For many years, I’ve wanted to do the 30-mile long Wildwood Trail in Forest Park a day. But like Portland locals, I haven’t done it because the Wildwood requires a full day’s dedication, and (I justify) if I’m going to spend a whole day hiking, I might as well do it in the Columbia River Gorge. (Among locals, there is even uncertainty on the length with some Portlanders even thinking that it is 40 miles long.)
That’s why I made it part of the Portland Urban Thru-hike—to put myself in a situation where I would have to do the Wildwood. And it’s why I planned to hit it on a Saturday—so other locals who want to hike the Wildwood could join, too.
Virgo, my friend Dave, who moved to Portland from Colorado, and I walked to the Goose Hollow Max Station and took the train up to the Washington Park stop. It’s only one stop, but avoids the long and dangerous walk from downtown up the hill. There are many styles of urban hikes, and for the Portland urban hike, I opted to take public transit in a few rare cases where the alternative was much longer or dangerous. By taking the Max up to the trailhead of the Wildwood, it allowed us to start earlier.
At the station, we met my hiking buddy from the PCT, Miss Info and her husband, Adam (who we stayed with at the end of Day 5 We also met Triple Crown Hiking Legend Steve Queen. Steve has done the Wildwood many times and is a geo-cacher in Forest Park. He easily led us to the trailhead.
From there, it was pleasant walking through sequoia groves, the Hoyt Arboretum, and above the Portland Japanese Garden (called the most authentic Japanese garden in the US–so much so that they actually have the url Japanesegarden.com). As Miss Info pointed out, there were plenty of invasives to see, too. Miss Info and Adam had been planning on only hiking 6 miles, but we were having so much fun with Miss Info that we didn’t want her to leave. I’d like to publicly acknowledge that Adam wins major awesome husband points for letting Miss Info hike with us all day.
What’s funny about the Wildwood is how many people on that trail were lost. There are maps everywhere on that trail. Every intersection is signed. People would ask us for directions since we looked like we knew what we were doing.
Forest Park was also filled with runners. Like many hikers, I found the runners to be a distraction to the hiking experience (we always had to pull over for them and so many of them seemed to be asking for directions because they were lost). Several of my fellow travelers were annoyed, but I told them the experience was nothing compared to when I was hiking the PCT and ran into the Cascade Crest Ultramarathon. I had to pull over every minute for another racer. My trail experience was pretty strongly impacted, but I at least partly forgive the race because the organizers fed me generously at the aid station.
The Wildwood Trail provided us a day of urban-hiking that felt like all the best of a (non-urban) thru-hike: laughing, joking, gossiping, playing tricks on one another, and pulling big mile days without any snack shops in site. I hadn’t hiked with Miss Info since we parted ways at Cascade Locks in 2009 on the PCT. My buddy Dave had never hiked a 20 mile day before, and it was an honor to be there with him as he achieved that. The reunions, the accomplishments, the mutual support, the trail culture: that’s what thru-hiking the major trails is about. Wildwood took us to a PCT-like place where we could be ourselves. Portland is so lucky to have such an amazing resource in the city and accessible for all to use, free of charge, and to reach by public transit.
Neighborhoods Visited: Grant Park, Irvington, Steel Bridge, Old Town, Chinatown, Downtown, PSU, Goose Hollow, Southwest Hills, Burnside Bridge, Morrison Bridge, Nob Hill
So…for the 1st time in 7 urban hikes, I’ve been accosted. Virgo, who is thru-hiking with me and filming the Portland hike (and hiked the Seattle urban hike with me and made this great video), and I were headed from NE Portland over to the Steel Bridge. Now, this is a very public area and it was a sunny day. We were walking in broad daylight and there were tourists and families about. It happened in a place where I felt very safe. We were pumped about the day and about crossing over to the west side.
We were headed down some stairs towards the pedestrian bridge entrance and Virgo, like usual, had found a beautiful angle for me to walk through and was setting it up to get the lighting right. A guy came walking up the stairs saying, “Don’t f-ing take a photo of me.” Virgo told him, “Sir, I am not running the camera right now and wasn’t taking a video of you. I am just metering the camera.” The guy then did a high kick towards the camera and stepped on Virgo’s foot and got into his face as if he was going to fight him. Virgo remained calm (though I could tell he was holding back) and reassured the man that he had not been filming him. The man then lunged at Virgo’s face and grabbed his Ray Bans off his head and threw them to the ground, shattering them. Meanwhile, I watched on, shocked and too scared to be of much help. I was really impressed by how cool and respectful Virgo was. The man proceeded to make overtly sexual comments towards me while insulting Virgo’s masculinity (he must have assumed we were a couple). It was really awful, but we played cool, respectful, and waited until he left to continue filming.
We were both in shock. I really want pedestrians and urban hikers to reclaim their city, but I guess this was bound to happen sometime. I just didn’t think it’d be in Portland.
Not 10 minutes later, we were on the west side of the Steel Bridge and needed to go up some stairs. There were three homeless people sitting on the stairs with their shopping cart-ful of belongings blocking the entrance. Virgo knows that I’m a purist about getting all the stairs on an urban hike—a “rule” I’ve imposed on myself even though no one is watching (and no one cares, either). Even so, I told Virgo, “let’s just skip this stairway.” I was too shaken from the earlier incident to have another confrontation.
I’m so lucky to be doing this hike with another person, and one as street savvy as Virgo. He kindly and respectfully asked them if it was ok with them if they would move. They were actually very, very kind. Yet, when we walked between them, it was clear they were using drugs at the time. One guy was bloody behind his ear and on his hands and arms. It looked like he had just gotten beaten up. It was really heartbreaking to see, and yet I was still scared. People who don’t have the ability to get proper sleep due to laws or fear of being attacked are going through sleep deprivation. Having done a sleep study, I get that. You can be angry, irritable, unpredictable. Virgo told me afterwards that he was concerned they may try to stab him with a needle for his camera. It seemed like there were so many people, desperate and needy and addicted to drugs, who eyed his camera.
