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Feet First: A guide to Pittsburgh hiking opportunities

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Pittsburgh's topography and its crazy quilt of neighborhoods separated by rivers, bridges and ravines may strike the casual visitor as problematic place to seek out a walk.

On the contrary: This is a city graced with expansive city parks, organizations committed to showing off the region's rich history and diverse charms, and a surprising amount of flat terrain. It all adds up to a great town to enjoy on foot, whether one is walking for exercise, fun, edification, or all combined.

It's hard to get lost on foot in Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, bordered as it is by two rivers and a freeway, but why not take advantage of several self-guided walks through the city's historic and architecturally diverse central business district? The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council offers several hour-long self-guided walking tours designed to highlight the city's public art. Four are in Downtown -- Cultural District, retail area and First Side, the North Shore, Grant Street corridor -- and one is in Oakland. Download a free guide here: www.publicartpittsburgh.org/public_art_walkingtour.htm

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (www.phlf.org or 412-471-5808 x 527), a nonprofit historic-preservation organization, offers several regularly scheduled guided walking tours. These are easy walks, whose chief aim is to help you make the connections between buildings, spaces and history. Tours vary seasonally, but Downtown walks are perennial, as are tours through selected neighborhoods.

Also, the City of Pittsburgh City Planning department offers several self-guided walks: through the North Side neighborhoods of Manchester, Allegheny West and the Mexican War Streets; a Downtown interiors tour; and a guide to historic buildings Downtown. Guides are available at www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/wt/html/walking_tours_main.html.

After years of neglect, the city's riverfronts are being converted to recreational use. The Three Rivers Heritage Trail is a soon-to-be-completed ambitious 37 mile-long network of paved, flat trails along the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Sections within the city include the Eliza Furnace Trail, from Oakland to Downtown; the North Shore Trail, from the West End Bridge to Herr's Island; and along the Mon in the South Side, beginning at Station Square. See www.friendsoftheriverfront.org for more information.

For a real workout, take your legs up and down some of the Pittsburgh steps, which in certain hilly neighborhoods take the place of sidewalks. The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City, by Tim Fabian and Bob Regan, documents the 712 sets of steps scattered throughout Pittsburgh. And every fall, the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association holds a Step Trek walk to show off the neighborhood's unique topography, unusual assortment of homes, stunning vistas and -- yup -- all those steps (412-488-0486 or www.steptrek.org).

For charting new territory, check in with Urban Hike (www.urbanhike.org), which organizes group walks through off-beat parts of the city, with an emphasis on discovery and a requisite stop for local food.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (www.pittsburghparks.org) helps maintain four large wooded city parks that offer pedestrians a variety of strolling opportunities on miles of trails -- whether it's the wooded hills of Frick Park, the ¾-mile reservoir loop in Highland Park, Riverview Park's views, or activity-packed Schenley Park. For peaceful walking among trees and Victorian statuary, you can't beat Pittsburgh's two largest cemeteries, and both offer walking tours: Allegheny Cemetery, in Lawrenceville (412-682-1624), and Homewood Cemetery, in Squirrel Hill (412-421-1822).

Beyond the city, there are Allegheny County's sprawling open spaces (www.alleghenycounty.us/parks). North Park, South Park and Boyce Park each offers miles of easy trails; another nearby suburban walking idyll is Hartwood Acres. For the more adventurous, within just an hour's drive of Pittsburgh are ample hiking opportunities in numerous state parks, forests and gamelands. The state's Web site (www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks) offers visitor information. Or pick up a local guidebook such as Tom Thwaites' 50 Hikes in Western Pennsylvania, or 60 Hikes Within 60 miles of Pittsburgh, by Donna Ruff.

And there's no need to walk alone. Several local groups offer organized walks, with free participation or a low cost. Nonprofit Venture Outdoors (www.ventureoutdoors.org or 412-255-0464) offers dozens of scheduled walks -- from short family treks to all-day boot-busters to specialty hikes that include food. Likewise, the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh (www.pittecp.org), the Allegheny chapter of the Sierra Club (www.alleghenysc.org or 412-561-0203), and Keystone Trails Association (www.kta-hike.org) can help you get on the trail.

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