Antonio Carpenter, a naturalist, leads a hike through Leakin Park. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore is known for its picturesque Inner Harbor, historic architecture and sports complexes.
Some would also like to put it and other cities around the country on the map for something else — hiking.
Tucked within the concrete, they say, are miles of trails covered in a canopy of trees where you can find deer romping, ravens flying overhead and flowers of all types blooming. At the height of summer, the hiking trails can provide a shady, quiet reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the streets.
In a report released this spring, the American Hiking Society, a Maryland-based nonprofit, said urban hiking should be promoted as a way to combat the country's obesity epidemic and other health problems.
About 35 percent of adult Americans, or 79 million people, are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and obesity has contributed to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions in scores of people. Hiking, as a form of exercise, can help people lose weight and build endurance and strength. The tranquillity can also be good for one's mental health.
But not enough people use the trails that dot the city, and some don't even know that they exist, parks officials and hiking enthusiasts say. Hiking, instead, brings to mind the mountains of Western Maryland, Pennsylvania or Virginia. It's a way of thinking that the American Hiking Society and other nature groups are trying to change.
"People think they have to go on some great epic backpack adventure to be hiking," said Peter Olsen, vice president of the American Hiking Society. "We want to dissuade people from thinking that."
That doesn't mean taking the dog on a morning walk around the neighborhood is hiking, although it is good exercise. The American Hiking Society said there should be a connection to nature even on urban hikes to get the full health benefits.
A growing body of research has found that hiking has a positive impact on mental health.
A study last year by Stanford University researchers found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to a high-traffic urban area, showed decreased activity in a part of the brain — the subgenual prefrontal cortex — asociated with depression.
In 2014, researchers from University of Michigan, with partners from De Montfort University, James Hutton Institute and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom, found that group nature walks significantly lowered depression and helped to manage stress. People who had recently experienced stressful life events, like a serious illness or death in the family, found that their mood improved after a group walk outdoors.
Hiking is something just about everyone can do. No fancy, expensive equipment is needed. And hiking trails are closer than people think.
The American Hiking Society said city planners are increasingly including trails and green spaces as part of communities. And in cities like Baltimore, historic parks and trails have long existed.
"It's here and people don't even know it's in their backyard," said Corinne Parks, parks administrator for the Baltimore Department of Recreation & Parks.
Some of the city's busiest streets bypass lush hiking areas, but people drive by without realizing it. To increase awareness, the parks department hosts hikes and produces promotional pamphlets to try to draw people to the natural spaces within the city.
The Carrie Murray Nature Center, on the grounds of Leakin Park, hosts regular hikes during the week. During the summer, many of the groups are schoolchildren who organizers hope get the hiking bug early in life.
Recently, a group of 10 children, their chaperones and teachers taking part in a Catholic Charities program tentatively made their way along what for many of them was their first time hiking. Along the way, they picked up pine cones and spotted butterflies. Some also complained about the heat and being tired.
Carlos Pitts and Chavon Oliver came on the trip with their son, 4-year-old Chance Pitts. It was Chavon's first time hiking, and she said it wasn't too bad, except for the heat. Oliver never went on organized hikes, but grew up cutting through the park and playing in the streams. He said it was fun watching his son in the same park he enjoyed as a child.
"He likes being outdoors," Pitts said of his son. "You can't keep him still, so I thought he might like this."
Antonio Carpenter, a naturalist who helped lead the hike, said he grew up hiking the city's parks and trails. Carpenter said if more people tried hiking, they would appreciate the calm it offers in the busy city.
"You get away from the hustle and bustle of the urban environment," Carpenter said. "You get to breathe real fresh air."
Baltimore has a variety of hiking paths, said Molly Gallant, outdoor recreation programmer for the parks department. There are paved pathways and bike trails and "really wild and natural-surface trails," she said. There are "teeny, tiny trails that wander all over" and trails built on old railroad tracks that go on for miles. Some of the trails cross over briefly onto city streets.
Baltimore residents could make hiking more a part of their everyday lives if they realized they didn't have to trek a couple of hours to the mountains, she said.
"One of the things that I am trying to do in Baltimore City is slowly shift the mind-set," Gallant said. "Given what we have, there's a chance to make it more convenient. You can probably get a two- or three-mile adventure in and get back in time to get the laundry done. You are not driving an hour and a half and packing lunch."
The American Hiking Society's Olsen said you don't have to be an "uber hiker" to get the benefits.
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