The stairs along the Morrison Bridge proved to be frustrating and dangerous. My Portland Stairway book calls these stairs infuriating—requiring pedestrians to go up and down sets of stairs so that cars don’t have to stop. These suspended stairways were filled with trash and needles. There were so many needles and tops of needles everywhere today.
Despite our dampened mood, nonetheless, we made the best of our time today. We visited Hair of the Dog Brewery. We walked through PSU’s campus and the North Block Park.
A highlight was visiting the Portland Montbell store on 10th and Yamhill and seeing Tommy and Panorama. I got some more warm and lightweight clothing before heading out back into the rain.
We visited the famous foodcart island and grabbed grilled cheese sandwiches before doing a mandatory ice cream stop at Ruby Jewell and visiting by Powell’s bookstore. Then we crossed over to the NW quadrant for the first time. I had kind of expected to feel safer in the NW quadrant, but we walked along a sidewalk stair near the stadium instead of taking the stairs because a couple was what appeared to me as having sex on the tunnel-like stair we needed to be on. Virgo said it looked like they were doing drugs. Either way, since it was a sidewalk stair, we could still get where we needed to go by walking the other sidewalk right by it. Yes, I know, now my urban thru-hike is invalid 😉
The trees today were gorgeous and as we went uphill into NW 23rd Ave, it felt like we were walking into a completely different planet than we had experience today.
The stairclimbing community in LA always told me that the best way to prevent crime in public spaces is to have people out and about walking—families, petwalkers, tourists, commuters. I still believe that and ultimately, one guy who clearly was having a rough day, shouldn’t make us forget about all the wonderful experience an urban thru-hike can offer.
What surprises me the most about the event was that outsiders—people who don’t live in Portland—never thought this could happen in Portland while locals were not surprised. Portland definitely has an identity bolstered by the TV show Portandia and by the trendiness of Mississippi, Albina, Williams, Alberta, Clinton, NW 23rd Ave. Outsiders were willing to forgive Portland and refuse to believe this could happen in Portland (myself included). For seasoned world travelers, what happened to us is not terribly notable. It just has never happened to me, and that’s why I found it so upsetting. Urban hiking—I suppose like backcountry hiking—is a game of numbers. Eventually, something is bound to happen, even if you make smart decisions. I’m just glad that no one was hurt and the only property loss was a pair of sunglasses.
Yet ultimately, it is a city with all the good things and all the bad things. We just ran into an “urban grizzly,” and although we were bluff charged, we didn’t get mauled.
From there, we walked through the beautiful homes in the Hollywood area north of I-5 including the historic Hollywood theater. We also stopped by the Mountain Shop, an outdoor gear store where I will be speaking about urban hiking on Tuesday, March 29th.
One of the trippy aspects of this trip for me is revisiting places I’ve been to in Portland before but doing it on foot. A few weeks ago, I flew into Portland for the American Long Distance Hiking Association West Cascade Backpacking Clinic and took the Max from the airport to Hollywood station. Now, on foot, I crossed the overpass from that station into the Laurelhurst station. Late at night in the rain, Portland and the station and all its stairs looked so intimidating. In the light, it seemed like a harmless connection between neighborhoods splits by I-5.
We immediately dropped into Laurelhurst, an old, beautiful neighborhood of big houses and big trees. The Laurelhurst Park—a Frederick Law Olmstead designed area—is the cornerstone of the neighborhood (besides, perhaps, a weird golden statue in the smack middle of it). The sun was out and turtles were sunning themselves on logs in the middle of the grand pond. A sign warning that stairs in the park can be icy seemed laughable. Sunlight hit the big trees and green grass and it felt peaceful and springy.
In the Laurelhurst neighborhood, we walked past the Laurelhurst Theater, where our friend Tomato (we stayed with him last night) works and is the world premiere theater of thru-hiking movies by Squatch Films and TBW Films. Basecamp Brewery, an outdoor themed establishment among thru-hikers managed by our friend Siddhartha (who we stayed with on night 1). The area around Basecamp has a soup kitchen and camps and is a sharp contrast to the clean, woodsy feeling of inside Basecamp. We stopped in to say hi before heading over to another neighborhood staple: Next Adventure gear store, work and funplace of my friends Dandy and Miss Info (who I stayed with on Day 5).
When I thru-hiked the PCT in 2009, Miss Info and I got off trail together and went into Next Adventure to gear up for Washington. The outfitter has been an employer of pre-trail and post-trail hikers for almost a decade. I’ll be speaking at Next on Thursday, March 24th (that’ tomorrow!) at 7 pm about my urban hike. Hope you can make it!
From Next, we headed towards some confusing stairs until the Hawthorne bridge. I don’t know what the neighborhood under the Hawthorne bridge is called, but I loved it. It felt like a port town. There was stuff from everywhere and it was dark and a little dirty and hard to understand on googlemaps. Before crossing the bridge, we dropped by the immaculate wooden coffee/lifestyle shop Coava. Re-purposed in an old industrial building, it felt even more LA or Denver than Portland. I love that airy, bright, former industrial feel, though, and felt more than anywhere, if I lived in Portland, I would go there to work from my laptop to feel hip and metropolitan.
I was worried about time crossing onto the west side. I knew there would be cool things to see! It seems like no matter how short a day of hiking is, it always feels rushed at the end because there’s so much to see, so much exploration. Just like an outdoor thru-hike, urban thru-hiking feels like it just hits the highlights of an area without deeply exploring. I only get to linger in the occasional restaurant. It’s never going to be as strong in immersing myself as the experience of living there for years. While urban hiking may be a more intense way to understand a city than normal tourism, it still pains me to walk past so many cool-looking places.
