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.
It’s too abundant to make a list. Find a state, county or city park—or any unposted creek bed or ravine—and explore. “One caveat,” says Brady, “is that they don’t all have good trail maps.”
Nearby McConnell’s Mill attracts the day climbers. In Connellsville there are bouldering and sport climbing at Ohiopyle, Coll’s Cove for bouldering area and climbing at Breakneck, as well. A few hours away, you can get to world-class climbing at New River Gorge and multi-pitch, tradition climbing is found at Seneca Rocks, W.V.
“The water really is a big deal here,” says Brady. With eight rivers within an hour’s drive, there is flat-water and white-water paddling in abundance. “Each one of those rivers has days and days of paddling. You can do overnight trips on all of those rivers,” he says. “It’s a paddler’s paradise.”
For urban paddling, check out Kayak Pittsburgh’s iconic yellow kayaks.
Or for some nature immersion, drive an hour to French Creek, whose biodiversity is among the highest in the state with 75 species of fish and 30 species of mussels.
“The Beaver River is fantastic and little known, from New Castle to Beaver Falls” says Brady. Or the Saltsburgh River & Trail outfitter in Saltsburgh, where the Conemaugh becomes the Kiski River.
For reliable 3-day a week dam-released whitewater, there’s the Youghiogheny, one of the classic Appalachian whitewater rivers. Other whitewater spring runs include the upper Clarion and upper Allegheny.
“Pittsburgh is also a mountain bikers’ paradise,” says Brady. One of the country’s first mountain biking mags, Dirt Rag, was founded here.
“Every city park, every county park has at least 10 miles of trails. These are parks that are very close to home.” In the city, Frick has top-notch biking, and right outside the city limits, there’s Boyce Park to the east, and Montour Woods to the west, which has a “sweet trail system.”
“Mountain bikers aren’t the Mountain Dew-chugging ruffians of yesteryear,” says Brady. “Mountain bikers have become some of the most devoted volunteers to building and maintaining ecologically sustainable trails.”
For road biking, there’s everything from mellow rail trails of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail to the Dirty Dozen, which challenges riders to take on our 12 steepest hills. Two of our steepest hills are in the nation’s top 10, and with a 33.3% grade, Canton Ave. is the steepest public street in the U.S.
Nordic: Laurel Mountain area of Forbes State Forest is a jewel for Nordic skiing. High-caliber cross-country skiing with a non-commercial vibe provides just what a Nordic skier needs: a quiet, rustic, simple enjoyable ski experience.
Downhill: Check out Blue Knob—with the caveat that you’ve got to hit it when they’ve got good, natural snow cover—for narrow, twisting trails that allow the possibility of mystery in the next glade.
It’s a city where you can make a difference
We’re small enough of a city that everyone can make a big impact to the environment and quality of life to our neighbors. When in doubt, think Rachel Carson.
We’ve got a strong team of environmental and outdoors organizations. You can become an eco-steward and maintain your own section of Nine-Mile Run, or become a tree tender at TreePittsburgh. You can become a volunteer naturalist at Beechwood Farms and lead kids on outdoor discovery programs. Volunteers for Friends of the Riverfront do 95% of the trail work and maintenance on Three Rivers Heritage Trail. You can volunteer at Pittsburgh Trails Advocacy Group, the group that works with land managers to build and maintain trails in city, county and state parks.
And those 500 programs a year offered by Venture Outdoors are almost entirely volunteer run. “Without the trip leaders—who are trained in best practices for recreation—there would be no Venture Outdoors,” says Brady.
“People in Pittsburgh can make a difference,” he says.
4. Pittsburgh is the whole package
The thing about being a great outdoors town is that it has to be a great town—with jobs, schools, infrastructure, culture and affordable housing. Without that—as someone said, “Whitefish Montana has won Outside Magazine’s Best Town for the 27th year running!”
And Pittsburgh is the whole package. To name a few list accolades: we’ve been cited as good for millennials, literate, affordable and quirky. We’re livable and have the best downtown. We’re a fast-growing tech hub with STEM jobs and overall employment.
Bon Appétit named Pittsburgh the next big food town. Fresh food? There are more than 100 farmers’ markets in our city and surrounding neighborhoods.
Sustainability? Our mayor is on a quest to make Pittsburgh the global sustainability leader. PNC’s new headquarters is being built as the world’s greenest skyscraper and Phipps built one of only seven worldwide living buildings.
Plus, we’ve got beer. Travel writer Stephen Beaumont said, “Pittsburgh has a really, really cool beer culture going on, definitely under the radar. There is a lot of support from the locals and the tavern culture is really cool. And, keeping with the theme, there are a lot of places to imbibe outdoors in Pittsburgh.
Brady says, “When you’re active outdoors, you build up a ferocious appetite—and thirst for good craft beer—and there are a lot of places to go. It enhances the overall experience.”
Our Come as you are attitude
Pittsburghers are often noted for a friendly, welcoming nature—and that translates to the outdoors culture, which in some towns can have an elitist tinge. Not here. No high-tech gear? No problem. Never done something? Try it out.
“Pittsburgh has always had fantastic topography and fantastic rivers and greenspace, but what we didn’t have was a welcoming, inviting, pathway to get outdoors. There weren’t so many trails, weren’t places to rent boats. Venture Outdoors really took the approach that we should make it easier to get outside—and that was a transformational point for Pittsburgh.
“Suddenly, anybody could get outside. We’d show them, teach them, provide leaders do all the planning,” he continues.
“And talk about the whole package? The foundation community embraced this concept and funded it and allowed us to change the game in terms of how people viewed Pittsburgh—people who lived here and people who didn’t live here,” says Brady.
“Suddenly, it was the outdoors place.”