5 Best Cities for Urban Hiking

You don't have to head into the country to go hiking. See pictures of the world's most beautiful skylines.
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Urban hiking started centuries ago as a necessity: If you wanted to go somewhere, you had to walk. "Hiking" wasn't for fun. Then, as most people used cars or public transportation to get around in the city, they regarded "hiking" as a pleasant activity to be done somewhere else, in a natural area.

But over the last 10 years, more people have been discovering the pleasures of taking a hike in their cities.

Dan Koeppel helped popularize the concept of urban hiking with his article in the June 2004 issue of Backpackermagazine. As Koeppel tells it, one evening when he was rushing to drive 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) out of the city for a hike before darkness fell, he realized he could skip the commute and hike where he was, in Los Angeles. Koeppel was training for mountain climbing, and he chose some of the many city-owned outdoor staircases for his urban hike. (More about that on the next page.)

Since Koeppel's article, many other magazines and newspapers have featured stories about urban hiking. Cities have promoted parks and greenways as urban hiking sites. Meet-up groups offer urban hikes as social events, and there are local groups dedicated to urban hiking. Established hiking clubs have added more urban hikes to their schedules. Museums include urban hikes in their activities.

In many ways, urban hiking is just hiking, but in a city. There are variations on the theme: Some urban hikes follow sidewalks and streets, taking in architecture, historic sites and other manmade attractions. It's like sightseeing, only with more walking and attention to lesser-known places. Other hikes get out into nature, in parks and gardens within the city rather than at a distance.

You can set out on your own with maps and maybe a GPS. Or you can contact your local parks and recreation department. Search the Internet for hiking groups, and for information about hikes on sites such as Yelp.com or mapmyrun.com (it works for walks, too).

Many people, like Koeppel, hit the sidewalks and trails as a way to get exercise without paying for a gym. There are other reasons for the growing popularity of urban hiking:

  • It's environmentally friendly and low-cost. Urban hikers don't have to travel long distances before they walk.
  • It's educational. If you live in a city, that's part of your environment. Hiking lets you see it up close. Most cities have a wealth of places to interest anyone who takes the time to visit them.
  • It's easy. On most urban hikes, you're never far from a store or restaurant. You don't have to carry a lot of equipment. Your ID, cell phone, a little money and a water bottle may be all you need. Sidewalks make it easier to include people with strollers or in wheelchairs. Just make sure you wear sneakers or some other comfortable shoes.
  • It's social. Because it's close to home, urban hiking is popular with meet-up groups. You can visit a restaurant or bar after the trek.

Just about any city has urban hiking possibilities. Washington, D.C., has great hikes along the National Mall or in parks such as Rock Creek. It might surprise you to learn that Las Vegas, Nev., has been featured in both National Geographic and Backpacker magazines as a good hiking city! Keep reading to learn about five others that are among the best.