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By: Grace Cooper
I never enjoyed hiking much as a child—it always involved bugs and sweating. Other than the ugly shoes and the wild animals it sort of reminded me of walking through a museum. There were a lot of similarities: it was uninteresting, my feet hurt, and my parents forced me to do it. But, as I grew older and more interested in finding a way to escape the stress of school, I began to appreciate hiking as the true sport it is. In high school I hiked a fair amount in the Shenandoah Valley and Washington National Forrest; in fact, for our senior trip my friend and I actually went backpacking instead of going to the beach. So, I guess you could say I learned to love hiking. Incidentally, I like museums now too.
Unfortunately, my love of hiking came just a little too late. Although Pennsylvania is full of wonderful parks and trails, these opportunities aren’t really available to a poor and carless college student. Or so I thought, until I discovered something called urban hiking.
The term urban hiking is pretty self-explanatory—it’s just hiking in an urban environment. This doesn’t necessarily just mean plowing down the sidewalk on Forbes Avenue or speed walking up and down Cardiac Hill; urban hikers often make their own trails using whatever the landscapes provides: local parks, quiet neighborhoods, stairs, etc. Luckily for me Pittsburgh is the city of stairs. With over 700 sets of stairs—the most steps of any one city in the country—the urban hiking opportunities are endless.
To start, I chose to do one of the one of the most commonly hiked stair trails, the South Side Slopes, which claims 68 sets or about 10% of Pittsburgh’s stairs (that’s 1,457 vertical feet or roughly the height of the Empire State Building). The portion of the stairs that I went on take you up the side of Mt. Washington through neighborhoods of houses leaning into the side of the mountain. The narrow stairways and lack of upkeep may be frightening to those lacking balance (we did have a run-in with a faulty railing), but the view from the top is definitely worth it. From the highest point you can experience a breathtaking view of downtown, South Side, and even Oakland.
If you’re looking to do the South Side Steps but can’t find yourself a hiking buddy, the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association also holds an annual StepTrek event. It’s usually held on an autumn Saturday and participants have the opportunity to register and hike the stairs with other people who are interested in learning some Pittsburgh history as well.
If you don’t want to wait until next fall to enjoy the slopes you can go out by yourself (there are some trail signs on the stairs) or follow the Church Route courtesy of the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association. The map and info sheet take you for a ride past a few of the slopes’ churches and even a monastery. With this handy guide hiking becomes a tour of the city and a history lesson all in one!
The nice thing about the South Side Slopes, and urban hiking in general, is you’re never very far away from anything you might need: food, water, bathrooms. There’s no heavy gear needed because the hike should only take you a couple hours at most and if you get lost all you have to do is walk up or down the stairs until you hit the road. Even if you get tired or have a craving to shop SouthSide Works is only a few staircases away (I may or may not have made an emergency trip to H&M after my hike).
So, the next time you’re looking to get some exercise and explore the city, consider hiking the South Side Slopes!
Yes, nature is beautiful, but nothing can beat a hidden hilltop view of Cathedral of Learning.