2021’s Best Cities for Hiking

man hiking with backpack on mountain trail

Ready to get outside after so many months cooped up? Take a hike. Seriously. 

The perfect casual exercise to strengthen body and mind is hiking. Going for a hike is a great way to leave your home while following current pandemic health guidelines. 

But where are the best places to hike amid trees, streams, native grasses and wildflowers?

LawnStarter ranked the Best Cities for Hiking based on 11 key metrics ranging from the number of usable trails to the average amount of sunshine. 

You can find our ranking, highlights/lowlights, and methodology below. Then lace up your hiking boots, head outdoors, and get a shot of nature. 

Table of Contents

  1. City Rankings
  2. Highlights and Lowlights
  3. Ask the Experts
  4. Methodology
  5. Why This Study Matters

City Rankings

See how each city fared in our ranking:

OVERALL RANKCityOverall ScoreAccess RankQuality RankClimate RankSafety Rank
1San Francisco, CA65.10244171
2Oakland, CA64.931025757
3Los Angeles, CA64.6722824138
4San Diego, CA63.4111292113
5Portland, OR63.28437326
6San Jose, CA62.6512226113
7Huntington Beach, CA62.5474112117
8Moreno Valley, CA61.19131512121
9Tucson, AZ61.023124632
10Long Beach, CA61.0064111138
11Oceanside, CA59.9223412113
12Riverside, CA59.77143412121
13Las Vegas, NV59.69873438
14Phoenix, AZ59.301305269
15Fremont, CA58.884618757
16Anaheim, CA58.67184112117
17Colorado Springs, CO58.295266217
18San Bernardino, CA56.8876112100
19Rancho Cucamonga, CA56.8754512100
20Chula Vista, CA56.4692232113
21Irvine, CA56.10381812117
22Ontario, CA55.962014712100
23Fontana, CA55.14794112100
24Santa Rosa, CA54.9140271144
25Albuquerque, NM54.9017114245
26Seattle, WA54.7226353911
27El Paso, TX54.51448389
28Santa Ana, CA54.37754112117
29Honolulu, HI53.8521410149
30Glendale, CA53.7570612138
31Elk Grove, CA53.7268412721
32Sacramento, CA53.5374412721
33Santa Clarita, CA53.31672012138
34Scottsdale, AZ52.3215175269
35North Las Vegas, NV52.117133438
36Minneapolis, MN51.976141439
37Salt Lake City, UT51.959265121
38Henderson, NV51.8462143438
39Vancouver, WA51.3660413238
40Boise City, ID51.0119134784
41Greensboro, NC50.9099412696
42St. Paul, MN50.7594414312
43Oxnard, CA50.62341475147
44San Antonio, TX50.282541837
45Tacoma, WA49.9343413966
46Mesa, AZ49.1127325269
47Spokane, WA48.9849416033
48Tampa, FL48.987241664
49Austin, TX48.7716418862
50Winston-Salem, NC47.93954125142
51Reno, NV47.3722961137
52Aurora, CO47.2756417121
53Salem, OR47.18120414176
54Denver, CO47.0728387164
55New York, NY47.04293310527
56Louisville, KY47.0353411223
57Glendale, AZ46.9366415269
58Stockton, CA46.83454137132
59Bakersfield, CA46.82962430131
60Knoxville, TN46.48394110025
61Peoria, AZ46.4278415279
62Durham, NC46.3736417453
63Chandler, AZ46.2584415269
64Tempe, AZ46.1190415269
65Buffalo, NY45.99104411182
66Fresno, CA45.911233831129
67Atlanta, GA45.7255417545
68Raleigh, NC45.5032418065
69Lubbock, TX45.44145414584
70Dallas, TX45.3042419052
71Milwaukee, WI45.261094110113
72Cleveland, OH45.25514112816
73Yonkers, NY45.23584111419
74Akron, OH45.19654111918
75Modesto, CA45.16864129144
76Virginia Beach, VA45.04804148106
77Grand Rapids, MI45.0097411294
78Kansas City, MO44.62574112031
79Fort Worth, TX44.6163419047
80Philadelphia, PA44.4881418248
81Columbus, OH44.43114411238
82Pittsburgh, PA44.36524111736
83Corpus Christi, TX44.23143416444
84Chesapeake, VA44.131114148106
85Charlotte, NC44.09484169106
86Toledo, OH44.021374110615
87Indianapolis, IN43.96474113235
88Detroit, MI43.78129419921
89Wichita, KS43.671404111314
90McKinney, TX43.66100419042
91Laredo, TX43.57150417726
92Grand Prairie, TX43.5293419054
93Fort Wayne, IN43.401274111120
94Newport News, VA43.381054148124
95Amarillo, TX43.31146106399
96Baltimore, MD43.281024110837
97Chicago, IL43.26774113328
98Washington, DC43.234114670130
99Newark, NJ43.161124111428
100Gilbert, AZ43.11891475269
101Plano, TX43.06107419055
102Brownsville, TX43.01149416860
103Irving, TX42.79124419048
104Providence, RI42.75824112448
105Frisco, TX42.63122419055
106Arlington, TX42.61107419063
107Madison, WI42.521034113134
108Garland, TX42.48117419059
109Lincoln, NE42.36105417884
110Norfolk, VA42.351424148124
111St. Petersburg, FL42.31854166124
112Aurora, IL42.271104113328
113Lexington, KY42.25126418960
114Boston, MA42.19115417684
115Jacksonville, FL42.07694110996
116Miami, FL42.07119418577
117Huntsville, AL42.063336130106
118Oklahoma City, OK41.631134110481
119Chattanooga, TN41.54503114180
120Hialeah, FL41.39144418577
121Columbus, GA41.34133418484
122Rochester, NY41.348341103106
123Fayetteville, NC41.26131418098
124Houston, TX41.03374114882
125Nashville, TN40.98884112783
126St. Louis, MO40.97874113566
127Little Rock, AR40.881012112695
128Des Moines, IA40.871164111084
129Worcester, MA40.653141136124
130Birmingham, AL40.64644114093
131Sioux Falls, SD40.591344110784
132Tulsa, OK40.491254114443
133Overland Park, KS40.461184112084
134Fort Lauderdale, FL40.411384185105
135Orlando, FL40.325941102132
136New Orleans, LA40.241284114251
137Memphis, TN39.737341143100
138Omaha, NE39.4513641112106
139Port St. Lucie, FL39.371354173132
140Richmond, VA38.91984179142
141Cape Coral, FL38.781414113793
142Cincinnati, OH38.05354115068
143Augusta, GA37.6613938139106
144Montgomery, AL37.471474114684
145Anchorage, AK36.853016125149
146Tallahassee, FL36.199141147132
147Jersey City, NJ35.74121147114124
148Shreveport, LA35.6714741138132
149Baton Rouge, LA32.8313041149144
150Mobile, AL32.0113241145148
Infographic showing best cities for hiking, based on trails, climate, sunny days, rainy days, etc.
 

