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Craig Romano hiked many trails, both in town and close to town, including ones at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge near Olympia. Photo by Sergii Kymchenko.

Out of the Wilderness and Into the City

When guidebook author Craig Romano began exploring urban trails after decades in the backcountry, he found more than he’d expected | By Craig Romano

I grew up in a small New Hampshire town of 3,000 people, surrounded by forests and sprawling wetlands bustling with critters finned, furry and amphibious. My happy place was in the woods roaming trails, abandoned roads and railroad beds, oblivious to time. My wanderlust and inquisitive nature kept me constantly searching for new trails and green spaces to explore.

Big cities held little appeal to me. As a young adult, I moved to northern New Hampshire to be surrounded by even more wild lands and mountains — and fewer people. I traveled beyond New England to the South, West, Canada, South America and Europe — not to see the great cities of those regions — but to hike and explore their national parks, rugged mountains and wild coastlines. If there was a big empty spot on the map, I wanted to be there.

Tolt-Mcdonald Park. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.JPG
Craig exploring the trails at Tolt-MacDonald Park during the fall. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

The last thing I ever wanted to do was live and work in a big city. But life is unpredictable. I did a stint in Seattle during a major transition in my life. But I spent every day that I was free from work and school in the backcountry. I worked hard to establish a career that would allow me to spend as much time in the woods as possible.

My work as a hiking guidebook author has led me all over Washington and to some of the state’s most remote corners — Lake LaCrosse, the Napeequa Valley, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness and the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, where grizzlies still roam. I hiked the Wonderland Trail, Olympic Coast, Goat Rocks Crest, and every single trail in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

When it seemed that I had written a book for just about every wild corner of the state, a novel idea struck me. How about writing a book on the trails and parks where most of the people in the state live? How about a book on the trails of the Puget Sound basin? What I originally pitched to my publisher as a guide to the region’s remaining natural areas morphed into a series of urban trails guidebooks that would include not only trails in parks and preserves in and near the region’s cities, but truly urban trails too. Paved trails, rail trails, manicured nature trails, neighborhood trails. I would be hiking now in — gasp!— Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Kent, Renton and other compact and populated places.

Enjoying a hike with family at Lake Whatcom.
Chantrelle Trail near Lake Whatcom is one of the many close-in trails  that Craig explored with his family. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

At first, the thought of hiking in these populated places held zero interest to me. Did I really want to spend my trail time in the city? It would mean less time in the backcountry. I mulled it over and reasoned that these books would probably sell well. So for the first time, I figured I’d write a book or two more for the money, rather than for the excuse to hike for a living. But a funny thing happened along the way. I began to really enjoy the process and discovered much about our urban trails and myself.

After completing my “Urban Trails Seattle” book, I realized that I now knew the city better than when I spent 17 years living there. As a resident, I stuck to the parks and trails close to my neighborhood and escaped the city as often as possible. But as a visitor with a sense of discovery, I found parks and trails in the city I never knew existed when I was a resident. I ventured to parts of the city I had never stepped foot in and enjoyed the discovery along the way — like finding remote forested ravines (Lakeridge Park) and old-growth forests (Schmitz Preserve Park) right in the sprawling metropolis.

I ventured to parts of the city I had never stepped foot in and enjoyed the discovery along the way — like finding remote forested ravines and old-growth forests right in the sprawling metropolis.

The timing of writing these books couldn’t have been better. I had just become a dad. I could take my son along with me on many of the trails I had to research (something I couldn’t do on my backcountry titles). At first my son accompanied me in a backpack or jogging stroller — then he roamed free. The experiences were always satisfying and they helped me to see so many more aspects of our trails than the views.

One of the first things revealed to me was that urban trails and parks are gateways to the backcountry. Urban parks, preserves and greenbelts are for many folks their first introduction to the natural world. They are a way to “greenbond” to the wonders of nature. A young child doesn’t care if they are in Mount Rainier’s Paradise or Seattle’s Discovery Park. They are surrounded by outdoor stimuli either way, embracing the beauty and intricacies of nature, whether it’s an alpine meadow or a pocket forest. They are engaged, observing and becoming aware of the world outside of the confines of their home. Watching your child be enthralled with their surroundings forces you to slow down and look around too — and discover things for the first time or rediscover them. 

Flaming Geyse State Park. Photo by Two Grunts..jpeg
Flaming Geyser State Park. Photo by trip reporter Two Grunts.

Our urban trails offer us car-free places to hike, run and walk in the city. In our ever-urban lifestyles, confined to desks and facing health problems related to lack of activity, our urban trails allow us to get outside and move no matter where we live and how much time we have. I’ve always had the privilege to travel to wild places far from home, but many people don’t have that luxury. Urban trails are egalitarian, open to all of us regardless of our socioeconomic status. They serve both wealthy and lower-income communities and bring people together. Often in the backcountry we travel as loners, or within our own small circle of acquaintances. Urban trails give us opportunities to share paths and experiences with people we may not normally socialize with.

Urban trails allow us all to be hikers, regardless of our age and abilities. In most cases, no special or expensive gear is needed. I have hiked alongside my son when he’s donned a superhero cape, Yoda robe or puddle-jumping boots. What is a hike anyway? Is it defined by the distance or terrain covered? Semantics! A hike is a form of walking and walking is a form of hiking. Call it what you like but it’s all good for your body, mind and soul.

Urban trails allow us to get outside every day — for hours or just a short jaunt — to walk, run or hike and disengage from our modern distractions. Discovery is all around us, and I have discovered as much about the world and myself on our urban trails as I have in the backcountry. While the “wow factor” may be missing on many urban trails (but not all), I have been pleasantly surprised to find myself in diverse environments with many life-rejuvenating attributes.

So how do I feel about our urban trails now that I have logged thousands of miles on them?  Just like the backcountry, they have the power to satisfy my wanderlust and inquisitive nature. I love history, and urban trails help tell our stories. They have revealed to me the contributions of Native peoples, settlers, and immigrants — and also the conflicts and challenges they’ve faced. Urban trails have also displayed to me the abundance and diversity of wildlife that thrives within our cities: sandhill cranes, eagles, coyotes, Caspian terns — even bears and cougars. Urban trails have the power to transform lives, connect people to the natural world, promote healthy lifestyles, and make our communities and world better places to live.

Flaming Geyser State Park. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.JPG
Craig exploring Flaming Geyser State Park. Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

About the Author

Craig Romano is an award-winning author of more than 20 books, a public speaker and prolific outdoors writer who has been published in more than two dozen publications, including Backpacker, Canoe and Kayak, AMC Outdoors, Northwest Travel and Life and Seattle Met. Craig has hiked more than 25,000 miles in Washington and many thousand miles more in New England, California, Oregon and British Columbia. He has worked as a backcountry ranger and a mountain guide. He is an avid road and trail runner. An ardent conservationist, Craig is a member of several land trusts and environmental groups. He has been a member of WTA for more than 20 years and The Mountaineers for more than 30 years. He lives in the Skagit Valley with his wife, Heather; son, Giovanni; and Maine Coon kitty, Giuseppe.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.