We went past the Pioneer Courthouse Sqaure and many Benson Bubblers and inoperable fountains. We visited the “Keep Portland Weird” mural and laughed at the obscene line at Voodoo Doughnuts. We passed from the pricey neighborhoods downtown into the greying Old Town/China Town and watched the transition into the Pearl District.
Towards the end of the day, I got my obligatory ice cream, this time at Cool Moon (which I had visited with my friend Aine about a year ago). This time, I had a decadent spicy chocolate cone that kept me toasty despite the rain that was falling on us. That trip with Aine reminded me how the Pearl ends abruptly to the north and how difficult it is to get over the railroad tracks and up to the Broadway Bridge. There’s so many new developments and construction there even compared to a year ago.
I’ve taken the train through Union Station many times—pretty much every time I hike in Washington, I take the train there and back. Yet, I haven’t ever walked through the neighborhood around it. On the underpass right across from the train station, we took some stairs down to see a man literally shooting up in broad daylight.
On a train layover a few years ago, I walked the cool bridge from Union Station over to this little neighborhood on the other side of the train tracks near the water. It’s hard to access, but nice. From there, we took stairs up to the Broadway Bridge and crossed among many a commuting cyclist. The current construction on the bridge made the non-motorized lane very narrow and I felt awful about my backpack taking up so much space.
From there, it was a pleasant walk to Irvington, where we enjoyed the restaurants. Once again, I found myself in a neighborhood I had eaten in before, but this time I knew here everything was and how it was connected. Besides Denver, Portland is the urban hiking city that I was the most familiar with before starting my hike. It’s strange how on foot, even a place that feels familiar can suddenly become exciting and new, while also feeling more connected.
Northeast Portland has been the poster child for gentrification in a city that has been the poster child for gentrification nationwide. Today I hiked past the biggest examples of Portlandia today—the tiny house hotel, wooden high rises next to graffiti covered fences, and even the mural artist whose work is getting torn down with the building its on. It was a day of old and new Portland, as seen through the eyes of someone who doesn’t live here and as seen on foot.
The day started in Cully, a neighborhood which 20 years ago was considered dicey but now has blocks filled with Little Free Libraries (which I’ve been problematically obsessed with on this hike). It’s also become a neighborhood full of hikers—almost as soon as I left Miss Info’s home, I was as Toaster and Goodfoot’s house. What a small world!
Tomato met us at 42nd and Killingsworth and we headed through a beautiful park (and former school) towards 33rrd and Columbia—an area replete with a nasty series of curvey overpasses and underpasses with very small shoulders and fast moving cars. By car, these area looks impossible for an urban hiker, but there was a stairway to catch down from 33rd to Columbia Tomato, who lives in Portland as a car-free individual and walks in the city more than anyone I know, has experienced pedestrianism over 33rd and Columbia Lombard many times, but didn’t seem nearly as sketched as I was. I had looked at the area on Google Streetview and knew that a beautiful spiral stair existed in the area. Although no one was living under the overpass, we found a needle.
Walking Lombard was not fun. Tractor trailers splashed us as they zoomed onward. It was loud. Tomato told me a better route would have been to head north thorough the Columbia Slough area on nice trail and then meet up with 11th and Columbia (I had considered this route, but thought it would add at least 3 miles).
From there, we walked past several intersection murals to the incredible Penninula Park Rose Garden. Even this early in spring when the roses were not out yet, it was a stunning area. I went there to see a fountain (which I expected would be turned off) and was expecting a small, roadside few rows of roses—if I skipped it, that would have been all right. I did not expect a giant garden with a huge fountain that was running and a really cool looking pagoda. I can’t wait to return to the area when the flowers are in bloom!
Gentrification was just around the corner. We walked Albina, which my Portlandness book explained was the heart of redlining in Portland—at least until World War II when there was a huge influx of shipyard workers. Many African Americans at the time moved to Vanport, a shipyard workers city, until sudden 15 foot rise of the Columbia River flooded them out of home. Albina/Mississippi has become the example of gentrification in Portland. While I’d eaten hipster brunch here many times before, walking it forced me to read about its history and to see the history on its fences. Even the beautiful Rose Garden I had enjoyed so much a few blocks before had displaced African American families.
We grabbed tacos at Porque No? a famous Portland taco place that had a line out the door in the rain—even at 2 pm on a Monday. Virgo’s girlfriend Jamie and my friend Carrie joined us. After a leisurely lunch, we walked up Williams—another example of gentrification in the city. We got ice cream at What the Scoop?, famous for their fortune cookie waffle batter ice cream cones.
Lastly, we walked to Alberta, another neighborhood that has gone through a lot of change. There, we passed the tiny home hotel, the grilled cheese sandwich truck where you eat your meal in an old school bus, and a bunch of cute shops. A local mural artist chatted with us and told us that there were 271 different intersection murals in the city! Man, that is a lot less than the 20 or so I have mapped!
The day ended with Alameda Ridge—the old money swanky part of the northeast. We had fun in the Sabin Hydropark at the top of the hill and down through the many stairs of that beautiful neighborhood. Tomato walks the neighborhood a lot so he knew a bunch of the stairs, but it’s always super fun to walk with locals and discover something new.
Despite the weather, it was a fun and fascinating day in Portland and aside from the walk on Lombard, perhaps of all the days of the hike, the one I can see others replicating the most.
A cool thing about urban thru-hiking is how easy it is for your friends to join you along on a trip. This morning, my good friend Allgood and his four-legged friend Karluk met us in the morning as we walked through the beautiful iconic Mt. Tabor neighborhood.
Portland is the most volcanic city in the US according to my Portlandness book (which has a great map of the volcanic vents in the area). Mt. Tabor is a volcano sitting right in the middle of town. Virgo uses Mt. Tabor as his running route and showed us the way right past a volcanic lava tube and through stands of old pine and blooming cherry trees. From between all the vegetation, we were still able to get a straight view down Hawthorne and all the way to downtown.