Highlights and Lowlights

California Dreaming

Our hiking ranking was dominated by California. While almost every city in the Golden State performed well in the Climate categories due to mild weather and plentiful sunshine, the cities also are well rounded in other metrics such as number of hiking routes, number of camping sites, and variety in route difficulty. California is a hiker’s dream.

Happy Trails Out West

Other Western-state cities, such as Tucson, Las Vegas and Portland, also ranked well. Western cities tend to feature a higher number of hiking routes and camping stores. The climate is generally better for the outdoors than might be expected as well: Western cities report better air quality and — despite the wet reputation of the Pacific Northwest — surprisingly little average monthly precipitation.

Fewer Perfect Hiking Days

While cities in the South and Midwest fared poorly in a number of Best Hiking City metrics, it’s temperatures that truly mark these regions as less than ideal for hiking. Cities like Tallahassee and Cincinnati are subject to temperature extremes with a high yearly average of both very cold and very hot days. It’s not impossible to find a nice day for a stroll here, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

Ask The Experts

While anyone can set out on a trail, hiking is more complicated than you might expect. Thankfully, we have a panel of outdoor experts to help boost your confidence. Below you’ll find answers to some of LawnStarter’s questions on topics like hiking safety and unequal access to green spaces.

 

  1. According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access? 
  2. Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider? 
  3. Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors? 
  4. Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?
Christopher P. Morley, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Vice Chair for Research, Department of Family Medicine, Professor of Public Health, Family Medicine,& Psychiatry
Merry Moiseichik, Re.D, J.D.
Professor
Dale Larsen
Professor of Practice & Honors Faculty, Director of Community Relations & Engagement, College of Public Service and Community Solutions, School of Community Resources and Development
Mitch Hoffman
Director of Outdoor Programs, University Recreation and Wellness
Rick Gage, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Natural Resources and the Environment
Brian Forist, Ph.D.
Lecturer and Program Coordinator: Outdoor Recreation, Parks, and Human Ecology
Aaron Edgley
Adjunct Instructor
Jerome Gabriel
Assistant Professor, Recreation and Sport Management
Kelly Goonan
Assistant Professor of Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism
Andrew J. Bobilya, Ph. D.
Professor and Program Director of Experiential and Outdoor Education (M.S.), Professor of Parks and Recreation Management (B.S.)
Shawn Ladda
Professor
Christopher P. Morley, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Vice Chair for Research, Department of Family Medicine, Professor of Public Health, Family Medicine,& Psychiatry
SUNY Upstate Medical University

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

Almost by definition, as population density goes up, the amount of green space goes down, so it makes sense that many people live in areas with little access to green space.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

Outdoor activities are highly recommended during the pandemic, as opposed to gathering indoors. However, that does not mean that people need to stop being cautious. Even when outside:

