Liz Thomas Fastpacking in urban LA - © Kevin Steele  /
Liz Thomas Fastpacking in urban LA - © Kevin Steele / (Photo: Kevin Steele)
The New Explorers
Sponsor Content: THE NORTH FACE

The New Rules of Urban Exploration

Urban trails, climbing gyms, and indoor mountain biking parks are just the start. If you have the right mind-set, cities can be way more adventure-filled than you might think.

Liz Thomas Fastpacking in urban LA - © Kevin Steele  /

One of pro snowboarder Cole Navin’s favorite adventures was the 24-hour layover he spent in Sydney. Rather than surf the Internet in the airport lounge, The North Face athlete and a friend rented a van, met up with some locals, saw the famous Opera House, caught some live music, and, after sleeping in the back of the rental car outside of a nightclub, spent the morning skateboarding around town. “Those 24 hours were almost as fun as the 12 days I’d just spent snowboarding in New Zealand,” says Navin, “and it all happened because I said ‘Yes, I’ll leave the airport.’” Urban adventuring isn’t just the purview of street riders like Navin, though. Cities are rapidly becoming adventure hubs, replete with indoor and outdoor opportunities like urban trails, climbing gyms, indoor mountain biking parks, and even dragon boat racing clubs. Exploration is a state of mind—here’s how to apply it to urban settings.

(Mike Bresnen)

Take the Outdoors In

Once a sweaty haven for hardcore climbers wanting to stay fit during the winter, climbing gyms have since become hubs for all stripes of adventure-minded folks. Many, like the outdoor walls atop a hotel in Reno and the converted grain silos in Oklahoma City, are worth a visit just for the experience. Others, like Brooklyn Boulders in New York, are a great place to climb and, thanks to on-site co-working spaces, still be on the clock. If climbing’s not your thing, or just one of the things you like to do, many climbing gyms now offer yoga, spinning, and fitness classes—and even post-activity beers. Another option: You can mountain bike in big cities now, too. There are indoor bike parks in at least nine cities, including Cleveland, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh. In Louisville, the Mega Cavern features 320,000 square feet of jump lines, pump tracks, and cross-country trails—all 100 feet underground in a former limestone quarry.

Urban Trails Reveal Hidden Charms

Lower Manhattan’s High Line trail, a 1.5-mile elevated railway converted to a walking path and garden, ushered in a new era of urban trails for New York in 2009. Elsewhere, cities like Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Paris have hopped aboard the rails-to-trails trend. Most are open to walkers, runners, and bikers, and some of the best ones have their own unique flavor. The Duluth Traverse, for example, is a 40-mile singletrack mountain bike trail across the Minnesota metro area. Denver’s Confluence Park hosts a whitewater playground on the South Platte River. Atlanta’s BeltLine trail is a footpath to public art. And Portland, Oregon’s new Gateway Green has a mile of bike jump tracks and skill-building features nestled among 25 acres between two interstate overpasses.

More People Means More Partners in Adventure

Nothing wrong with bowling leagues, but urban adventuring is a great way to meet people. It’s as easy as heading to a climbing gym and asking for a belay. Or joining a dragon boat racing crew—20 people per dragon—a sport with chapters in most major cities on a harbor or river. Even alpinists connect: Portland, Oregon’s Mazamas mountaineering club hosts weekly guided $2 “Street Rambles” in and around 5,200-acre Forest Park. To the north in Seattle, retailer Evo hosts free Wakesurf Wednesdays through the summer. And, nationally, 13 urban Mappy Hour chapters let the exploration-minded crowd connect, swap stories, and brainstorm plans over beverages.

(Kevin Steele)

Don’t Let Cities Limit Your Ambitions

Urban hiking meetups are a good way to discover new possibilities close to home. But if you shift your definition of what constitutes a proper adventure, you can make the city worthy of an full-blown expedition. A growing number of urban hikers are tracing routes through cities like Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Chicago. City through-hikers carry a GPS, but they still sometimes get cliffed out by highway noise barriers or other impassable features and have to deal with crossing high-traffic streets. But the cool thing about them is, with all the options found in cities, you can tailor them to the environment or your personal tastes. In Los Angeles, for example, the Inman 300 traverses 340 public staircases over 220 miles, while an intrepid hiker in Denver used breweries as waypoints for navigating their way across Denver.

Create New Challenges

When North Face runner Hillary Allen studied abroad in college, she’d purposefully lose herself in ancient maze-like Spanish cities. “I loved the challenge of finding my way home, and encountering the unexpected,” says Allen. It’s a technique she still uses today, like when she recently went for a run in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and unexpectedly found herself at the iconic Hollywood sign. Snowboarder Navin prefers to explore with a mission in mind, looking for handrails to ride—and document. “The act of photography focuses you, so you aren’t just wandering aimlessly,” he says. “Having a goal like a new trick or making a photo is a more inspiring experience.”

The North Face believes in celebrating the spirit of exploration that lives within us all. From the mountain to the city, they believe that all explorers share a mindset of curiosity paired with the courage to try something new. This 4-part series also includes a climbing prodigy from New York City,  a snowboarder mentoring the next generation of female street riders, and an explorer with creative passions just as varied as his climbing ones. ​​​​

Lead Photo: Kevin Steele