A controversial and political dilemma in Portland right now is what to do with the reservoirs atop Mt Tabor. One hundred years ago, water was piped from Bull Run to Mt Tabor where it was stored as the public water source for Portland. After 9/11, the feds became increasingly concerned with water contamination and the area around the reservoir is under surveillance. The result was even in times of drought, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water had to be drained and disposed of after a man was found peeing into a reservoir. Now, as feds are requiring water to be stored underground, we saw one of the 3 reservoirs empty and it was ugly. Allgood, Virgo, and I had much fun speculating over what we would like to see happen with the 2 filled reservoirs.
We walked again towards 82nd where we had another obligatory stop for Asian food. I think it’s funny that several cities I’ve walked as a street called Division—which often does just that—divides town in a pedestrian unfriendly way. Virgo took me to a pedestrian overpass stairway on Division, which oddly enough was not listed in Laura Foster’s Portland Stairways book, the crowdsourced info I used from the Internet, or the Portland Bureau of Transportation list of public stairs. As I walk this route, I can’t help but feel the neglect that people on the other side of 82nd must feel from the world and local government.
Nowhere was local government neglect more noticeable on Kelly Butte.
Frankly said, I was concerned and a little scared about hiking up Kelly Butte. My plans, prep, and research showed that this Portland Public Park had essentially been neglected by the local government and allowed to be taken over by teenagers and the homeless. While all my interactions with the homeless in Portland had been harmless, and I’ve never had problems with people in LA, SF, Chicago, Denver, or Seattle, the secluded nature of Kelly Butte made it different than being out in the open on the street.
Sure enough, as we climbed to the gate that blocks cars, there was a homeless couple with a fire and graffiti everywhere. It’s funny, though, because the natural world up there was eerily peaceful and resembled the much more cared for Mt. Tabor. Kelly Butte is also volcanic—perhaps another vent from Mt. Hood—which is one of the reasons why I put it on the route. My apprehension about the hill wasn’t helped by Virgo joking that Kelly Butte is where people dump bodies.
While googlemaps showed the trail ending on the top, I looked at historic topo maps before I left to find where trails connected (satellite view for finding hidden trails is useless in Portland because of all of the tree cover). I found evidence of a historic trail headed off the southern side of Kelly Butte into the neighborhood. On an urban hike, almost every 100 feet and every turn is calculated and pre-determined. With Kelly Butte, my plan had been to “find a trail to get to the other side.”
As descended steeply off the butte, we found evidence of a homeless camp and all I could think was how to get off that hill. My heart racing to get off (meanwhile Virgo wanting me to go slower to get a cool shot), I jumped at the site of two people coming right towards us. Virgo and I have prepared mentally about what to do if we get jumped (he’ll eject his SD card to keep his footage before throwing his camera), and all those thoughts were racing through my head. Until I realized that the two people were kids going on a hike in their local park with branches as hiking poles. Phew! This—these local parks that kids can explore and play in and the freedom and trust to do it—is what I’ve been advocating for within cities. Seeing those kids playing on “scary” Kelly Butte warmed my heart and made me feel silly about the preconceived notion I had about the place based on what others had blogged.
After Kelly Butte, we walked through a series of neighborhoods connected by parks, the most notable being the forested Lent Park, which reminded me strongly of Columbia Park in NoPo where I’ve spent much time walking Karluk. From the Mt. Scott neighborhood, we walked the fun Woodstock neighborhood.
I stopped at Cloud City Ice Cream. Despite being overrun with kids, I was absolutely floored by their flavors. I love myself a chunky ice cream (Ben & Jerry’s is the classic example) and this place was chunktacular. I begged the scooper to let me try many flavors (while apologizing profusely and simultaneously asking how many flavors can fit into a 2 scoop). The winners: Better than Therapy (ginger chunk ice cream with ginger snaps), Animal Cookie (with whole size cookies inside), Chex Yourself (chex with caramel and chocolate), and hands down the best chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream I have ever had.
Ice cream in tow, we walked through the gorgeous campus at Reed College, which I found less intimidating than Lewis and Clark. We passed by some kids buildering (bouldering on a building) and chatted with them about the trip before taking a beautiful bridge over Reed Ravine to where the dorms are (does every fancy Portland college have to have a ravine running through it?).
The rest of the trip was through the more industrial area near Giant Brewing (where I had been particularly excited to visit after recently purchasing a bottle of their Ume Umami beer from a well-curated liquor store in Pasadena). The day ended in the Brooklyn neighborhood preparing for a big day heading out to the west side.
I woke up at my friend Meredith’s studio apartment looking out at rain. She had come back late from a Halloween party and I quietly put my things together in the dark, trying to not wake her. There were some miles that needed to be made up today, and an early start—even if the weather was horrendous—were going to have to happen.
Virgo and I hoped to grab some coffee, grab some stairs, and loop back to Meredith’s to pick up our packs. We headed over the Magnolia Bridge wearing Halloween costumes, in gusts that reversed my Montbell umbrella, which has impressed me in the conditions it’s been able to hold up in (check out Sticks video of wind on Moose Mountain in Olympic National Park at 31:47)
Walking that bridge in 30 mph winds wearing a turkey costume as it is pouring rain reminded me of something you’d see in one of Squatch’s thru-hiking movies. I can only imagine what the passing by cars thought we were doing—especially since Virgo was filming the whole thing!
The wet morning hike continued through an industrial district. Unprotected from trees or even buildings and right up against the water, I was cold and wet and still dreaming of coffee. There was no way we’d find something in the industrial district, but then, from the top of Amgen Bridge, like a mirage, we discovered Fuji Bakery, a fancy and very affordable Japanese style bakery right next to a lumber yard.
