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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

SF Urban Thru-Hike Part 1: Design


In preparing for this urban thru-hike of San Francisco, I was often asked "why are you doing this?" or "how did you come up with this idea?" The original idea came from an article I read about professional hiker extraordinaire Liz Thomas. Liz, who goes by the trail name "Snorkel" hiked what "might be the world's first urban thru-hike." Snorkel posted an account of her hike on her blog and LA Magazine published a great interview with the hiker. The more I read and researched the more excited I became about the possibility of an urban thru-hike of SF. What better city to attempt this hike in than the hilly and beautiful "city by the bay?"

The first challenge I had to overcome was how to find the stairways. This was actually a lot easier than I thought. I quickly purchased a copy of Adah Bakalinsky's absolutely amazing book "Stairway Walks in San Francisco." In this book, Adah has routed 29 lovely walks that traverse over 200 stairways. I started constructing my route by linking and slightly altering all of Adah's routes. In the appendix of Adah's book she also lists 670 stairways throughout the city. I then expanded the routes to include more stairways and ended up with 65 pages of maps and directions which would guide me to over 370 public stairways in the city. The route ended up being about 110 miles within SF. The planning for this trip was far more intensive than any wilderness hike I had planned previously.

Many questions came up over the course of this planning process. I figured there was no one better qualified to help me with my hike planning than Snorkel herself. 

Snorkel is amazing! She was very generous with her time and information. She answered all of my questions and this whole hike would have been much more challenging if not impossible without her mentorship. One of my biggest questions was about the rules for designing an urban stairway route. I wanted to be respectful to the stairway culture. I knew that there was a big stairway culture in SF, as there was in LA, but I couldn't find any long distance routes that had been constructed. In LA there are several. Liz linked together the Inman 300 (designed by Robert Inman) and Dan Koeppel's "Stairtrek." She traversed 300+ stairways over 165 miles in 5.5 days. I wanted my journey to have similar dimensions.

The rules for stairway routing that Snorkel passed on to me, I suspect, were based on Dan Koeppel's list. 

Here's Dan's list from the Big Parade FAQ, a yearly stairway walking festival in LA:

"When it comes to the stairways - especially my other stairway routes (I’ve got about 20 of them, ranging from five to forty miles), all follow some basic rules. I made up the rules, and I try to obey them at all times. Why? Because I think they make the routes into real treks, and give them an aesthetic consistency.


Here are the rules:
1) We never go up and down the same stairway - with one exception.
2) The exception is if the stairways is a circuit, meaning that it has a built-in split that allows us to ascend and descend it in a way that’s fun (think of it as a revolving door.) There are about five stairways on the route that fall into this category, which I call “circuit stairs.”
3) The route never doubles back on itself. Ideally, we should never walk the same stretch of street twice. Sometimes, this is impossible to avoid. If that’s the case, I try to minimize doubling to as little as possible, and - if practical - walk on opposite sides of the street. This may sound nuts, and probably it is, but the point, again, is to make this a real exploration. Why see something twice?
4) We try to use only genuine public stairways. Sometimes, that’s hard to determine, but property tax and city assessor’s maps help. 5) On walks that claim to be complete - for example, and “Every Stairway in Silverlake East of the Reservoir” walk - we will add any stairway we find, no matter how it forces us to change a seemingly-perfected route. That’s part of the challenge. The new route must always meet the general rules.
5) Another design goal is to minimize the distance between stairs, so our routes tend to “tighten” over time as we find ways to make them more efficient.
6) The Big Parade is a little different in that it doesn’t attempt to include every stairway within the set boundaries of the trip (it can’t - we’d never get done in two days.) So the basic rule of what to include and what not to is that we don’t “cut” stairways that are on the outer fringes of the route.
7) Stairs that are very close to each other should be done in sequence. This is because they are usually built in sequence, or to serve similar needs. Plus, they’re fun to do all in a row."

Snorkel added a few rules that I followed as well:

1) No backtracking on road or stairs
2) Stairways count as 2 if separated by a road
3) Buses and other public transit available to everyone are allowed but private cars and taxis are not
4) Allowed to go "off trail" for bathroom/food/water
5) All sections of staircases should be covered as either an up or a down (including when it splits into 2 directions, in which case, backtracking is ok to get both sections).

Snorkel also gave me lots of tips on gear, logistics, bathrooms etc. Her suggestion of a GPS watch was critical in the success of this trip. I ended up purchasing a refurbished Garmin Forerunner 310XT. Without this device, it would have been very difficult for me to keep track of my daily mileage. In addition, I now have maps of my routes created by the GPS software.

Check out the maps:





In the end, I covered 165+ miles in 5.5 days, averaging a little over 30 miles a day. 110 of those miles were part of the "urban hike" and the remaining 55 or so took pace in Marin County, traversing the gorgeous Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Mt. Tamalpais and Pt. Reyes. Over 370 stairways were traversed over the course of the hike although sometimes the counting of what was one or multiple stairways became a bit difficult to judge. I'll demonstrate these circumstances in Part 2.

I plan to streamline my route and estimate that it will get down to about 100 miles even. We'll see what happens. I'm excited to come back to it after I get back form the PCT. I also hope that others will come hike the SF route in future. I'd like to name it in Adah Bakalinsky's honor but I haven't been able to get in touch with her to get her blessing.

Getting back to the original question: "Why would someone want to do an urban hike?" The more I thought about this, the more the answers seemed to be the same as why I do any long distance backpacking trip. Walking allows for a more intimate understanding of a landscape. The intricate dynamics and relationships between people, other living things and the land are much more apparent at 3 miles an hour than they are at 30. I also wanted to really learn the layout of the city, explore its fantastic parks and meet its amazing and diverse residents. Plus, Adah Bakalinsky's book is full of wonderful history and ecology that added a great deal of depth to the planning of the hike. All of this added up to yet another meaningful and very entertaining adventure. And of course, there was the physical challenge of navigating a city that has 42 hills. Averaging 30 miles a day with 5,000 ft of elevation gain was no easy task. I'm feeling very ready for my Southbound PCT thru-hike that starts this week.

Once again I want to thank Adah Bakalinsky, Andrew Lichtman, Ying Chen, Robert Inman, Dan Koeppel and especially Liz Thomas for their inspiration and guidance directly or indirectly. This was an incredible adventure and I look forward to more urban hiking adventures in the future.