The Art of Urban Hiking- How To Adventure in the Heart of Your City
For those of us that need the outdoors just as much as we need water to drink, heading to the mountains, national parks, or just the countryside can cause a time crunch when you’re trying to balance out the rest of your life (ugh, work). Why not go exploring inside your city?
I was once told a story about a man who had parked his truck on a street in New York City only to get into a serious accident where upon he was taken to a hospital. He stayed in the hospital for quite some time, slowly being nursed back to health. All the while his truck stayed parked in the same spot, enduring the weather and seasons of the city. When the man was finally healthy, he returned to his vehicle. Over the seasons dust, dirt, leaves, and seeds had been blown in. Birds and squirrels had left droppings, food, and more seeds. Rain water and snow had collected and bugs had crawled or flown in to the truck bed. In the spring when he returned healthy the bed of his truck was alive with sprouts, saplings, flowers, and insects. Even in the heart of concrete and steel nature persists, if you let it.
Your city definitely has some urban trails waiting to be explored by you.
Houston, Texas. Courtesy ACG Houston
Lets take Houston, Texas, a city that can attribute its growth to the oil industry, for example. Its literally the largest city by size in America and is mostly covered with concrete for the oil guzzling cars to drive on. It has been named America’s fattest city due to lack of recreation availability and high number of restaurants. Planted on subsiding coastal clays in flat wetlands, the climate is hot and humid most of the year. The area only freezes a couple times a year and summer days usually see temperatures in the high 90’s and humidity at 90%. The closest mountains reside around Big Bend National Park, a quick 8 hour drive away. From the center of downtown, getting outside of the suburbs to the beach, hill country, or forested swampy open land can take 2 hours or more. Sure hiking inside cities like Denver, San Diego, or Burlington, Vermont sounds likely as they are known for being near beautiful natural features and for their “green citizenry”… but hiking around Houston sounds like a joke.
However, Houston actually hosts an array of city trails and outdoor activities.
128 miles of trails: The Houston Parks and Recreation Department provides these many miles of paved trails that run along bayous or through parks. These allow users to hike, bike, walk their dog, run, or whatever. Many are paved or have a nice rocky substrate.
Conservation Non-Profits: Often organizations like the Audubon Society or local botanic gardens, conservancies, arboretums, and preserves will own land with the purpose of conserving some part of our natural world. These vary greatly by city, but I can bet your city has some. Price may vary as well, although many are free. If they charge admission it is a donation to that non-profit organization. Here are a couple sites in Houston (other than the above linked Houston Audubon Society, who offers several nature sanctuaries for you to visit for free): Armand Bayou Nature Center, Houston Arboretum and Nature Center (free), Buffalo Bayou Park (downtown and free), Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center (free), and many more.
Flood Control Land: Many cities sanction land to remain undeveloped because vegetation can act as a giant sponge as well as be used as a reservoir (with some structure). For instance, George Bush Park (7800 acres) in Houston has the Addicks Reservoirs that prevents flooding in the city as well as offer wildlife habitat and trails for Houston hikes.
State and Local Parks organizations: Local government will own land. No matter where you are, just like the old phrase “There will always be death and taxes”, and those taxes help provide public open space! Houston: Harris County Parks, City of Houston, Texas State Parks
Social Trails: These are trails made by the people and for the people. They will never be paved and government organizations may not even know about them. Usually you discover these by surprise, but you can also do your research. Check out sites like AllTrails.
Paddling: Houston has a lot of water. Check out Bayou Preservation Society. Sailing and other water sports abound just outside of town as well.
There are many other opportunities as well! So really even if you live in the so-called “fattest city” and work at a desk 40 hours of the week you still have the places to get outdoors.
Yellow crowned night heron at one of Houston’s Audubon Sanctuaries
Here is the quick and dirty gist of finding outdoor adventure in your city:
Check your local parks organizations websites. Try your County, City, and possibly even your State site (sometimes State Parks are located very close to city urban areas)
Try conservation non-profits. Many own pristine land and will let you recreate on it for free. If you don’t know a whole lot about your city, try a Google search for “insert-city-name environmental non-profits”. You can also search for wilderness passports or parks passports which will contain a list of parks to visit (usually made for kids or families to visit). Searching for arboretums, gardens, nature centers, preserves, nature sanctuaries, conservancies, and the like will also yield nice results.
User-Input Sites. Their are several websites that host user generated content with opinions about trails and parks (like Yelp!). A few popular ones: AllTrails.com, trails.com, and everytrail.com.
On city trails and parks you can expect a variety of facilities. Some may have bathrooms, water fountains, and even food trucks. Others may be bathroom-less and so popular that it may be impossible to make nature your bathroom.
When it comes to hiking essentials, the urban playground usually still requires some basic gear.. or money, as well a few special items. Check out our article on the Top 10 Hiking Essentials for Urban Hikes.
Have fun and get out there!!