Thru-Hiking Los Angeles: 200 Miles, 312 Stairways, 3,000 Intersections

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On a warm evening last spring, Elizabeth Thomas joined hundreds of others climbing the stairs that rise up along Adelaide Drive in Santa Monica, California. The stairway draws workout-seekers from all over town, who crowd the steps daily. Some walked. Some ran. Some ran fast, cheered on by the stopwatch-clicking personal trainers who’d accompanied them. It was a scene that could make any hiker head for the hills. But Thomas tightened her grip on her trekking poles and continued her 3-mph pace, just as she’d been doing for the last 10 hours. It was day four of a five-day, 200-mile, 312-stairway trek through Los Angeles, and Thomas wasn’t about to abandon her quest because of a momentary abundance of spandex.

Thomas knows a thing or two about perseverance. Two years ago, she set a women’s speed record for an unsupported thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, completing the 2,181-mile journey in just over 80 days (averaging nearly 30 miles a day). The 27-year-old has also thru-hiked the PCT and the CDT, among other long trails. (She works temporary jobs so she can be free during hiking season.) In L.A., her persistence was rewarded an hour later, after dusk, at the narrow end of Rustic Canyon. A creek gurgled. Frogs chirped. What little light there was came from what appeared to be tiny cabins lining the route. Thomas took a breath. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

Thomas had been recruited by a group of Los Angeles hikers to attempt a walk that covered every one of the city’s public stairways along an unbroken route. Supporters of the trek—named the “Inman 300,” after its creator, Robert Inman, and the rounded-off total number of stairways—wanted to establish the journey as the world’s first all-urban thru-hike. Who better for the task than a record-setting thru-hiker?

Inman, a lifelong Angeleno who loves the city’s history, parks, quirky neighborhoods, and architecture, had discovered that walking the stairways connected him “to all the other L.A. passions I already had.” Inman and I became friends after I wrote an article about my own obsessive L.A. hiking and stairway mapping (backpacker.com/stairways). That story led to a cold-call from a pair of passionate hikers named Andrew Lichtman and Ying Chen. Lichtman is an experienced mountaineer, and Chen is a thru-hiker herself—she did the PCT in 2009—but both live in downtown Los Angeles, and since the initial walk I led them on, the pair have been on an evangelical mission to show there’s just as much adventure on city streets as there is in the backcountry. Indeed, they hope the Inman 300 might attract walkers to a city that’s (wrongly) regarded as the world’s least foot-friendly.

After finishing the PCT, Chen wondered whether all the stairs in Inman’s self-published A Guide to the Public Stairways of Los Angeles could be threaded together into a single, epic route. In late April, 2012, with Inman as guide, the trio completed the trek, camping in city parks and finishing the route in 10 days. The next step was to get the trek some press—ideally, via a thru-hiker. “Somebody with a lot of experience and a good reputation—who’d attract attention,” Lichtman said.

Enter Thomas, who admired the goal of the L.A. crew, and hoped to blitz the 200-mile route in five days. The Colorado resident has a Master’s from Yale in environmental policy, and a doctorate in long-distance hiking. She knows that most people—even the fastest speed hikers—can’t always find the time for the kind of deep-immersion, transformative wilderness experience she’s made her name with. She wanted to help by proving it’s possible to tackle a legit long-distance hike without ever leaving the city—whether you do it a day or an hour at a time. “Lichtman and Chen were asking me to try something that I’d never thought about, something that seemed really special,” Thomas said. She was game for the walk, and liked the concept, but wasn’t totally sure how it would work out. “As an advocate of public space and public land, I was really intrigued by the idea of having access to something you don’t have to drive two hours to reach. But it definitely felt quirky, especially since it was in—of all places—Los Angeles.” Quirky, no doubt, but would it be fun?

Traditionally, on a backcountry walk, there’s generally only one way from Point A to Point B. In a city—and especially on the Inman 300, where the points strung together are public stairways—there are infinite permutations. In L.A., most stairways are a remnant of the city’s expansion before World War II, when developers built footpaths to allow new homeowners to easily walk to their houses in the hills from the lowlands, where the streetcars that formed the city’s primary early transportation network ran. “The trick of the route,” Inman said, “was to find a way to do it all with as much walking as possible, and taking the bus as little as needed.” (If you’re determined to hit all 312 stairways, public transportation allows you to reach isolated, remote ones that are far from L.A.’s stairway epicenters—without turning it into a thousand-mile epic.) As with any thru-hike, the earliest versions of the walk are a kind of prototype—the Appalachian Trail evolved for decades before a final route was set.

