Step Aside, Rocky — There's a New Kind of Urban Workout... the City StairMaster

Thinking of going for a stroll through San Francisco? How about a 110-mile, seven-day endurance trail that climbs all the public stairways in town? Every. Single. Stairway. There are more than six hundred of them, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is the challenge of the new trend of urban hiking.


Dear Mt. Everest: Meet your city equivalent. (Photo: Brian Oswald)

Rather than a stroll through Central Park or scenic city gardens, the focus of urban hiking is on conquering the stairways of a city. The trend’s origins can be tracked back to 2004, to Backpacker magazine’s coverage of Dan Koeppel’s “I Climbed Los Angeles,” in which he mapped out and ascended 300 outdoor stairways in town. He began his stepping as a training program for mountain climbs, but it quickly became a personal obsession, and now a growing national trend.

The urban hiking movement has expanded in popularity across the U.S., with enthusiastic stair-climbing communities clambering up concrete hills in cities such as Seattle, Pittsburgh, Oakland, and — of course — the oh-so-hilly San Francisco.

The latest addition to the urban hiking movement is to combine its stair-climbing focus with long-distance “thru-hiking.” The result is a hybrid called “urban thru-hikes.” These are not simply walks to get from the north end of town to the south, but rather a journey to complete the full set of known city staircases.

And there are rules. The main rule is that you’re not allowed to backtrack, to descend the same staircase you ascended, or walk the same street twice. Urban hiking pioneer Dan Koeppel said these rules are meant to “make the routes into real treks, and give them an aesthetic consistency.” But the practical application means city routes end up looking like a tangled plate of spaghetti.

Related: The 7 Best Hikes in Vail, Colorado


Triumph after a long stair climb. (Photo: Liz Thomas)

With these rules, the trip becomes less of a “point A to point B” hike, and more of a performance art project, albeit a very fit one. And the fun part about a developing sport is that you get to make up the rules as you go along. For example, stair-climbing philosophers like to debate exactly how many stairs make a staircase. And does the curb count as a step?

Distance hiker Liz Thomas (who, by the way, considers 10 steps to be a staircase) recently completed a six-day, 200-mile, 300-staircase odyssey around Los Angeles, calling it “the world’s first urban thru-hike. Robert Inman’s e-book “The 300" documents his version of a greater-Los Angeles thru-hike, with his own variations on the rules.

In San Francisco, the urban hiking bible is “Stairway Walks in San Francisco,” with over 600 stairways indexed. City walking tours and online guides offer bite-sized segments of San Francisco to explore like an urban hiker. Thru-hiker Joshua Stacy pioneered a 110-mile route last year, which connected all known stairways in a rule-observing set of paths around town, covering every one of the city’s 42 hills with a total of over 5,000 feet of uphill climbing.


Liz climbing a staircase in San Francisco. (Photo: Liz Thomas)

Currently, Liz Thomas is doing her own San Francisco urban thru-hike. She’s finding it presents unique challenges, even to an experienced cross-country trekker. “The pavement is tough on the feet,” Liz says. “I’ve got to wear shoes with extra cushioning, and walk on the street rather than the concrete sidewalks whenever possible to reduce impact. And you’re not able to create your own path as much, like bushwhacking or taking shortcuts through the forest.  It’s like being stuck in a slot canyon between all those buildings.”

Related: 7 Most Incredible Day Hikes in the World

One must also maintain some caution in sketchy neighborhoods or in tunneled passageways. And those might not be pine needles on the steps: “The syringes on the sidewalk near the homeless camp were a little disturbing,” Liz says.

But there are some benefits in an urban hike. “It’s nice not having to carry a week’s worth of food in my pack. Resupply is just a stop at a café or supermarket.” Liz showed off her urban foraging skills by hiking with a box of pizza strapped to her backpack.

It’s not just completing the route that’s important for urban hikers; the real reward is in adding to it. “You get special credit in the stair-climbing community if you find an undiscovered staircase,” says Liz, who scanned every alleyway and hillside as she followed her San Francisco route. She admits the constant vigilance takes its toll: “I see stairs in my sleep now.”


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a great city for urban hiking. (Photo: Brian Oswald)

Surprisingly, the ultimate urban hike in the U.S. is not in hilly San Francisco or concrete New York City, but rather in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to Bob Regan’s book “The Steps of Pittsburgh,” the city has nearly 45,000 steps within 700 outdoor public stairways carved into the hills around town.  A continuous thru-hike of this path would include 24,000 feet of elevation gain — almost a Mount Everest within city limits. But nobody has of yet declared they’ve done the city as a thru-hike, leaving it as perhaps the ultimate unconquered challenge in American urban hiking. Explorers, get out there!

Several Pittsburgh hiking groups meet regularly to hike segments of the steps, including the “modest” 5-mile, 4,200-step trip shown here. On October 4, The South Side Slopes organization will be hosting their 14th annual “Pittsburgh StepTrek” event, in which participants will hike up a course of local steps equal in height to the Empire State Building.


Stairs in Pittsburgh (Photo: Brian Oswald)

Despite the quirky rules, and the masochistic nature of long-distance stair climbs, there is a message behind the madness. “The urban hiking movement is all about revitalizing pedestrian life in the big cities,” Liz says. “We want to get the word out there that people can incorporate these amazing staircases into their daily life, whether it’s for exploring or fitness or just commuting.”

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