My good friend Whitney Allgood LaRuffa came and joined us at the Fuji Bakery, where we continued a loop of the lower Queen Anne stairs. Right off the bat, Allgood learned that on an urban hike (much like on a backcountry hike), what looks like it will connect on a map often does not connect in real life. We ended up exploring a steep, wooded area, that a couple hundred feet up, would have led to where we needed to be. Instead, we backed off and decided to take another approach to connect our footsteps to Olympic Blvd, where we called it a night yesterday.
That morning took us to among my favorite stairs of the whole trip—the Castle stairs. Allgood—wearing a Knight Halloween costume-fit right in with the surroundings. I could only imagine how cool it would be to be a kid growing up in that neighborhood. Spending a childhood sword fighting and playing make-believe on those stairs would be better than any backyard treehouse.
We looped back to Fuji and then Allgood brought us to where we started the morning at Meredith’s, now that we had connected our footsteps from there. Lindsay “Marmot” joined us, wearing Space Cat tights and a neon shirt and bringing her usual enthusiasm.
We headed off to Magnolia and the Perkins Lane stairs. Marmot, who lives in Seattle and loves to run and explore the neighborhoods on foot, was especially excited for the way far out there Perkins Lane stairs. These were big, steep stairs that looked out on the Sound and traveled through the park.
We looked a little ridiculous going through the neighborhood in costumes with Virgo filming us. People on foot, bike, and car gave us thumbs up and honks. Halloween is one of the only times a troop of grown adults can walk through town dressed strangely and we were having the time of our lives. Marmot and Allgood stopped to play tetherball that was attached to a post on an island in the middle of a road. The city has so many random things to discover if you only slow down to find them.
Today, as urban hikers, we got to relive a little bit of what it was like to be a kid again.
After a long and satisfying lunch at a Mexican place, we continued north to Discovery Park. I had been told by multiple stair climbers that it was an easy to place to get lost. When we finally climbed the big stairway in the middle of the park, I felt a sense of success and pride that I had found it and managed to not get lost.
We past Seven Hills Running store, where I would be speaking the next day, and some of the best Halloween decorations anywhere in the City. I was starting to get hungry and we speculated as to whether three adults dressed in Halloween costumes could trick-or-treat our way to some candy.
I’m not going to lie. Someone left out that bowl of candy on the porch with the sign “Please take ONE.” I promise you, I may not have been the intended audience, but I only took one.
In the dark, we graveled through the Marine Center and Fishermen’s Terminal. We found one of many spots where people who live in their RVs and vans in Seattle park their vehicles. It was a neighborhood I would not have traveled to ever had it not been for this hike. It was a neighborhood I felt a little uneasy hiking through at night, and felt much better about walking through with Allgood and Virgo with me. But it was the type of experience I cherish because it gave me the full, rich sense of the city, not just the touristy areas or the pretty areas, but the whole of what Seattle is.
We returned to the Ballard Bridge and crossed—my one big mapping error of the trip. We had crossed it yesterday and I realized as we approached the pedestrian on-ramp, that I had mapped crossing the bridge twice, thus failing Urban Hiking Rule #2: No backtracking. If I were to do it again, we would have crossed at the Locks, but I was already committed and not about to go 4 miles out of my way to cross at the next closest bridge, so we continued on.
From this view of the bridge, we discovered Peddler’s Brewery, where we enjoyed a Halloween pint in costume. Our hike took us down Leary and we approached Halle’s Ales again from the backside, stopping for another pint. Virgo told us of a Halloween party, but I wanted to get some more stairs. Allgood and I found a few more stairs and walked to the party in the Phinney Ridge/Green Lake neighborhood, while Virgo ran the most direct route. It was hard staying up with all the walking, but we got to see many people in costume.
All in all, even as an adult, walking all day in costume made me feel like I had a full Halloween.
I woke up in Luna Sandal’s headquarters in Queen Anne. Despite being a retail space, it feels like a home. My friend Lindsay “Marmot,” who also lives in Queen Anne, came by and we enjoyed some coffee and pastries at the local coffee shop. I must say, I knew Seattle would have a great café options but it is blowing my mind how good every shop is!
The day started with the Queen Anne loop I was supposed to do last night. I learned very quickly that once again, the route did not go as easily as it looks on a map. A busy highway named Aurora intersected my loop route. I had designed the route thinking I could cross Aurora whenever I needed to, but it turned out there were limited arteries—overpass bridges—where this was possible. I had to adjust the route on the fly. To make matters worse, some construction closed the eastern sidewalk along Aurora making some stairs inaccessible (and no way to walk around the sidewalk that didn’t involve walking in 60 mph traffic).
A highlight of the loop was walking under Aurora next to a beautiful mural only to climb a very steep, hidden hill right after. We were able to slack pack this loop and I felt so lucky to not have to carry a pack up the steep hills of Queen Anne.
When we returned to Luna, Barefoot Ted gave us a tour of the factory and how Luna’s are made. He offered to let us continue to slack pack Queen Anne, which was a blessing. We continued to the top of the hill, where I saw kids dressed in Halloween costumes. I was hungry and one child in particular caught my eye: she was dressed like a taco. Luckily, we headed down to the street Queen Anne that not only had a drinking fountain at the end of the stairway, but had bakeries and shops. I got a croissant at Le Revel, which appeared to be a good choice. (Vivian, a veritable Seattle pastry connoisseur, gave her thumbs up).
All the time we went through Queen Anne, I feared going over the Fremont Bridge. It was so huge and intimidating and cars moved so far. Luckily, the Fremont bridge that we went over was a shorty bridge that looked almost made for pedestrians. Painted a festive blue and orange, this old timey bridge was such a welcome gateway to the Fremont community. If I could do the trip again, I would’ve hung out in Fremont for hours. We were hungry and scored at a “grab and go” pie place that blew our minds.