  • Wear a mask if you are going to come into contact with anyone. This includes narrow hiking trails where you might be walking near others, even momentarily.
  • Try to walk with people from your household. If you are walking with people outside of your household, masks should be worn at all times. Keep a distance as well.
  • Remember, you can stay reasonably safe outside, but if you drive to the hiking spot with someone from outside of your household, the car (or train, bus, cab, etc.) is an indoor environment. Try to arrive and depart separately. This goes for food or coffee stops as well.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Local governments would be well-advised to stress outdoor activities for their residents, and actively promote opportunities to hike. This can and should be paired with strong messaging to limit indoor activities and gatherings.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

As a semi-novice hiker myself, the first thing I recommend is to find decent shoes, and secondly, make sure you stretch! Hiking is more than walking –  rougher terrain, inclines and declines, and loose soil or gravel all introduce new challenges beyond simply walking through the neighborhood.

Additionally, consider any health issues you have, and check with your primary care physician if you have any condition that might impact your ability to engage in hiking or other physical activities.

Also, start slowly, and find someplace that is a) easier to traverse for a beginner, and b) aesthetically beautiful. Exposure to green space is not only a safer way to interact during the pandemic; there is a growing body of literature that exposure to green space and “forest bathing” are measurably beneficial for the relief of stress. (See our paper, “The relationship between self-reported exposure to greenspace and human stress in Baltimore, MD”

Why is hiking still important (even with vaccines, reopenings, etc)?  

This is a great question. We definitely see some light at the end of the tunnel, regarding the pandemic! So, why is it still important to emphasize outdoor activities like hiking? Well, for one, not enough people are immune to the virus that causes COVID-19. With massive new efforts to roll out vaccines, it is my hope that we will get there. However, although news reports emphasize our “declining cases,”  there are still too many cases appearing every day. Even after the decline in cases, we still have more cases per day now, than we did at the beginning of the pandemic. Additionally, either vaccination or previous infection probably keep MOST people from getting sick from the same strain of virus. However, we are still working out the science about whether either vaccines or previous infection can help prevent transmission. In other words, if you have been previously infected or vaccinated, you probably won’t get sick from current strains that are circulating. However, we don’t know for sure whether you still could carry the virus to someone who is unvaccinated. Finally, with new variants and strains emerging, we don’t know for sure whether previous infection or vaccination will protect you from all “versions” of the virus, now or in the future. In short, it is still wise to bring your activities outdoors, especially as Spring weather allows us to do more hiking!

Merry Moiseichik, Re.D, J.D.
Professor
University of Arkansas

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

The cost of land and the lack of foresight by city governments to put in some sort of ordinance that requires developers to put aside a section of parkland.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

If hiking in a busy area, wear masks and wash hands when you get home.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Market the trails and provide on-line maps of the various trails in the area.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

Get some good hiking shoes, find a comfortable way to carry water, and use a hiking stick.  It really helps for going up and down steep areas.

Dale Larsen
Professor of Practice & Honors Faculty, Director of Community Relations & Engagement, College of Public Service and Community Solutions, School of Community Resources and Development
Arizona State University

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

Phoenix, AZ and Maricopa County specifically, and AZ, in general, are blessed with hundreds of miles of accessible public hiking and park-friendly walking trails for outdoor enthusiasts. Phoenix alone has over 40,000 acres of public parks, mountain parks, and trails – most within walking, biking, or a short driving distance of neighborhoods.

Urban planners need to be acutely aware of the need for accessible (able-bodied as well as disabled populations) public park and nature-driven trails: hiking, biking, and walking. Hiking replaced golf as the most popular outdoor recreational pursuit,

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

Responsibly follow CDC guidelines on all trails; social distancing, masks in crowded trails, courtesy with other hikers.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Local park and recreation agencies need to be up to date with websites and social media outlets in order to provide positive messaging to users. Locally elected and appointed officials can be engaged to help promote safe and healthy lifestyles in parks and trails.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

This is important and one of the less than satisfactory outcomes of new hikers during the Covid crisis. Remind and enforce new hikers to “stay on marked trails” and not venture into fragile natural areas. “Leave no trace” practices must be practiced. Dogs must be kept on a leash so as to maximize the safety of other hikers, wildlife, and fauna. Respect and be courteous to other hikers, bikers, walkers to ensure a quality and healthy experience. Nature does not close!

Why is hiking still important (even with vaccines and re-openings)?

Hiking, walking and just being in the wonderful outdoors has become increasingly popular due to the negative impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic. The current positive measures (vaccines, declining Covid numbers, etc.) merely will accentuate the importance of Mother Nature as the great healer. Stress recovery will become another outcome that we will need to deal with on a long term basis. Re-discovering nature for emotional and fitness benefits will become part of a nature community ethic – a kind of ecosystem balancing human needs with outdoor recreation, preservation and conservation.  “Nature never closes” but needs to be celebrated and taken care of.

Mitch Hoffman
Director of Outdoor Programs, University Recreation and Wellness
University of Minnesota

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

 It’s well documented that there is a gap in the access to outdoor recreation in general that falls strongly along both socioeconomic lines. 

