For San Francisco’s Foremost Hiker, Exploring Urban Nature Is All About Connecting With Others

‘Hiking helps me connect with friends, and it did especially during the height of the pandemic.’

You’re never more than a ten-minute walk from a City-managed park in San Francisco. AllTrails — the outdoor activity mobile app that includes a wide roster of user-generated hiking trails — has 89 scenic pathways in the City by the Bay. 

And it’s likely that Alexandra Kenin, the social media maven behind [at]UrbanHikerSF on Twitter and Instagram, has already strolled that trail.. or has it on her to-walk list.

Ironically enough for Kenin, exploring urban landscapes hadn’t always been a passion. It wasn’t until she relocated to San Francisco in 2007 after landing a job at Google that her love affair with urban exploration began.

“[Hiking] wasn’t something I was really exposed to as a kid,” Kenin tells Underscor_SF. “When I moved to New York City after college, I used to jokingly refer to eating brunch at an outdoor table on a sidewalk as being outdoorsy.”

Once Kenin  —  whose ongoing San Francisco stairway project documents the city’s public stairways via  Google Maps, an active spreadsheet, and a collection of photos that now includes over 900 inputs — traded coasts, it was a newly made friend who first introduced her to SF’s plethora greenspaces.

“[My friend] guided me from Russian Hill to the Embarcadero, traversing hilltop parks, climbing stairways, and eating ripe plums right off the tree,” she says, glowing about her San Francisco native friend. “After that walk, I was exhilarated by all I had seen. I decided I wanted to explore San Francisco and learn all of its secrets.”

During the height of the pandemic, communions with nature became synonymous with escapism from Covid-19-related realities. It’s estimated some 8.1 million more Americans went hiking in 2020 compared to 2019, according to a participation report from the Outdoor Foundation, the philanthropic wing of the Outdoor Industry Association. Similarly, camping and glamping destinations saw a swell of new demand.

Almost all of us took up walking during the pandemic — which, because of its inherent slowness, offers the “perfect speed to explore” San Francisco.

“I find that walking is the perfect speed to explore,” Kenin continues. “You have time to look around and notice things like trees, flowers, and houses. You can stop and change direction easily, and you can spend as much time as you need in parks, on beaches, and in forests, feeling the land under your feet.”

San Francisco’s countless pedestrian-only rocky paths offer chances to get in touch with the city’s nature, as well as remind us that we share this municipality with other sentient beings— “you can see a coyote less than a mile from the Salesforce Tower.”

Trudging up any one of SF’s more than 600 public stairways is an exercise — literal and otherwise — in noticing how neighborhoods connect and blend into each other. It’s a sensation of subtle changes as you move from one area to the next. (A walk up either the Jungle Stairs or Filbert Steps is an example of this interwovenness.)

“You run into people and chat with them about their pets or how they tend to their gardens,” Kenin says. “When you connect with people, you feel more like part of the city.”

These happenstance connections Kenin alluded to earlier are an innate part of the human experience, but we’ve grown increasingly detached from them. According to a recent report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it’s estimated that 36% of all Americans — “including 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children” — have felt serious loneliness within the past year.

The pandemic, for many obvious (and not-so-obvious) reasons, increased rates of detachment. 

In hindsight, numerous mental health experts agree that our happy hours over Zoom and Slack book club meetings can help us feel somewhat connected to each other in this digital age. But these activities can’t hold a proverbial candle to sharing time together in physical spaces.

Amid the pandemic, our social distancing walks were more than just excuses to leave our domiciles: they doubled as a social balm and means to safely connect with another human — a fact Kenin fully grasped back then and continues to hold onto this day.

“Hiking helps me connect with friends, and it did especially during the height of the pandemic,” she adds. “Once the CDC announced it was hard to transmit Covid-19 outdoors, hiking allowed me to see friends safely, without too much fear of getting sick. As an extrovert, I was very excited to see people after months of solitude.”

Hiking around SF “saved” Kenin in the early days of the pandemic, when it felt like our collective ability to see and do new things, was taken away — “not great for a novelty-seeker like me.” That time also allowed her to explore even more SF; Kenin managed to hike all of San Francisco’s public stairways during that year.

Fast forward over two years later, San Francisco has, indeed, changed. For the better. For the worse.

Though what remains, more or less, unchanged and unignorable is just how physically gorgeous it is here. 

We have warm and sunny weather. We have over 220 public parks — which include the recently opened Presidio Tunnel Tops and Francisco parks. We know rainy weather, but we’re not a residential cohort that organizes our lives around it. We’ve grown to love and personify the marine layer synonymous with San Francisco life.

Finding gratitude in the seven-by-seven’s idiosyncratic magnificence isn’t hard to uncover, so long as you’re open, receptive, and willing to put on a pair of shoes and get outside. Taking a mental health walk (or as I like to half-seriously say: a lil’ depression walk) on a tree-lined path honors our biophilic tendencies and helps us engage with the city we call home.

San Francisco has over 70 miles of footpaths that fit the prior description.

And again: There’s a fairly good chance Kenin has sponged up that beauty along one of those paths, already.

“The way the ocean laps at our beaches, the way the fog hovers at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, the panoramic views we get from our hilltops — it’s all pretty stunning,” the ex-Googler adds, waxing poetic on how she finds appreciation in all forms in San Francisco, particularly around its density and diversity.

“You can find everything you want here. You can hang out in a crowded downtown area or explore a forest. There are great neighborhoods and restaurants to explore and interesting people to meet.”

The state of our mental health exists in tandem with our ability to authentically interact with the world around us. We’re a social species that craves understanding and approval; we need to be in a community to survive and thwart feelings of isolation. For us San Franciscans who’ve ever felt other than or were ostracized from our hometowns, this city is a place for second chances.

Roaming through its tapestry of urban hiking trails is an expression of gratitude for this truth, as well as an invitation to share space with new faces.

“Connecting with people and places can make me feel like I’m not as alone,” Kenin shares in closing. “In a world that can be quite scary at times, it’s something I’m leaning on more and more these days.”

Alexandra Kenin is the author of ‘Urban Trails: San Francisco‘ and ‘Urban Trails: East Bay.’ You can keep up with all her urban hiking merriment on Twitter and Instagram [at]UrbanHikerSF.

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