Of course, a highlight of Fremont was the Fremont Troll. I saw a reference to it in one my data sources but assumed the word “troll” was some bridge building term or maybe a shipping term. I figured it meant some way to bend steel or reinforce concrete. But sure enough, I went towards the Fremont Troll and that’s exactly what it was—a 80 feet large statue of a troll holding a car in its hand. The car looks miniscule, but it’s a life size VW beetle. There were tourists under the bridge, but they loved watching Virgo and I film the troll with his camera.
We returned to Fremont and walked Leahy Blvd for a long time. I had to pee and was getting hungry. Virgo said “Snorkel, you mentioned earlier that if we pass a brewery, we have to stop. Do you still agree with that?” I told him I did, despite being worried for time. “Good,” he said. ‘There’s one right there.” We stopped at Halle’s and the entire time we were enjoying a beer, it poured. As soon as we left, the rain had stopped!
We continued to the Ballard Bridge and went up some stairs that were like the Bridge of the God—a steel that you could see through. It was very freaky. Despite the stories I had heard about how pedestrian friendly the Ballard Bridge is, it actually was a pretty narrow walking area that was shared between bikes and walkers. We stopped every time a bike came—many bike commuters showing up in costume.
The stairs around the Ballard Bridge south entrance were numerous and confusing—but we got them all. We continued up through the Inner Bay neighborhood—a food desert of stairs going up and down. I got so delirious I was having trouble navigating in the dark. As we came close to the end, Vivian gave me a cookie, which helped.
A highlight was passing a Halloween house that was decked out in grand decorations. It turned out it was the old Masonic Temple. We stopped and chatted with the decorators, who said it was a party/fundraiser for a woman with MS to get a therapy dog. I briefly thought about stopping, but decided to press on.
We made it back to Luna just in time. I was so thankful that Ted let us back in and felt bad making him come back to work on a Friday night. The Queen Anne stairs just took so much longer that I expected. It started raining, but Vivian’s husband picked her up and was able to take us to food and my friend Meredith’s house. We were so exhausted that I could barely speak, and felt bad I couldn’t articulate much to Ted about all the things we’d seen that day.
I passed out quickly at Meredith’s, though was happy to talk with her briefly. The rain continued and I was worried about the next day’s forecast and how I’d make up the miles from the last Innerbay stairs. Nonetheless, I left soundly knowing that Lindsay and my friend Allgood would join us soon.
Photos by Virgo, who is joining me on the hike and collecting footage for a film on urban thru-hiking.
Day 2 was crazy! The highs and lows of the cities all captured in one spectacular day.
The day started by catching up with a few stairs I missed on Day 1. We also swung by the Goodwill where I picked up a Halloween costume…you have to just wait until tomorrow to see how that will turn out.
Then we met Vivian, a local ultra runner who befriended my friend Andrew (who introduced me to the Inman 300 back in 2013). Andrew came up to run Michael Yadrick’s 100k of the biggest stairs (100+ stairways) in Seattle and that’s where he met Vivian. Vivian is so knowledgeable about the city, specifically where one can find pastries. It was a joy having her join.
We had a little hiccup when we reached the Jackson stairs—a big 100+ stairway right along I-5 that joined with a greenway to connect to a road. As we walked up, the stairway was filled with trash and hypodermic needles…Our route was fenced off, but it looked like they left a path for pedestrians to get around construction when soon, we found ourselves in a construction site. We were confused where we were and just wanted to get to the street and then a guy came by in a big bulldozer and asked what we were doing there. Virgo, of course, has his camera with him, and this made the guy even angrier. We told him we just wanted out to the street, but he told us the way out was the way we came. This is, of course, while we’re like 100 yards from the street and can clearly see it. We turned around and then construction employees came after us, trying to get photos of us, presumably to show the cops.
We tried another way to the street, but the fence blocked our exit off 10 feet from the street. A construction guy, who was much friendlier, said there was nothing he could do but suggested we let the police know that they had blocked out a major pedestrian route. I was so angry that this quickly gentrifying city that takes so much pride in being bike and pedestrian friendly clearly doesn’t care enough to about pedestrians to create viable alternative routes (or open a fence 10 feet to create a pathway for pedestrians). They think just because the route is used by a lot of junkies that a pedestrian route isn’t worth keeping open. No, actually, it’s used by out-of-state tourists and documentarians trying to capture the life of the city! We certainly captured it as we returned from where we came, adding an extra mile to our route.
For many years, I had been looking forward to going to Seattle to see the Public Library. My best friend, who was trained as an architect, often says it is her favorite building. It didn’t disappoint. It was an atrium of light, space, and community. Actually, my first thought when I saw it was how much it looked like the mock-up buildings she designed in architecture school!
Michael Yadrick told me to stop by Top Pot, a famous donut chain in Seattle. The guys working the counter were super excited about the film. I was so hungry, I scarfed down my donut before Virgo could film he eating it, so I had to order (and eat) another donut to get it on film.
A true highlight of the trip was the beautiful Capitol Hill neighborhood and climbing to the top of the water tower in Capitol Park. Afterwards, we swung by the waterfront and through Amazon’s campus, where I met my friend Abigail, who works there.
It was back to downtown and into the tourist-famous part of Seattle—Pike Place Market, the Gum Wall, Post Alley. We grabbed humbow from a famous place in Pike Place market—excellent timing as we were starving by then.
It was amazing to see the city lit up and bustling. With no rain, everyone was out. I was reminded how urban hiking really shines when it comes to night hiking. Not only is it often easier, but the city gets a beauty of its own when the skyline is glowing. The Space Needle in particular looked cool in glow-mode.
We finished the day at Luna Sandals headquarters in Lower Queen Anne. Barefoot Ted, who was a major character in the book Born to Run, rolled up on his Solowheel, energetic, enthusiastic, and bigger than life. By that time, we were pretty exhausted, but he suggested going to Banya 5, a Russian-style bathhouse. We weren’t sure what Bayna 5 was, but figured we would roll with it. Showing up to Barefoot Ted’s is a little like hopping into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be crazy and awesome.