Not only is the physical access to spaces limiting equal access, but also many other factors.  These same groups often see limited financial resources to purchase the equipment required for so many outdoor recreation activities. 

We also know there is a gap in the free time that different groups have to participate in outdoor recreation.  There is a ton of discussion and work being done by the greater outdoor industry to better diversify the outdoors and to make the outdoors for everyone.  Getting the benefits of being outside doesn’t require a backpack or a mountain bike or a national park. 

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

We are seeing unprecedented use of the outdoors as people’s lives are being structured differently and they are spending their time in different ways.

 The greatest challenge has been the crowding in many of these spaces.  State park lots are overflowing and many parks are seeing record numbers.  When possible, avoid these crowds.  Travel with your household in the car. 

Masks can easily be put on and taken off, so if you get into a crowded situation, put on your mask – even outdoors.  Respect the space and experience of other visitors who are there seeking their own experience.  

For beginners, keep it simple.  Outdoor experiences don’t need to be epic to be effective at providing the health and well-being outcomes provided by the outdoors.  Be prepared for the weather as the seasons change.  Being comfortable, having some water and snacks will enhance your experience and ultimately bring you back for more.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors? 

We need to better define the ‘the outdoors.’  In many ways, the pandemic has done that for many- possibly without them knowing it. 

As I said, it doesn’t have to be a week-long backpacking trip.  People are walking around their neighborhoods and gathering in their yards around a fire.  There are a lot of green spaces in our communities that we have just driven by all these years.  Grab a water bottle and go see what you can find. 

You can also hike under the moon, put on a headlamp, walk in the rain, walk in the snow.  Try something different.  Communities can also provide education on the spaces they have available, but also ideas of how residents can use those spaces.  Geocaching, hiking, picnic shelters, bike/walking paths.  They all get people outside.   

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

Learn to turn it off and simplify.  Even if for only 20 minutes.  Put your phone away, take off your headphones and let your mind relax and wander. 

Absorb the little sensory experiences happening all around you, even in your neighborhood.  Smell wood burning from a home, or hear a child playing in the yard, the leaves under your feet, birds in the trees.  Explore a small park near your home.  Walk to the store instead of driving.  If you go out to a state park, try to do all of this for a few hours.  So few of us put our normal life on the shelf for a few hours and just unwind.   While on a hike, don’t let it be about the speed, or the distance, or any metric at all. 

It’s not about checking the box, it’s about being outside.  Stop and sit by a stream, or even take a nap on the ground.  Lose track of time if you can.  If you can get there you are truly reaping the benefits of the outdoors.

Why is hiking still important (even with vaccines, reopenings, etc)?

The benefits of being outside didn’t just begin when the pandemic started.  What happened is that more people’s schedules and priorities shifted allowing for them to spend time outdoors and realign what they do during the day.  We saw unprecedented numbers of people hiking this last year because it was something they could do.  My hope is that a bi-product of this was that people realized the value of that time outdoors.  They found spaces and places they hadn’t explored before – if they had ever explored on foot before.  While there are many things we long to get back to as soon as we can, we also have new habits that we will carry forward after the world reopens to something resembling what we called normal a year ago.  The benefits of the fresh air, exercise and learning to manage our personal time and priorities differently has been a gift to many that we didn’t know was sitting right in front of us before -because we were too busy to see it.  I hope we realized the value of those hikes and walks and remember to integrate them into our life.  We may not be able to go hiking daily or weekly like we were, but lets not forget to get the family together and go outside every now and then.  Make plans to take a few hikes within that busy schedule of work, school, sports and social life.

Rick Gage, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Natural Resources and the Environment
Marshall University

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

This is a really complex problem with a lot of contributing factors, but I think one major issue is the lack of funding and support for public parks and recreation.  For decades, budgets have been cut for these services while demand and usage levels have continued to rise. 

Agencies are constantly being asked to do more with less, which has put a strain on local, state, and federal management agencies as well as non-profit organizations that manage land for outdoor recreation.  This has led to enormous maintenance backlogs, reductions in staff and programs, fewer new projects, and even park closings and/or privatizations. 

Often, these things disproportionately impact people at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who are most in need of these services.  Agencies are forced to focus their limited resources in areas where they are likely to have the biggest impact (i.e. redirecting funding from outdoor spaces to a high-traffic community center, focusing more on sports facilities and playgrounds that serve a wide audience rather than hiking trails and wildlife viewing areas that attract a smaller crowd). 

I think a lot of this stems from how we tend to view outdoor recreation and parks.  When compared to other public services like police departments, schools, roads, and public health, recreation is not viewed as an essential service.  However, studies have consistently shown that well-managed parks and outdoor spaces contribute positively to physical and mental health in the community, enhance the local economy, reduce crime and delinquent behavior, promote sustainability and responsible living, and a wide range of other benefits. 

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

Being outdoors is one of the safest things you can do during a pandemic and hiking is an excellent way to get out and stay active without taking any unnecessary risks. 

