Liz Thomas isn’t afraid of the outdoors. A self-proclaimed “adventure athlete,” she’s hiked some of the most well known routes in the country, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific Crest trail. This week, the 27-year-old decided to try something new: urban hiking. For the first time in her four-year hiking career she traded in a dirt trail for cracked pavement, climbing as many as 300 stairways on her 175-mile journey from Pasadena to San Pedro. Here, she talks about navigating L.A. on foot, the saving grace of those hidden stairways, and why, sometimes, you’re Better Off Ped.
You have years of experience hiking and climbing mountains. Why the switch to urban hiking?
I think as athletes we are always looking for something to challenge us. I wanted to experience some of the joys that I’ve gotten from walking in the mountains in a new setting. I’m interested in people having places where they can walk in their own cities, and I like having a hike that’s a celebration of the places people can only go on foot. I really enjoyed seeing the diversity of neighborhoods in L.A. – historically, ecologically, culturally. I can’t appreciate it in a car.
What are some of the biggest differences between the city and mountain hike?
There are a lot of challenges that are really different in the mountains, but some are the same—like the joy of waking up and not knowing exactly where you are, and not knowing where you’re going to end up. For someone who hikes mountains, the challenges I deal with are weather, water and food. On this trail, the challenges are Where am I going to sleep? Or Where do I go to the bathroom? And walking on pavement is harder on the body. But the biggest challenge, I’d say, is Where are the stairs, and how do I find them?
So where do you sleep on an urban hike?
There’s a whole stair climbing community in L.A., and the community came together for me. People who live near the route let me stay in their house or backyard. They’re called trail angels. It’s a miracle that they want to help someone who is walking. L.A. doesn’t lack hotels, but I’m on a budget, and it’s been great just to meet these people and get to know them.
Are you sick of stairs yet?
The hike is like a scavenger hunt in that I’m always looking for stairs. I get really excited when I find stairs because I don’t have to go back and forth. The uphill climb is strenuous, sure, but none are so long that I can’t do them. It only lasts a few minutes. Plus, the view from the top is really amazing.
What advice would you give intrepid L.A. hikers?
I would say use the bathroom when you can find one. I would also say use roads, because that pavement is softer than cement – the pounding of feet on cement instead of trail was a surprising challenge. After 35 miles my feet were starting to feel it. But there are lots of people who walk around L.A. The stairways make it a lot more accessible between communities. There are hidden things I never knew existed that opened up my eyes. Just go for it.
You mentioned that your biggest worries in the wilderness are food and water. How does that compare in the city?
I came with a duffle bag of food and I ended up carrying it, mostly because there is so much great food in L.A. I think with urban hiking, if I were to do it again I would barely bring anything. For water, you can find a deli or gas station – usually right around the time when you say, “You know, I’m pretty thirsty.”
In the end, what did you think of urban hiking?
I love this idea of people in the city hiking and trying to emulate what I do in the mountains in a different environment. I have hiked in a desert and in the alpine, but not urban. And I love the idea of public spaces where people can work out and hang out and see new things. That’s what hiking is all about. That it can happen in a city, I think it’s really cool – especially because of the juxtaposition of our assumptions of L.A. with what the city really is.