When most people travel to New York City, they’re probably planning to revel in its famous architecture, take in an assortment of world-class museums, dine at any number of incredible restaurants, or bask in the glittering lights of Broadway. When Liz “Snorkel” Thomas landed in the Big Apple, however, it wasn’t to do any of those things—instead, she wanted to play in the dirt.

Thomas, an award-winning author (for her book Long Trails), record-setting hiker (she held the women’s unsupported record on the Appalachian Trail for four years), and founder of outdoor gear obsession site Treeline Review, was in the city to experience its public lands via a 225-mile “thru-hike” connecting over a hundred playgrounds across all five boroughs.

“Something about walking makes us see things that we didn’t see before.”

She’s covered a lot of miles on long trails over the years, from the famed Triple Crown of Hiking (that’s the AT, plus the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail) to the somewhat infamous GR20 in Corsica, but Thomas is actually just as accomplished at urban hiking. Over the last few years, she’s notched over a dozen mostly self-designed city treks—from stairway walks in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to multi-day brewery-hopping hikes in Denver, Bend, and Grand Rapids, to a hike tracing the historic Selma to Montgomery March on its 50th anniversary.

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For Thomas, urban hiking is partially a reflection of her general love of walking, a way to connect more deeply to a place and its people, much as thru-hikers do on a long trail. But beyond that, she also sees the act of walking, especially in big cities, as a “political action.” With something like the Selma to Montgomery hike, the implications might seem more overt, but Thomas says that even her Denver “Brew Thru,” where she linked 65 breweries over eight days and a hundred miles, carried a deeper meaning.

Photo: Timothy Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Public Land

“For most people, it was about the beer,” she says. “For me, it was as much a way to think about pedestrianism and walking in the city that I lived in as it was about the beer; to get a conversation started. Okay, Denver, you’re a city that has a ton of people who love hiking and who love movement and being fit and beer, but how can we have a city that’s still not set up for pedestrians?”

Her most recent urban thru-hike has deeper implications, too. Thomas admits that until this spring’s trip, she’d been a lifelong “New York-ophobe,” believing the city to be overcrowded, difficult to navigate, and devoid of nature. But she began to reconsider her bias after hearing about the Trust for Public Land’s New York City Playgrounds program, which has transformed 200 (and counting) paved lots into public school playgrounds—designed in part by the people of all ages who utilize them—that also serve as accessible green space for the neighboring community outside of school hours, part of a commitment to ensure all New Yorkers have access to nature within a ten-minute walk of their home.

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When the program launched in 1996, the city’s ratio of green space to residents was abysmal. Where school playgrounds existed, they were coated in asphalt and closed to public use. And while some neighborhoods were ripe with green space, others had none whatsoever. Now, 99% of New Yorkers live within a half-mile of public green space; only two cities of a hundred major metropolitan areas studied by the Trust For Public Land (TPL) ranked higher.

Thomas saw the playgrounds program as an opportunity to once again craft a hike with a greater purpose. “I could use walking to create a conversation about who gets access to parks. What do parks mean for kids? What does nature mean for kids? How could we bring more nature into more people’s lives?” she says. “It was this ‘A-ha!’ moment—this is what I wanted New York to look for me as an urban hiker.”

Photo: Schenck, courtesy of The Trust for Public Land

She spent three months working in partnership with TPL to design what would become a nine-day, 225-mile route that visited over a hundred parks, traveling not just on city streets, but through existing parks and outdoor spaces like the famed High Line, an elevated greenway converted from a former railway. As with a more traditional thru-hike, Thomas found places to gather water, use the bathroom, and eat along the way (plenty of bagels and plantains, but only one pizza stop, which seems like a bit of a travesty if you ask this writer); at night, she crashed on friends’ couches or bedded down in Airbnb rentals, continuing her route from the front door the next morning. Without a set “trail” to follow, she says navigation was nearly as tricky and time-consuming as any of her past off-trail adventures in the backcountry.

And the experience was just as meaningful as some she’s had in the backcountry. Thomas says that by walking, she was able to immerse herself in the communities these public spaces serve, witnessing exactly how these places impact the people who use them. She saw schoolchildren playing basketball, learned about community garden programs, and witnessed neighborhood residents relaxing on benches, playing chess, and kicking around soccer balls.

One of the most enduring images, however, was of a father teaching his preschooler how to ride a tricycle in the South Bronx. “If you’re trying to teach a kid how to ride a bike, you can’t just stick the bike in the back of the car and drive to a park like my dad did when I was learning to ride,” she says. “These schoolyards are not just there for the school; they serve such an important function to the community that lives around it.”

Equally important were her conversations with teachers, afterschool program staff, parents, and other community members who’ve seen the playgrounds’ impacts on the children who enjoy them. Kids began showing early to school just to have time to play outside. Over time, they presented as more calm and happier during the day. And there were fewer instances of bullying, because everyone had space and multiple opportunities to stay engaged with outdoor play.

Thomas is still digesting the experience of walking New York in a way that most people never will. She’s disavowed her earlier notions, having discovered a city that offers surprisingly opportunities for solitude and one that’s entirely greener than she ever imagined, with parklands—filled with cardinals and woodchucks, two animals that served as constant companions along the way—occupying 14% of the city’s landmass. The hike also deepened her understanding of the necessity of green and open space in cities, recognizing the push for better access as a form of environmental justice.

Courtesy Liz Thomas

“Everyone deserves to be close to a park, to be close to nature, and in a city like New York, that’s not always the case,” she says. “We’ve learned so much in the last decade about how being outdoors is so important for kids; I want people to think about how kids experience nature, and how we can bring nature to more kids.”

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Of course, maybe the first step you take in thinking about this is the one you take outside your front door, turning left instead of right, or right instead of left, opting for the path less traveled to “hike” your own city, visiting your own green spaces and thinking about their importance not only for yourself, but for your larger community.

“I think the process of experiencing the world at three miles per hour changes the way we see places, even places that we feel we know really well,” says Thomas. “Something about walking makes us see things that we didn’t see before.”

 

 


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