Many city parks across the country have wonderful walking paths that are accessible to people of all ability levels, and many even offer more challenging “backcountry” trails.  However, we still need to be careful. 

Take care to socially distance yourself from other visitors and wear a mask when you’re around others.  Be cautious when using public indoor facilities like restrooms and be sure to wash and sanitize your hands as needed.  Other than that, just follow the basic principles of leave no trace while you’re enjoying the outdoors:

  • Know Before You Go – Be prepared, pack appropriately, learn about the area, and understand what you’re likely to experience during your outing
  • Stick to the Trails – stay on marked paths to avoid getting lost or damaging the resources
  • Pack it in, Pack it out – Take all trash out with you.  Even better, you can carry a small trash bag with you and clean up any litter you find along the way.  Leave the place better than you found it!
  • Leave what you find – Don’t collect rocks, flowers, fossils, or other artifacts.  Leave them there for the next person to enjoy.
  • Don’t bother the wildlife – Admire from a distance and definitely don’t feed any wild animals!
  • Be courteous to other visitors – Keep your distance, avoid making loud noises, don’t bother anyone, and PLEASE keep your pet under control if you brought it along.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Local parks and recreation agencies need to provide opportunities for a wide range of recreational experiences and to inform the public about what is available. 

I think there’s a misconception that hiking is for a particular type of person.  However, agencies often have facilities that provide a range of options for all sorts of different users.  Here in Huntington, WV for example, Ritter Park has a fantastic jogging/biking path that is well-maintained and accessible to people of all ability levels.  It’s very popular among fitness enthusiasts (running, jogging, biking, etc.) but also attracts casual walkers, wildlife viewers, dog walkers, and many other users.  This is a great resource, but it is very much a front-country trail. 

However, there are also lots of more rugged trails through the forests and hills behind the more developed part of the park.  I’m always shocked at how few people know about these other trails that are available.  Huntington residents looking for more of a backcountry experience may think that they have to leave town to find it, but we have a great resource right in our own backyard.  

I think the local parks department could do a better job of informing people about the whole range of opportunities available.  There’s something for everyone if you just know where to look.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

 If you’re new to hiking, start slow, and don’t be intimidated.  There’s no way to do it wrong.  It’s an activity that just about anyone can do and enjoy. 

Many cities even have specially-designed trails for people with limited mobility or other disabilities.  In Huntington, there is an accessible nature trail behind the Huntington Museum of Art and miles of ADA-compliant walking paths throughout the city. 

Prepare for your trip ahead of time and make sure that you bring everything you’ll need for the trip (water, snacks, rain protection, etc.).  If your first experience is not positive, try something else.  Don’t give up.  Not all trails are the same.  Look for something you’ll enjoy. 

If you want to see wildlife, consider hiking in an area where there are fewer people.  If you’re uncomfortable being alone in the woods, look for a trail through a more developed park or neighborhood.  Be sure to pay attention to trail difficulty before setting out.  If you are not prepared mentally or physically for a difficult hike, you’re likely to have a bad experience.  Begin with something you know you can handle and work up from there. 

Finally, hiking can be a great social activity.  It’s an excellent way to bond with friends or family members while getting some exercise and fresh air.  Just be sure to take precautions related to the pandemic.  Avoid carpooling with people who do not live with you, maintain a safe distance, and wear a mask when it’s appropriate. 

Why is hiking still important (even with vaccines, reopenings, etc)?

While things are starting to look better regarding the pandemic, we’re not completely out of the woods and we need to stay vigilant.  Even with vaccines becoming available and businesses reopening, we should still be practicing social distancing and taking other precautions for the foreseeable future.  Hiking is still important now for all the reasons it was before.  It’s a great way to get outdoors and experience nature in a safe and enjoyable way.  Pandemic or not, there are many benefits to hiking.  I’m hoping that one of the silver linings on the COVID-19 cloud is that more people have taken up outdoor recreation activities that they will continue to participate in long after this things is over.  For many Americans, this new normal has facilitated a healthy lifestyle change that involves more physical activity and a closer connection to the outdoors.  That’s a great thing.

Brian Forist, Ph.D.
Lecturer and Program Coordinator: Outdoor Recreation, Parks, and Human Ecology
Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington, Department of Health & Wellness Design

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

This is a challenging question with many answers, none of them particularly easy to discern.

That said, it essentially comes down to systemic inequities in the United States.  Many of the “1 in 4” who do not live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation site are people of color and/or those in lower-income categories. This is likely a result of systemic racism in the United States whether it is overt as was common in the past or a result of poor or insufficient infrastructure and an inadequate tax base to support the establishment of parks and outdoor recreation sites in those disenfranchised communities.

Even if there are parks that are accessible, people of color and those in lower-income categories are less prone to visit parks than those in the dominant group (white, well-educated, higher income). Barriers include costs of an overall visit, perceptions regarding safety, and an expressed sense of not feeling welcome.