The major differences between a city thru-hike and one in the backcountry asserted themselves most prominently on the long days. (Thomas’s biggest day extended the route I wrote about in this magazine, called Stair Trek, adding two dozen additional stairways, along with 10 miles, for a 34-mile day that gained more than 10,000 feet.) The easy availability of food and water boosted hiking speed on these days. Thomas carried a 7-pound pack, eating along the way, and the food was good compared to energy bars and freeze-dried fare. “Burritos and pasta were a huge plus,” she said. A negative was foot care: Pounding pavement turned out to be harder on the body than walking trails. Thomas developed the habit of varying the surface she was treading by hopping from sidewalk to grassy median and back again. And instead of concerns about bears or mountain lions or rockfall, she had sketchy neighborhoods. I live in a stairway-filled part of town, so I was able to meet with Thomas as she hiked by late one evening. She felt comfortable being with a local, but when she was walking solo, anxiety crept in. “Being a woman at night on a traditional wilderness hike isn’t all that different from being a man. But in the city, there’s a difference.” On one segment near L.A.’s Chinatown, Thomas passed nervously—though without incident—through holes in fences that led to homeless camps.

But a spectacular vista followed, as Thomas hiked along a narrow, little-used pathway between lanes of a freeway, connecting downtown with northeast Los Angeles. The urban scene was nothing like she’d experienced in the backcountry, but mesmerizing nonetheless. Cars streamed by; below her, freight trains navigated the tracks along the Los Angeles River; and in the distance, the peaks of the San Gabriels shimmered in the heat.

Squatter camps and freeway passages aren’t typically picturesque. But they represent a diversity in urban hiking that doesn’t exist in the woods. “You see everything,” Thomas told me, “and to cram it all into a few days is pretty amazing. Hiking, whether urban or mountain, is exploring.”

What surprised Thomas most was finding the one thing she thought she’d miss—the classic serenity of the trail—in city scenes. She experienced it in Rustic Canyon, along the quiet creek, but also as she walked a quintet of stairways that make up L.A.’s Beachwood Canyon neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills. Those stairs are narrower than most, traversing retaining walls that keep the hillside intact during the city’s December rains; tiny bungalows line the narrow steps. Thomas found herself slowing down to look at architecture, like a house with terra cotta tiles above the Hollywood Bowl, near another stairway that also included a private elevator for residents who couldn’t do the climb under their own power.

One major similarity between a traditional thru-hike and the urban variety, said Thomas, is a sense of a community, that you’re part of a fraternity defined by effort and mutual support. On conventional trails, that means walking for a few days with other hikers and relying on non-hiking trail angels for resupply. In Los Angeles, that meant joining local community members, who acted as guides and angels, donating time or mapping skills or backyards for Thomas to camp in. On the manicured streets of the Palos Verdes suburb, Thomas walked at a fast clip with long-time urban hiker and ultra-runner Steve Matsuda, connecting stairways above a sparkling, calm, Pacific Ocean. “There’s so much respect and love for the city in the people who helped,” Thomas said.

As she walked, word of her effort spread. Local blogs, then the news media, presented enthusiastic—though somewhat befuddled—accounts. Other hikers joined her, which was helpful, since many of them knew the neighborhoods well, and—on a route that might cross 1,000 intersections in a day—wrong turns could cost time. (Navigation issues caused Thomas to slightly miss her goal; she finished late morning on day six.)

So will thru-hikers follow? The Inman 300 was different—really different—Thomas said, but still beautiful. However, beauty—the kind most backpackers would recognize or otherwise—may not be the deciding factor. Traditional long-distance walkers like scenery, “but most are the kind of people who are OK with looking at their feet,” Thomas added. “They’re about the rhythm and the distance covered, the cumulative sense of walking for miles on your own.” And that, it turns out, you can do anywhere.

Dan Koeppel leads an annual two-day, 100-stairway group hike in L.A. called the Big Parade (bigparadela.com).

Escape in L.A.

Hike all 200 miles of the Inman 300, or sample its best sections with these picks.

STAIR TREK This 24-mile, 83-stairway route is done as an annual group event, but you can find the route online (below). For a shorter segment, try the Echo Park neighborhood. Start with Stairway 22, following the route through Stairway 44, then connect back. Info bit.ly/StairTrek

TOMATO PIE This supershort but tough walk covers 2.5 miles and 14 stairways, adjoining the Stair Trek route. Local enthusiasts organize a free group walk here every Tuesday night. Info bit.ly/TomatoPie DIY,bit.ly/TomatoPieMap

INMAN 300 Want to tackle the whole thing? Fall through spring offer the best temps. Start with Inman’s guide: bit.ly/Inman300.