His wife and super accomplished runner herself, Irem, joined us—also showing up on her Solowheel. We all hopped into Ted’s ’66 Volkswagen Beetle (a car I’ve never ridden in before), and rolled down the hill back to the neighborhood Amazon is in.
At first, the inside was super nice, upscale, and a little intimidating for hikertrash like myself. Ted was a pro and helped us navigate the front desk and got us loaner swimsuits.
We started by going in the sauna, where Ted introduced us to the regulars—people who come to the Banya everyday. Ted described it like Cheers minus the alcohol—and indeed, everyone seemed to get along. I knew that some of the people here were probably high up in tech companies: important people. But the Banya was not a place of ego. It was a place of going to cleanse yourself.
Which is where the cold part comes in. Ted led us to the ice pool, where he jumped in and dunked his head underwater for longer than I could hold my breath above water. Virgo and I slipped in more cautiously, and we both nearly started hyperventilating. Breathing was really hard and all I could think was “I don’t know htf Trauma swam around Lake Tahoe.”
As soon as we got out and back into the sauna, though, I felt rejuvenated. A challenge had presented itself and I was ready to try again and make the next time in the cold better. Barefoot Ted led us through a therapeutic cycle between the sauna, the cold pool, cold shower, a salt pool, Jacuzzi, and steam room. Then we took a break for the Banya’s awesome tea blend.
We left the Banya feeling tingly, energized, and excited like we’d just woken up. It was late and we had a long day, but I was ready for whatever the next adventure Ted was going to take us on. We went to late night happy hour at Long’s Vietnamese restaurant, which was incredible and fresh and was the first healthy food we’d had all day.
So I’m starting an urban-thru-hike of Seattle today.
Seattle is the #3 most staired city in the US after Pittsburgh and LA. I’m expecting to cover 650 stairways in the city boundaries alone. Unlike my urban hike of LA and stairway hike of SF, I’m anticipating that locals in Seattle will have a lot of knowledge about the stairways and use them frequently for outdoor training. It’ll be interesting for me to see the differences in the cities and their attitudes towards pedestrianism.
This route was designed to include all stairs that connect a public road to a public road. This means some stairs that connect to buildings, pathways, a pier, or the shore are not included. This means some park stairways are not included, though I generally kept park stairways if they were big ones that didn’t make me go too far out of the way. Stairways 10 steps and below were not included. I based my data from the Seattle Stairs website as well as a 100k stairway trek put together by Michael Yadrick.
I’m aiming to start hiking around 6:45 am (I know it will be dark still) and go until I finish/it gets dark. I will eat along the way at restaurants and also carry snacks. I will be on-call for work, so expect to be spending some time in coffee shops with my laptop–but that’s one of the joys of urban hiking—if it gets cold, wet, or I have to make a phone call, it will be easy to do.
How to Join A Hiker on an Urban Trip:
It’s very hard to intercept hikers on an urban route, so it’s easier for the person who wants to join to wait somewhere along the route and wait until the hiker runs into them. Usually, a friend who wants to join will call me and tell me they can join in 30 minutes. Then, I look at my map and guess where I’ll be in 30 minutes–somewhere ahead on the route.
Where I’m sleeping:
I’ll be staying overnight with friends for most of the nights. Urban hiking is a great way to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in years. I am so excited to see friends new and old who live in the city.
I’ll be speaking at Seven Hills Running store at on Monday, September 2nd at 7 PM. The following day (Nov. 3rd), I’ll be walking with a group meeting at 7:30 am at Le Fournil French Bakery. I will also be speaking at the Mounatineers on the 3rd. Details TBA.
I haven’t had some quality time to wander Seattle for more than 10 years. Food, friends, and coffee….I’m expecting an awesome next week on the urban trail!
Playboy Magazine once called Colfax Avenue the “longest, wickedest street in America,” and with good reason. At 53.3 miles long, it actually may be the longest boulevard in the world (boulevard implies a divider between lanes).
The Denver Judgmental Map that was popular a few years ago describes it as being full of “hookers/drunk people/hobos” while a South Park episode shows Jimmy trying to solicit a prostitute on Colfax. Jack Kerouac mentions Colfax in On the Road as the place where Sal Paradise, the main character, lives for a time and gets drunk. Though it’s a major thoroughfare in Denver, no one I talked to could claim to know what was at both ends of Colfax. My curiosity got the better of me, and as one inclined to walk instead of drive, this week, I walked Colfax Ave., end to end.
When I told my idea to any local who has lived in Denver for more than 20 years, the response was usually a cross between “why?” and “that’s dangerous.” Even my most street savvy friend warned me not to go solo. Prior to this trip, my main experience with Colfax was the 3 miles between downtown and my grocery store. The longest I had ever walked on Colfax before this hike was the Denver Pride Parade.
At least one source I read suggested that Colfax starts at Mt. Vernon Road near Genesee County Park (near the buffalo herd, for those familiar with I-70). So, of course I had to start up at the Mt. Vernon Road Park and Ride, and hike 5.6 miles down windy narrow-shouldered Colfax through the mountains past alpaca farms and the much more inviting Apex hiking trail to the T-Rex Parking Lot just outside Golden that is generally accepted as the western terminus of Colfax Ave.
From here, the road continued to be lacking a side shoulder, but I spotted my first sign with the word “Colfax” on it! I also saw my first other pedestrian, a traveler who seemed just as shocked to find a backpacked young woman walking Colfax as I was to see a person walking at all!
Colfax travels next to a minimum security prison and a sign warns drivers “not to stop for hitchhikers.” At the time, I was walking a wider shoulder against traffic and noticed that a cop car was headed towards me and pulled up right behind me—on the shoulder where no car really would have any interest of pulling over. It then hit me: with my neon vest and being the odd pedestrian hiking Colfax near the prison, he thought I was an escapee.