These inequities must be addressed through partnership, cultural competence, and literally changing the face of park professionals. Representation matters.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

It is the responsibility of park agencies to make their visitors (and potential visitors) aware of the COVID-19-related guidelines and restrictions in place at any point in time.  Unfortunately, I have visited many park sites where there is no clear COVID response strategy in place, or visible in the park. Park employees must set the example.

That said, hikers need to practice appropriate physical distancing at all times. Mask wearing is essential. I encourage folks to check out the guidelines available at https://www.recreateresponsibly.org.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Local governments need to understand that the health and social benefits of hiking, spending time outdoors is part of their long-term public health strategy. Therefore, they need to abandon concerns of short-term gain afforded by less desirable activities.

Creating parks and providing equitable access to them is an investment in a healthy future for community residents and guests. This can not be done alone. Local governments need to work in close and open partnership with local medical facilities and organizations, local outdoor industries, colleges and universities, K-12 schools, communities of faith, neighborhood organizations, citizen activists, and others to ensure equitable creation of and access to parks.

Local governments need to understand that these partnerships require them to do a lot of listening rather than prescriptive action.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

There are many organizations currently creating safe spaces for marginalized individuals in the world of hiking and the outdoors. There is an amazing social media presence for many of these groups, particularly on Instagram.

  • I encourage folks interested in getting involved to find an affinity group. Some of my favorite examples are:
  • Unlikely Hikers
  • Outdoor Afro
  •  Latino Outdoors
  • Disabled Hikers;
  • Brown Girl Outdoor World;
  • LGBT Outdoors.
Aaron Edgley
Adjunct Instructor
Dixie State University

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

I’m not sure if I agree with this. If you are hoping to exercise, everyone is within walking distance. The City of St George/Washington does a great job providing schools and parks to recreate.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

I can’t imagine any scenario in which someone would actually be at risk of catching COVID while hiking. I would not recommend any safety procedures, save for when you are passing someone on a trail, that you distance appropriately.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

As an avid hiker, the government, aka park services, do a fantastic job providing trails, maps and education for residents to take advantage of the outdoors. Fees could be a barrier to entry, but my opinion is that the population is sufficiently motivated

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

  •  Bring water, snacks.
  •  Take your time, enjoy the path.
  • Don’t be overly ambitious: start with shorter hikes then progress to longer ones.
  • Wear appropriate clothing/shoes.
  • Go with someone!

Why is hiking still important (even with vaccines, reopenings, etc)?

“Hiking will continue to be important because it is widely accessible, with a low barrier to entry and provides a great “bang for your buck” in considering health benefits.

You do not have the most majestic scenery in your area to enjoy hiking. Get up and go to somewhere, anywhere, and enjoy the adventure of exploration. The great thing about hiking is anyone can do it, and it doesn’t take much. Find an area you’d like to explore, find a trail or chart a course, put on decent shoes, Bring some water and snacks and you are in the game. The health benefits of walking around in nature extend further than purely physical. Enjoying natural surroundings can provide mental and even spiritual benefits.

Jerome Gabriel
Assistant Professor, Recreation and Sport Management
St. Francis College of Arts & Sciences

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

 

In general, the lack of access to parks or other outdoor recreation space is centered in the history of land development. 

For a long time, parks and other recreation spaces simply weren’t valued by developers and therefore were overlooked as essential to the well-being of a community.  Luckily in the last few decades, public green spaces have a resurgence in importance and are now being developed in many communities that did not have them before. 

Community parks and recreation programs are now recognizing areas where access to places may be limited and are often doing outreach programs to these areas to try to develop relationships with the residents in order to help develop these spaces.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

The great part about hiking is that the risk of exposure to COVID-19 during the activity is quite low compared to many other recreation options.  The best safety practices are similar to those that people should be using in everyday life; avoid overcrowded areas, go out hiking with your immediate households, or if you are joining others remember to wear a mask and keep a social distance between everyone. 

The biggest challenge here is probably avoiding overcrowded areas.  COVID-19 has sent everyone indoors and away from typical activities for a long time now and, especially on the weekends, individuals and families are looking for opportunities to get out and enjoy some fresh air.  Local parks, trails, and even state/national parks are seeing incredibly high visitation numbers. 

Consider researching some lesser-known areas to go explore rather than the well-known ones which may be crowded with people.  This information can be found through your local park districts, county forest preserves, or even state park system websites.  Many people aren’t aware of all of the outdoor recreation opportunities that may be only a short drive away.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

The biggest way local governments can help their residents to explore the outdoors is to educate them on the opportunities that exist. Local governments at the town or county level often manage many of the outdoor spaces available to the residents.

Highlighting these spaces through social media campaigns is a great way to inform local residents about the many places that might be just around the corner from them.  With the expansion of photo-based social media on platforms like Twitter and Instagram individuals are often found taking photos of the places they are exploring and sharing them.  Local land management agencies can leverage these photographers, giving them a place to showcase their work, while also utilizing that work to promote and educate about these outdoor spaces.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

For those going out to hike for the first time, there are some basic tips that will make sure your first experience hiking isn’t your last. 

