Urban Hiking: Getting Some Miles In When Trails Aren’t Nearby

Dan Koeppel is a published author, columnist and tireless advocate of rethinking our urban space. Although he’s often credited as the inventor of “urban hiking,” he’ll be the first to correct that. “People have been walking in cities forever,” he told me. But it’s safe to say few people walk in cities quite the way he does.

In Los Angeles, a city that’s often (and often unfairly) known as one of the least walkable places in America, Koeppel is helping to prove that you don’t always have to drive an hour to a trailhead or book time off for a killer hike. Sometimes they’re right in your backyard.

Koeppel is the organizer of an event known as “the Big Parade,” an annual, two-day, 35-mile hike in Los Angeles that began in 2009. The route changes slightly every year, but even with a slow pace it’s a feat of endurance: The 2014 route climbed more than 100 public staircases and gained several thousand feet of elevation through neighborhoods most Angelenos only drive through.

The Big Parade is structured so that people can join and leave as they please, which encourages participants to explore different neighborhoods. The Parade stops at various locations along the way, including hidden public pedestrian passages, strange historical sites and landmark local businesses. Historians, artists and musicians give talks or hand out cookies and lemonade at their houses, but you don’t need to plan an elaborate event like this to have an urban adventure of your own.

Koeppel first started mapping urban hikes by grabbing a street map and just trying to locate all the public staircases he could find. He recommends treating your urban hike like a “choose your own adventure” book. “Unlike established trails,” he said, “there are as many ways to get from Point A to Point B as there are streets in the city.”

Choosing your path—whether as a solo hike or future group-hike route—is a creative act that can show off your own personality as well as new parts of your city. “[In L.A.,] if you want to see Craftsman houses, head to West Adams,” he said. “If you want to tour murals or eat the best tacos, head to East L.A.”

As more young people favor cities over suburbia, Koeppel has begun to field calls from urban hikers in other cities hoping to start their own Parade-like events. A few years ago, a few PCT thru-hikers and fellow Angeleno walking guru (and frequent Big Parade co-conspirator) Bob Inman devised a 190-mile, 300-staircase urban hiking route around Los Angeles called the Inman 300. This year, they upgraded the route to a 218-mile trek from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to the docks at San Pedro.

The next time you’re looking for a unique long-distance hike, you might not have to look much farther than out your own front door.