoodsk9adventures.com/">Allgood Whitney LaRuffa</a> and Keynote Speaker <a href="http://www.thehikinglife.com/">Cam Honan Swami </a>demonstrate how beer is now allowed at the Gathering
ALDHA-W President Allgood Whitney LaRuffa and Keynote Speaker Cam Honan Swami demonstrate how beer is now allowed at the Gathering

I 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 that the audience would scoff at my tales from the asphalt. Instead, I was overwhelmed by how supportive and interested everyone was in the hike. I was especially touched to hear how some of ALDHA-W’s longest standing members have used the stairways of LA as training grounds for decades.

“Dirtmonger” Ryan Sylva gave the second presentation on his Vagabond Loop, a 3,000 mile southwest connection of the Arizona, Hayduke, and Grand Enchantment Trails. More than any ALDHA-W presentation I’ve seen, Dirtmonger’s speech appeared as if he was telling not just the story of a trail, but the story of a man. The talk paralleled Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, beginning with Dirtmonger’s call to adventure and a poem by the inspiration for his trip, Everett Russ. Aided by helpers and mentors including Blister, Brett Tucker, the friendly people of the San Juan Hut System, and others, Dirtmonger fought through the challenges of navigating the canyons, drinking alkaline water, and resupplying in backwater towns full of unfriendly locals—ever driven to continue on. After Dirtmonger made it to Durango, CO, he wasn’t sure how to get to Albuquerque to connect to the GET. Here, Dirtmonger walked into the abyss—a fire-worn northern New Mexico—where he reconciled some of his beliefs about hiking “purism”, private property, and the nature of vagabondism. Dirtmonger finished his hiking loop, but his quest continues. If a man could be captured in a trail, the Vagabond Loop is the walkable manifestation of Dirtmonger’s soul.

Teresa Martinez from the Continental Divide Trail Coalition gave a lunchtime presentation about the organization that was recently designated as the official partner with the Forest Service as steward of the CDT. The CDTC is undertaking a revolutionary model for trail management and conservation based on collaborating with community members. In an empowering call to action, Teresa advised hikers that since the CDT is such a young and malleable trail, it can become the trail we want it to be. No longer just passive recipients of land managers’ decisions, on the CDT, hikers can make the change we want to see.

Following lunch, ALDHA-W President Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa and I gave a last minute presentation on our pioneering journey of the Chinook Trail, a 300 mile horseshoe traversing the Columbia River Gorge. Jean Ella, the first woman to hike the CDT, was scheduled to appear during that timeslot, but an incident in her kayak resulted in her inability to attend. I look forward to her talk next year, but was pleased to share the Chinook Trail to an audience complete with many locals to the trail who were excited about replicating our journey.

Hands down the most popular shoe at the ALDHA-W Gathering this year was the <a href="goo.gl/8j11yr">Altra Lone Peaks.</a>
Hands down the most popular shoe at the ALDHA-W Gathering this year was the Altra Lone Peaks.

The presentations ended with “Swami” Cam Honan’s story of the world’s first traverse of the lawless Mexican Copper Canyon that he undertook with “Trauma” Justin Lichter. Swami’s description of the trip aptly captured its difficulty, even for two of the top long distance hikers in the world. Having heard bits and pieces of Swami’s journey already, it was a pleasure to see the trip tied together. Yet his presentation left me with a pang of regret and sadness for all that drugs, roads, and cartels have taken from the canyon and its people. Although his photos were stunning, I couldn’t help but wonder if Swami and Trauma would be the last non-locals to see those sights for a long time.

A highlight of the Gathering was watching hikers make fools of themselves in the Hiker Olympics. This year, there were a few new events to add to the ridiculousness. First, contestants were asked to identify photos of famous long distance hikers. Surprisingly, many people had trouble identifying Earl Schaffer, the first thru-hiker. Another joke-worthy challenge for competitors was the ‘Dig a Cathole’ contest where hikers gave impassioned speeches about how their cathole was more suited for the job that their neighbor’s. The last new event was hiker trivia, where challengers answered 20 questions ranging from trail history and management to identifying geographical or historical features along hikes. Shockingly, long distance hikers apparently need to work a bit on their Leave No Trace ethics as almost all of the contenders incorrectly guessed the distance suggested to camp from water sources (the answer is 200 feet)!

Congratulations to the 2014 class of Triple Crowners!
Congratulations to the 2014 class of Triple Crowners!

While hikers tie-dyed their ALDHA-W t-shirts or went for a run in the perfect weather, volunteers decorated the Triple Crown ceremony room with streamers, tablecloths, candles, and centerpieces. During a delicious and suitably fancy dinner of Pacific Northwest salmon, Phil “Nowhereman” Hough, in conjunction with his work with the Scotchman Peak Wilderness, held a trivia contest honoring the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. In addition to the Triple Crown plaques, this year Yogi and Worldwide made beautiful posters personalized for each new Triple Crowner to commemorate their accomplishment using quotes from each hiker’s application. Gossamer Gear gave each Triple Crowner a hat with a Triple Crown logo.

The most touching of all the speeches was made by Scott “Shroomer” Williams who read from “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman. I can’t recall for sure which stanzas he recited—the whole poem itself is too long to have read for the Triple Crown Ceremony—but two lines stuck with me for how well they sum up the people at this year’s Gathering:

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,

It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

 

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.