First, dress for the weather.  Layers are your best friend to help you be comfortable while hiking.  A few different layers with a wind/waterproof jacket over the top will let you mix and match as you hike, to keep yourself at a comfortable temperature rather than relying on a heavy jacket to keep you warm, but leaving you freezing if you feel the need to take it off. 

Second, bring water and snacks. Hiking, depending on where you are going, can be much more strenuous than your typical walk around the block.  Bring a couple of bottles of water and some easily portable snacks such as granola bars or some trail mix with you to keep yourself hydrated and keep your energy up. 

Finally, make sure you let someone know where you are going.  Having a cell phone with you is always a helpful tool, but you also want to make sure that you inform someone else where you are going just for safety.  Even as someone who has been going into the outdoors regularly for almost two decades now I never go out without telling someone where I am going to be.  So far it hasn’t been a backup plan I’ve had to use, but I always want it to be there just in case.

In these COVID-19 times, going into the outdoors is one of the best things that you can do for both your physical and mental health.  As long as you keep in mind some best practices there is no reason why you can’t go out and explore some of the great natural places that might be waiting just around the corner.

Why is hiking still important (even with vaccines, reopenings, etc)?

Even with the opening of more public places the science of spending time in nature is pretty clear.  Research has shown those who spend more time in natural spaces find themselves with less stress, less anxiety, greater feelings of vitality, and even more creativity.  The use of the outdoors as a place for mental and physical health shouldn’t be limited to COVID times, it should become a practice that is used frequently and at all times for our personal benefit.  Exploring the outdoors has become a great pastime for many families looking for new opportunities and I hope that those experiences are continued well after life returns to “normal.”

 

Kelly Goonan
Assistant Professor of Outdoor Recreation in Parks and Tourism
Southern Utah University

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

In urban areas, parks and green spaces may be spread out such that not all residents live within a reasonable walking distance (say, a 10 minute walk). In suburban and rural areas, while parks and recreation areas might be available communities may not be “walkable.” For example, many rural and suburban communities do not have sidewalks, and walking to a park might mean walking along the side of a busy road.

Common barriers to access to outdoor recreation and green space include physical barriers such as infrastructure and community planning; lack of transportation (either personal or public); limited financial resources; and social influences including lack of awareness/education, history of exclusion from outdoor spaces, or not having experienced family or friends to introduce you to outdoor activities.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, hikers should follow public health guidelines even when outdoors: wash hands frequently, maintain physical distance from individuals who don’t live in the same household, and wear a mask while hiking on trails where you’re likely to encounter other people.

It is also important for hikers to be prepared, practice good risk management, and exercise good judgment.

The COVID-19 pandemic is stretching community healthcare resources, including emergency response. An injury or medical emergency sustained while hiking means that resources need to be mobilized to care for the patient.

Hikers should know their physical limits; choose trails that are appropriate for their experience level; be aware of weather conditions; tell someone their plan; and carry extra food, extra water, extra clothing, a flashlight, and a first aid kit so you are prepared if your hike takes longer than planned.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Funding recreation and leisure departments and providing facilities like parks and trails is a great way for local governments to facilitate outdoor experiences for their residents.

Local governments can also partner with other community organizations like schools, non-profits, and state and federal agencies to promote outdoor recreation. Recent campaigns like “Find Your Park” and “Opt Outside” have helped people get out and explore local parks and recreation areas. The national ParkRx organization provides a blueprint for local communities to engage healthcare providers and others in promoting outdoor recreation for health.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

First, do your research! Know what trail you’re going to do (and have a back-up option, just in case), local conditions and regulations – like trail closures, if you need a permit, etc. – and the weather forecast. Planning ahead and being prepared will help you stay safe and make the most of your time outside.

Second, commit to minimizing your impact. With so many people heading outside right now, we want to do our best to take care of our parks and recreation areas. Check out resources from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for simple ways you can protect these special places while having a good time.

Third, start out by exploring your local parks and trails and build up from there. Staying close to home reduces travel time, making it easier to fit outdoor time into your schedule and giving you more time on the trail to build your experience. Check out your community’s parks & rec department website to find information about local parks, trails, and recreation areas.

Finally, enjoy the journey! It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about the destination, but hiking is all about the experiences you have along the way. Take time to notice the little things. Unplug and engage all your senses along the trail. Hiking gives you the chance to rejuvenate your mind and body and reconnect with nature.

Why is hiking still important (even with vaccines, reopenings, etc)?

Spending time outside is always important as it provides numerous benefits to people of all ages. Spending time outside promotes physical activity and health; lowers stress; increases feelings of emotional wellbeing; improves cognitive functions like memory and focus; reduces symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and ADHD; and provides social benefits like improved self-confidence and opportunities to bond with friends and family.

