August 10, 2008

Urban Hikes Make Most of City’s Cultural Amenities

By Cynthia Bombach Helzel

Hiking doesn't have to mean driving to the mountains to spend the day sidestepping snakes and dodging poison ivy. For those fitness buffs who would rather walk on concrete and be surrounded by tall buildings instead of towering trees, urban hiking is the answer. Several Pittsburgh groups offer organized urban hikes that make the most of the city's cultural amenities.

"It's a great way to show off the city," says Emily Keebler, a tour coordinator for Pittsburgh Urban Hike. "Pittsburgh has a lot of great features that you miss when you're in a car."

"Walkability" also is a factor. It's relatively easy to find safe and interesting hiking routes around Pittsburgh, as compared to some other major cities, she says.

Urban Hike was formed in 2003 by a group of volunteers who heard the idea at an Activate Pittsburgh meeting. Their goal was to get city residents more involved in appreciating all that the city had to offer by walking through one neighborhood at a time. The current team of four to six planners chooses a neighborhood to walk through for each monthly hike, then does extensive research on its local history and sites of interest.

"In every place, we highlight something different, whether it's local history, interesting businesses or upcoming events," Keebler says. "But it's as much of a hike as a tour, so we don't stop at every corner. If we see something special, we stop and point it out."

They try to get at least one speaker for each hike. For their tour of Greensburg earlier this summer, the group met at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, where a staff member briefly discussed the museum and its collections before the hike began.

The planners also try to include at least one offbeat site on each hike. "We like discovering new things, and we enjoy sharing them with people," Keebler says. "We also like to support local businesses. We don't want Pittsburgh to become just another strip mall."

One of their most memorable stops was Specter Studios in Sharpsburg. Originally a prop and costume shop for the local movie industry, the company now specializes in handmade latex costume wings. They make wings for everything from angels to demons, along with an array of masks and costumes. Another unusual place was the Homewood Library in Munhall, which, in addition to stacks of books, also has a swimming pool, gym and concert hall.

Keebler says the hardest part of planning the hikes is "finding a place where large numbers of people can park free for a long period of time." They encourage people to carpool when possible, especially for out-of-town trips like the one to Greensburg. The excursions usually end at a restaurant if there is one in the area large enough to accommodate all the hikers.

For many people, the social component of urban hiking is just as important as the physical and cultural benefits. It's not unusual for a hike to have a turnout of 30 to 45 people. The majority of participants are from Pittsburgh and its suburbs, although occasionally a resident will bring along an out-of-town visitor.

There is no fee or advance registration required to participate in the hikes. Each participant should bring a bottle of water and dress appropriately for the weather. Handouts with a map of the neighborhood and a summary of local history and highlights are given at the beginning of the walk. Because of the steps and hills in Pittsburgh, most of Urban Hike's tours are moderately difficult. They usually are three to five miles long and last 2 1/2 to three hours.

Hikes are held on weekends from April through October. This year, they have covered Washington's Landing, Troy Hill, Point Breeze and Greensburg. For more information, check out the group's Web site,

In their quest to visit offbeat locations, the planners of Urban Hike would do well to stop at the headquarters of Venture Outdoors. The facade of their Forbes Avenue building is festooned with brightly colored bicycles and kayaks that advertise its mission to get Pittsburghers more involved in the outdoors.

In addition to hikes, Venture Outdoors leads bike rides, fishing trips, winter sports outings and kayak excursions that take advantage of the city's many parks and its three rivers, as well as natural resources within the greater Pittsburgh region.

"Last year, 27,000 people got outside through our programs," says spokesman Louis DeVito. Participation has increased every year since the nonprofit was founded in 2001. Venture Outdoors has 4,300 members, who come mostly from Allegheny County, with increasing numbers from Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland. Membership is not necessary to take part in the programs, although fees are slightly higher for nonmembers.

Their most popular urban hikes are those that end with a tasty reward. A selection of food-themed urban hikes in July included a sold-out champagne and cocktails hike in Frick Park and a Blueberry Pie Hike in South Park. The Blueberry Pie Hikes are held monthly during the summer, with a variety of homemade pies offered at the end of the walk.

The Rivers Club 250 & Fit Hike is an easy evening walk of a few miles that begins Downtown and ends at the Rivers Club at Oxford Centre, where hikers can enjoy healthful food and drinks. It's part of an effort to encourage Pittsburghers to celebrate their city's 250th anniversary by becoming healthier and more active.

On Aug. 16, the group is planning a Incline History Hike, which will include a four-mile walk through the South Side and a ride on the Mon Incline.

For the over-21 crowd only, a Wine and Cheese Hike and Boat Cruise on Aug. 23 will feature a hike from the South Side to the North Side, followed by a cruise along the rivers with wine and cheese tasting.

Fees vary for each event. Check, or call 412-255-0564 for more details on these and other events.

For parents who want to give their children an early start on urban hiking, Venture Outdoors sponsors a spinoff program called Tyke Hikes. Beth Pedone and Lindsay Rethage were longtime members of Venture Outdoors when both had their first children. As new mothers, they began to participate in the organization's Tyke Hikes program, which organizes walks through city parks for mothers and children. The two women took over the program when they found it needed changes to better suit the needs of moms and kids.

"Tyke Hikes allowed us to stay active in Venture Outdoors," says Pedone, while starting off their children in an active lifestyle geared toward enjoying the outdoors.

The Tyke Hikes walks are short -- 45 minutes to an hour. They follow paths that are easy to negotiate with a regular stroller. And, as with most child-entered activities, there is a snack afterward. Hikes take place in four Pittsburgh city parks and in four parks in Allegheny County, April through October. Trip leaders talk about the plants and animals seen along the way, and about the history of surrounding areas. "Pittsburgh has a lot of wonderful parks," Pedone says. "Adults learn a lot about the city while they're on the hikes, too."

Special weekend hikes are held occasionally at places like the National Aviary. The season ends with a costumed Halloween hike in Schenley Park, followed by a party in the visitors' center. "It's a good way to cap off the season," Pedone says.

(c) 2008 Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.