Outside Magazine included Pittsburgh on its short list for its Best Town competition this year, and National Geographic Adventure has named our fair—and outdoorsy city—number one on its list of six adventure cities. But if you still need convincing, here are some of the many reasons that Pittsburgh has become a great outdoors town.
Back in 2001, Sean Brady helped launch and build Venture Outdoors into a vibrant 10,000-member nonprofit that leads 500 public programs a year. He’s the kind of guy who bikes 13 miles to work each day and who emails, “Caught a limit of trout before work today. Life doesn’t suck in the Burgh.”
“Pittsburgh has vast breadth and also depth when it comes to the outdoors,” says Brady, now executive director of the Hollow Oak Land Trust, a nonprofit whose mission is to “protect and connect green space with an emphasis in the Airport corridor.”
In terms of breadth, that’s where eight rivers within an hour’s drive—or minutes—plus numerous tributaries, come into play,” he says. “Pittsburgh’s depth in outdoor experiences can be seen in the incredible variety of greenspace organizations, including trail groups, recreation organizations, conservancies and land trusts.”
“Why is Pittsburgh totally groovy and unique?” says Pat Clark, paddler and partner at Jackson/Clark Partners. “One of the things I always point to is we have urban wilderness—it’s on a scale beyond most any other city. That phrase urban wilderness is incomprehensible to most cities.”
“One thing that people do not realize is how high the biodiversity is around here. The mild climate—plus abundant precipitation—breeds incredible diversity of wildflowers, trees and all sorts of creatures,” says Brady. “The more you get outside, the more you start seeing the amazing array of plants and animals that live right here in Pittsburgh.”
Here’s a rundown of reasons why Pittsburgh is a great outdoors town:
It all begins here—you can’t have a great outdoors town without a great landscape. A quick geography lesson: Pittsburgh is not a city of hills, it’s a city of valleys.
“Ever notice all are hills are the same height?” asks Brady. “Geographically, we are part of the Allegheny Plateau. When the glaciers melted, that water had to go somewhere—and it blasted open the Ohio River channel, connecting our rivers to the Mississippi.”
The glacial melt carved a green gem of a landscape. Not only do we have our three rivers, we have countless tributaries that carve steep ravines and hillsides that are—here’s the key—too steep to develop.
“Most every neighborhood in the city has some sheer-faced cliffs and hillsides that in places like San Francisco would be completely clustered because they’re more gently sloping and stable,” says Clark. “Not here, there’s nothing we can do with it except leave it to nature.
When National Geographic did a study on cities that loved their trees, we came out on top with 42% tree cover. Our landscape saved us from ourselves—and gave us that place to have trails, run rivers and bike the hills.
“It gives you access to experiences,” says Clark.
“I’d say that the region’s topo and lush waterscapes definitely form the backbone of what makes Pittsburgh great,” says Brady.
Diversity of experiences
“The region’s delightfully corrugated landscape provides a gravity lover’s dream,” says Brady. “You can ride flat, scenic trails for days, or hang a left—or right—and select from dozens of parks and conservation areas for intense mountain biking, hiking or immersion in nature.”
With 8.8% of city property as public parkland, there are many outdoors options right in the city. Plus, “every community has a stream valley where more intimate trail experiences are possible, where you can escape the hustle and bustle in a lovely woodland valley,” he says.
“Pittsburgh has incredible opportunities. They are close—5-10 minutes from where you live—or you can get into deeper experiences if you have the time.”
“Within an hour-and-a-half of Pittsburgh, you’ve got a lifetime of outdoor opportunities,” he says, “from intense rock climbing and mountain biking and fly fishing to easy going stuff like rail trail riding and walks in the woods.”
Nearby, try the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, which has a system of trail shelters. Great for beginners or children—who can backpack in a few miles from a trailhead—or experienced backpackers who take on all 70 miles of trail. A weekend trip can get you to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in W.V. for high-boreal mountain environment and a visit to a cool bird-banding station.