Up one set of stairs. Down the next. Cross the street. Liz Thomas doesn’t stop. She walks a few blocks and then makes her way up another set of stairs that are hidden under a canopy of leaves and tree branches.
Liz is working her way along a week-long route that will take her up and down Seattle’s urban stairways.
Urban thru-hiking is exactly what it sounds like: hiking in a city from one point to another. Liz set her latest project in Seattle, which claims third place in the U.S. when it comes to most public stairways in a city (behind Los Angeles and Pittsburgh).
An ultralight and long-distance adventure hiker, Liz held the unassisted speed record on the Appalachian Trail until 2011. She also completed the Triple Crown of hiking (the 2,748-mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail), and has backpacked over 10,000 miles across the United States.
But now she’s turned her attention to urban thru-hiking, hoping that her treks will draw attention to the sport and raise awareness for the importance of exploring our cities on foot.
“My stairway hikes are tied to my love and advocacy for pedestrian infrastructure,” says Liz. “My general impression is that Seattle, more than any [U.S.] city, is full of athletes — and outdoor athletes — who are using the stairways for training, especially during the winter. I think this point is huge in getting people to value walking within cities, which in turn reduces pollution [and the] carbon footprint of cities while building community.”
A multi-day urban hike usually involves covering 15-20 miles a day without any backtracking. She lays out the route ahead of time, hitting every stairway that meets a certain parameter, maximizing greenways and pedestrian areas, and avoiding roads that aren’t foot or bike-friendly. Along the way, she stays with friends or at AirBnBs.
Liz says she enjoys how these multi-day hikes let her explore cities and learn about the unique neighborhoods and terrain.
“I think it ties in nicely with lower impact ways that tourists can experience [a] city instead of getting hauled around in a tour bus,” she said.
She shares a lot of what she finds in each city on her blog. She also invites hikers to join her on sections of the routes, trying to inspire others to see their city as a training ground for their sport, or simply to explore their home on foot.
Liz plans to tackle challenging urban thru-hikes in additional cities, including San Francisco and Pittsburgh, aiming to complete projects in cities with the most stairways or elevation gain.
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