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When it comes to walking, Pittsburgh's Venture Outdoors has much to offer

| Tuesday, June 30, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Nate Smallwood | Trib Total Media
David Bennett leads a 3-4 mile hike through Hartwood Acres on June 21, 2015. The Solstice hike went through part of the 629-acre Allegheny County park, enjoying the evening light of the longest day of the year.

From the trek of Lewis and Clark to a stroll through Fineview, discovery is always one of the best elements of going for a walk.

“One of my favorite things is when a person says, ‘Wow, I didn't know that was here,' ” says David Bennett, who leads walks for Venture Outdoors.

Lora Woodward, program director for the outdoors-activity advocacy group, agrees. She says the walking-hiking programs are the group's most popular activities, mostly because the program has found ways of letting trekkers find things from bits of history to good beer.

In 2014, Woodward says, 54 percent of the group's offerings were walks. They were attended by 2,614 participants.

“In 2001, when we were founded as the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute, the first events we offered were hikes,” she says. “Since then, we have honed in. We really have learned our audience.”

As a result, she says, Venture Outdoors has hikes that go from a 19-mile encirclement of Raccoon State Park to a three- to four-mile walk that ends with a stop at a restaurant. Prices vary from $10 to $27, with discounts for members.

It is a way not only of showing off local landscapes that can provide a good hike, but of giving some credit to a local business.

“We are trying to recognize things that are good in the area,” Woodward says. “We can look at other groups and promote each other.”

Trip leaders are encouraged to use their interests to create exciting walking plans.

Right now, she says, the group is working with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation on a Downtown architectural walk.

Of the 2014 treks, 50 percent were fitness-oriented explorations of parks and wilderness areas. Specialty hikes that involved a brunch or a beer- or wine-tasting made up 25 percent as did educational and cultural trips.

The walks can vary in the number of participants.

Bruce Cridlebaugh from Monroeville says he once led a trip with one hiker.

“Other outings have had over 30 — and that can be as much a matter of crowd control as anything,” he says. “Just the first few steps of walking will spread the group.”

The variety of trips provides a challenge to planners, who are urged to come up with new ideas.

Bennett of Observatory Hill, for instance, says he once wanted to lead a hike, stopping at Underground Railroad sites in the area. He hoped to have a guide from the Senator John Heinz History Center accompany walkers.

But finding an available expert eventually became impossible, so Bennett read up on the escape of pre-Civil War slaves and became trip leader and history guide.

Currently, he is putting together a look at Andy Warhol as a boy with planned stops at his neighborhood in Oakland, the church his family attended and other sites.

Christen Stroh from Ross thinks such outings give “walkers more than they bargained for.”

One of the favorite trips she leads is a three- to four-hour examination of Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville. It stops at graves of famous people for discussions of their activities.

“It is more that just a walk,” she says. “You end up learning things with a group of friends.”

Kate Nicholson, however, would rather spend her time on the go.

She began hiking for “mental health days” when she was a new mother in the '70s. She says she would rather be on a 10- to 15-mile hike than a “brewery hike or a pie hike,” but thinks the variety in the hiking program is what makes it strong.

She also relishes learning more about areas she thought she knew.

Cridlebaugh seems to enjoy that learning in a different way.

“I will lead a hike in just about any place that's on the schedule, even if I initially don't know that much about the place,” he says. “It causes me to do the research, to learn and format the interesting details about a place, so I can share them with others who are curious.”

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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