Many people looked to the outdoors as a way to “escape” the isolation imposed by restrictions to reduce the impact of the pandemic: the outdoors provided an opportunity for many people to cope with the crisis. However, once the pandemic is behind us, spending time outside will still provide all the benefits listed above. Hiking is a great way to reap the benefits of time spent in nature

Andrew J. Bobilya, Ph. D.
Professor and Program Director of Experiential and Outdoor Education (M.S.), Professor of Parks and Recreation Management (B.S.)
Western Carolina University

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

There are many factors that impact geographic access to parks and other outdoor recreation spaces. The “urban sprawl” that the United States has experienced in recent decades has resulted in greater distances between one’s place of residence and outdoor recreation spaces.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

The COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions has contributed to an unprecedented increase in public use of outdoor spaces. Unfortunately, this increase is putting enormous strain on public lands and the agencies that manage our national forests, national parks, and other areas.

The biggest recommendation regarding safety practices is to do your research before you go. Know the local regulations and more time-sensitive closures and restrictions to limit overuse, consider avoiding peak days and times for visitation, and creatively select areas to recreate that are “off the beaten path” and likely not overcrowded.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Currently, the issue is not a lack of outdoor exploration and recreation, but overuse in many public areas. Local governments can continue to educate residents and visitors about the variety of public outdoor recreation resources nearby, appropriate safety protocols, and minimum impact practices like those shared through the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and their recent COVID-19 related research project. 

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

See the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics resources for getting outdoors during the pandemic. Also, conduct basic research into the area(s) you plan to visit, consider local protocols for minimizing environmental and aesthetic impacts, be conservative in your route selection (distance and terrain), and be sure you are prepared (see the Day Hikers Ten Essentials. 

Shawn Ladda
Professor
Manhattan College

According to the American Hiking Society, “1 in 4 people don’t live within walking distance of a park or other outdoor recreation space.” What accounts for this outsized lack of access?

I would suspect this mirrors the number of people who live in cory and rural areas. One trend that has helped access one to a recreation space is the rail trail movement-converting deserted railroad tracks to recreational paths. The High Line in NYC is a great example.

Given the health risks of COVID-19, what are the best safety practices that all hikers should consider?

Outdoor spaces and distance from others is key to reducing COVID-19. Hikers need to keep their distance from other hikers especially on busier hiking trails.

Considering the health and social benefits of hiking, how can local governments encourage more of their residents to explore the outdoors?

Local governments along with the collaborations of the private sector to develop places to hike as well as educational programs impact the sheer numbers of people taking advantage of hiking for exercise and health.

Many people are hiking for the first time during the pandemic. What are some of your best tips for novice hikers?

There is a lot more information that can be accessed on the internet including descriptions of trails, the location of trail headers, and trail maps.  Study your route, hike in small groups, bring your bear spray, and water is critical. Make sure you are dressed in layers and prepared for many variables.

 

Methodology

To determine the best and worst U.S. cities for pandemic hiking, LawnStarter first identified quantifiable factors that affect the quality and suitability of a hike. We identified and collected the most recently available data for a total of 11 key indicators, which are listed below, and grouped these into four categories: route access, route diversity, route safety and climate. 

Next, we assigned a weighted score to each metric based on its significance within its indicator category. A single weight is equal to 4 points, a double weight 9 points and a triple weight 13 points.

Finally, we compared the 150 most populated U.S. cities by summing up their scores across the 11 indicators. The city that scored the highest was ranked No. 1, or “best,” while the city with the lowest score was ranked No. 150, or “worst.”

MetricWeightingMin. ValueMax. Value
Number of Hiking Routes30238
Number of Camping Sites20128
Number of Camping Stores10130
"Access" Category Total6
Variety of Route Difficulty30.00%100.00%
"Diversity" Category Total3
Yearly Average Number of Very Cold Days30192
Yearly Average Number of Very Hot Days32169
Sunshine2085
Average Monthly Precipitation23.0965.28
Air Quality11558
"Climate" Category Total11
Natural Hazards Index21020
Natural/Environmental Death Rate10.11.8
"Safety" Category Total3
Overall Total23

Sources: AllTrails, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Yelp

Why This Study Matters

Fresh air, budding trees, and blooming wildflowers — getting out in the Great Outdoors does wonders for your body and mind. Hiking, arguably, is just what the doctor ordered after months of staying close to home due to pandemic restrictions.

It’s a prescription millions have been happily taking, as Americans hit the trails in droves in 2020. The American Hiking Society estimates a 200% increase in trail usage over 2019. Sales of hiking equipment, such as boots and guidebooks, are seeing a sharp uptick, too. 

With baseball on hold for part of last year, hiking — and gardening — became our new national pastimes. 

Here’s why: Safe activities that keep us healthy are more necessary than ever, even as some states and cities ease COVID restrictions. One Stanford University study found that even a 90-minute walk in a natural setting can decrease depression and improve mental health.

So, get off your couch and get out there. Pack a face mask, though. Some trails are busy with people enjoying nature. 

Main Photo Credit: Needpix

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