Shortly after, Colfax offered me its first foraging opportunity: a gas station that sells the delicious, cheap and local Santiago’s breakfast burritos. Not half a mile later, the expansive Colorado Mills mall offered me every food item I could dream of, and I stopped for an extensive lunch and to use Wi-Fi.
As I skirted the edge of my second city, Lakewood, I lost my much enjoyed sidewalk. Colfax became residential and I even passed a goat farm. One of the odder sightings on Colfax was a Jewish cemetery, oddly placed right next to the road. I can only imagine how much Lakewood had seemed like the boonies when the cemetery was placed there.
My friend Val met up with me near the Oak Station Light Rail stop, right after I passed the iconic Golden Hours hotel. We passed through a neighborhood where seemingly every other business was a dispensary, grow shop, or head shop.
Colfax is famous for its neon signs, vestiges of a bygone era when Colfax was the only east-west road connecting Denver to the mountains and plains. This area was ripe with shabby neon signs, hokey in a 1950s kind of way.
I suspected we were getting closer to Sloan Lake and Denver-as-I-know-it when I spotted what appeared to be an immaculately kept church on the north side of the road. But, foolish as I was, this was another Denver landmark: Casa Bonita! Although I didn’t stop for lunch, I had to take a photo with the restaurant-cliff-diving-attraction that is featured frequently in South Park.
Val left me at the as I approached an area I was somewhat familiar with—Colfax and Sheridan, where I had taken the bus several times to Sloan Lake. The intersection was under construction and the sidewalk and shoulder was gone leading to dangerous walking. It’s surprising how the gentrification of the Sloan Lake neighborhood did not appear to extend to Colfax.
The only time I was approached by a street person on this trip occurred here. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him “walking Colfax” but it was a very kind interaction, and I actually walked away feeling better about the world.
I took a rehydration and pit stop break at the beautiful new Corky Gonzalez library, which I had yet to visit. It warmed my heart to see how well used the new library is. How wonderful that Denver Public Library has invested in bringing resources like this to previously underserved neighborhoods.
There were a few areas on the walk of Colfax I was concerned about, and the giant double clover highway system between and I-25 and Auraria Parkway and Federal near Mile High Stadium was one of them. I wasn’t sure if I’d have to get off on a frontage road and walk under I-70 or walk the railroad tracks or what.
It turns out there is a nice sidewalk on Colfax throughout this area except for the sketchiest part of the whole hike: on crosswalk right before the on-ramp to I-25. There was another pedestrian on the other side of the crosswalk and we shared out trepidation about darting in front of cars accelerating to get on I-25. I can only imagine how bad it would be during rush hour!
The walk past Auraria and into Civic Center Park was familiar, after seeing so much of Colfax, I was able to appreciate the beauty of this area even more.
I stopped at Lost Highway brewery, where all the beers and the name of the brewery itself reference Colfax Ave. Next, was a break at Voodoo Donuts, which as quickly become a Colfax landmark.
My day ended near there, where I stayed at a friend’s house, ready for more Colfaxing the next day.
The next morning, I had to stage myself near a WiFi for a phone call. Instead of the Starbucks at Krameria, I opted for Blunozer, a cute coffee shop on Ivy and Colfax filled with antiques and the friendliest owners I’ve met anywhere. It was a true highlight of the trip and a break before entering what my friends had warned me would be the sketchiest part of the hike.
Walking forces us to be accept and take responsibility for the Colfax we created. By not just driving past it, but walking through the neighborhoods, we can’t just ignore what Colfax is and what it was. I had no problems walking through E. Colfax through Aurora, but was shocked how much harder off the area is when observed by foot rather than by car. It is the area that the rest of greater Denver has ignored. I can’t help but wonder how life could be better for the people who live in this area if only the politicians and city planners were to walk here.
No one I had talked to knew what Colfax looked like on the other side of Anschutz Medical Center and I-25. I entered the unknown, which ended up reminding me of the wide suburbia strip malls where I grew up. There was plenty of sidewalk, food, and pit stop areas. The area became more fields, more farms, more rural all the way to E-470 near Buckley Air Force base. This is where things became tricky.
Colfax Ave. disappears for a mile in this area as the Colfax as I have been walking turns into an on-ramp. Instead, I walked a frontage road.
Around 2 pm, I realized I had 21 miles left to go and would have to be making 4 miles per hour to finish before dark. Luckily, the terrain and turned to fields and plains with few traffic lights or stop signs to slow down my pace. I saw numerous road kill and for once on my trip, stopped hearing the sound of cars whizzing past me. I switched to a fresh pair of shoes (I carried an extra pair) and was ready to crank miles through a part of Colfax that looked like Kansas. Sometimes, the grain silos of towns 10 miles ahead were the only topography visible on the horizon.
For the next 20 miles, I saw plains, trains, and roadkill. Among the dead, there were prairie dogs, snakes, and a disturbing amount of songbirds. Colfax parallels I-70 here, but is used by local traffic and especially large farm equipment. I walked through the town of Watkins and Bennett—which could not be any different than the Colfax I had started on that morning other than I bizarrely saw Denver police car there.
Colfax ends in Strasburg, a world away from the Colfax of downtown Denver. The Plains Medical Center I had been using as a landmark in Strasburg was not the Anschutz-like campus I had imagined, but just a small building. I was joined by my boyfriend and his family for the walk in Strasburg. Colfax Ave. ends at the east part of town on Headlight Road where it Y’s into 15th avenue and Highway 36 (which goes to Indianapolis).
I finally answered my question: where does Colfax go? Most importantly, I had walked a diverse intersection of Denver metro-area culture from its most iconic to its forgettable and forgotten. Hiking Colfax allowed me to connect the Denver metro area in my mind in a way that cars, interstates, and rushing to work had never allowed me to do.