I found myself in the heart of Manhattan looking, of all things, for an outstanding hiking route. The irony was not lost on me: I had been invited to New York to speak at the storied Explorers Club about my favorite backcountry routes around the world. I'd be describing such epic hikes as the Everest Base Camp Trek, New Zealand's Routeburn Track, Patagonia's Torres del Paine Circuit, and even the Shackleton Crossing in Antarctica's South Georgia Island. And here I was, in between speaking obligations and meetings with my publisher, ready to try the best hikes I could find in the city.
The surprise turned out to be the High Line, an elevated railway line carrying cargo through New York's West Side that fell into disuse in the 1980s. But, in a private and public collaboration, the old track was saved and turned into a walking route. The popularity of the High Line exceeded all expectations. New Yorkers, starved for a place where one can walk block after block without stopping for traffic and stop lights, flocked to the High Line when the first, short, southern section opened in 2009 as a city park. Since then, the northern section has opened creating an approximately 1.5 mile route (three miles if you do it both ways) from 13th Street to 33rd Street. Yet a third section, on the northern end, is planned.
Walking this dramatic route--designed by architects from James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf--along the entire length from the Meatpacking District to Chelsea, is unlike any other. Passing installations of public art, meandering through dramatic plantings, and past panoramas of the busy neighborhoods below, manages to put the hiker above all the activity but within the embrace of city at the same time. Think of the High Line as a park, and on a sunny afternoon, with the setting sun off to the west, there's not a better walk in New York.
And being in the city means that the High Line needs amenities (which accounts for its multi-million dollar price tag). Nine access points (think of these as on ramps and off ramps) allow access to the elevated platform, and three of those have elevator access, making the route accessible for people with disabilities. Rest rooms can be found every three or four blocks, without leaving the High Line. And while there are cafes and restaurants along the route (notably the famous Blue Bottle Coffee and the recently opened restaurant, The Porch), many more options lie just below on the neighborhood streets.
On my round trip, I exited the High Line about midway, at 23rd street, for a quiet, inexpensive lunch just at the access point, before continuing to the northern terminus. Here, the third and final segment of the High Line is envisioned. The route will curve west toward the Hudson, where the popular walkway will meet the extensive development known as the Rail Yards. This section of the High Line will allow for views across the river near what is one of the biggest single developments to happen in New York in decades.
And this being New York, the adventure doesn't end with the hike. Other activities, such as star gazing, are available at night, and there's even an outdoor theater showing art films projected onto a building at 22nd Street. It's easy to see why more than 4 million people visit the High Line every year. But for a fish out of water, a wilderness hiker caught in the city, the High Line offers a genuinely interesting walk and respite from the heavy urban vibe.