Small Trails, Big Impact: How Micro Trails Can Help You Connect with Nature

In Chicago, I don’t summit mountain peaks and I don’t carry a heavy pack. My outings in nature include hikes along wood chip-covered trails at my neighborhood park and on worn-down dirt footpaths that run adjacent to the sidewalk. Most of my local trails climb no more than 10 feet in elevation gain. I love wandering into street-side gardens and navigating the narrow gravel paths that run through them. I seek short hikes in tree-packed parks and look and listen for migratory birds while I walk.  

No matter the distance or degree of challenge, I consider myself a real hiker because these are real hikes.  

Many cities—big and small, suburban and rural—boast lesser-known trails across shorter distances. Yet despite their abundant access to nature right out the front door, our urban areas often receive less attention than their mountain-town counterparts. The truth is, regardless of size, location or geography, every town is full of uncharted territory and trails waiting to be explored. You just have to find them. 

Two hikers consult the trail map at a park.
Photo credit: Dustin Kingman

The Making of a Micro Trail

Micro trails—or short-distance walking paths that follow lesser-traveled routes—do exactly what long, technical treks aim to do: Connect hikers with nature. Typically between 0.25 to 2 miles long, they can be a woodchip or paved path, in a local park or neighborhood garden, or even a staircase connecting two city streets. The beauty of micro trails is you can find them in unexpected places and in creative ways—or chart your own.  

Maybe you’re someone who only has 20 minutes on your lunch break and you want to do more than walk around your usual block; or a person with a disability that’s passionate about being in nature and finding new and accessible ways to navigate an existing path; or a family with kids looking for a shorter trail that still provides a quick boost of Vitamin D. 

“The micro trail is a trail that isn’t a trail until you make it one,” says Charles Fleming, a city walking columnist at The Los Angeles Times and guidebook author. “It’s a pathway that you invent—a route that maybe wasn’t necessarily designed to be a trail or isn’t necessarily being used by anyone else as a trail, but that you create or discover on your own.” 

Fleming grew up exploring big mountains and long trails out West during his time as an Eagle Scout and was never really a true fan of hiking. In fact, he gave it up after earning his final merit badge. As he grew older, between raising and growing a family, managing household responsibilities and his career, exploring the outdoors was always an afterthought. It wasn’t until much later into his adulthood, when he had more free time, that Fleming fell in love with long walks while traveling internationally—completing routes like circular pub blocks in England and rambles in Ireland’s countryside. But that journey in long walks came to an abrupt halt after facing a series of serious injuries and surgeries in his early 40s.  

Fleming underwent two hip replacements, broke his leg and had two spine surgeries, all within a five-year span. His health challenges left him nearly bedridden, unable to drive and dealing with constant, extreme pain. His once-active lifestyle went dormant. Yet, despite his decade-long bout of medical challenges, and a third spine surgery looming on the horizon, he reached a point physically and emotionally where there was no other option than to persevere.  

“There was no doubt I would need another surgery, but I told my surgeon I just couldn’t do it—I wanted to try something else,” says Fleming. “I started trying to just walk despite the discomfort that I was in, and eventually, I started feeling better.”* 

His rehabilitation journey started with short walks down his Los Angeles street in the Silver Lake neighborhood. Step by step, block by block, and, eventually, staircase by staircase, his walks more so resembled micro trail hikes over your average neighborhood stroll. The adventure, excitement and accomplishment of reaching the top of the stairs each outing he took propelled him on a personal quest to conquer every staircase he could within Los Angeles city limits.  

Fleming mapped hundreds of local staircase-centric walking routes he discovered throughout his recovery, and he went on to write Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. A micro trail guidebook in its own right, Secret Stairs chronicles the geographical, architectural and historical aspects of the city’s staircases. The collection of short city walks takes readers through lesser-known pockets of Los Angeles neighborhoods and the nature within them. Fleming later wrote a second book, Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles, which features strolls through often unknown and unseen parks, canyons and neighborhoods.  

“They don’t require a wilderness permit, or the need to drive three hours away, or having to worry about bears and getting lost,” says Fleming. “You can just walk out your own backdoor or go to a nearby park—and along the way, you discover what you didn’t even know was there.” 

A woman walking up a staircase.
Photo credit: Carina Skrobecki

Micro Trails, Mighty Connectors

Micro trails open the possibility for connection: For Fleming, a connection to a personal journey; for ultramarathoner, adventurer and Strava athlete Zagdaa Baatar, a connection to community.  

A self-taught ultramarathoner, Baatar moved from Mongolia to the U.S. with her family over two decades ago and fell in love with exploring trails out her back door on Mount Diablo, east of San Francisco. She says the adventures she takes on her local mountain fill her with the same sense of adventure she felt chasing her brothers through her small and remote hometown as a child. 

She and her husband started regularly exploring micro hikes on Mount Diablo with a group of 10 family members and friends. As she spent more time on the mountain, folks started to recognize the group and join the local adventures. Over time, the hiking meetups grew, and Baatar decided to officially launch the Nomadic Adventure Club in 2013 to connect even more people to hiking, trail running and, most importantly, community. Today, the club has more than 150 club members, and its newcomer- and kid-friendly hikes top out around 2 miles—micro trail distances. 

“I like to tell people to just explore, even if it’s not a big mountain, and instead, just a small local trail,” says Baatar. “Every time you go into nature, even if you’ve been before, and even if it’s a short trail, you’re going to find something beautiful—nature is unending beauty.” 

Those shorter hikes and the time spent exploring the mountain led Baatar to discover other adventures, and in 2019 she started running after learning about the Badwater Ultramarathon, a grueling 135-mile race from California’s Death Valley to Mount Whitney. The allure of tackling such a challenge is what inspired her to give trail running a go. As she got started, Baatar’s backyard mountain served as the training ground for longer races, and her training segments resembled the micro trails she hikes on with the Nomadic Adventure Club—extremely short distances compared to high-mileage races she’d work up to running, like the 100-mile Western States Endurance run, which she competed in for the first time in June 2023.

Whether it’s running long-distance races or taking out new hikers for the first time, Baatar says, camaraderie is at the center of Nomadic Adventure Club. This same community has also helped drive her training for and determination to compete in ultramarathons.

“It’s all about community—we encourage each other no matter if it’s a first hike or a first marathon; [our community] helps people find out their abilities,” says Baatar. “I love to see their eyes after completing a challenge; they are so happy and they say, ‘Can you believe that? I have done it.’” 

Hikers jumping at the top of a mountain at sunset.
Photo courtesy of Zaagda Baatar

* Editor’s note: We always recommend consulting with your doctor if you feel pain or discomfort before undertaking any physical activity.

7 Micro Trails Worth Exploring

Micro trails can be found in public parks, green spaces, suburban communities and neighborhoods—you just have to know where to look. Below, we’ve partnered with Strava to find micro trails and short hikes across the country in popular nature spots and lesser-known gems.  

Even if you don’t live in one of these places, you can find micro trails near you too.  

A few pro tips: 

  • Search for hikes under 2 miles using popular trail discovery apps and websites, like AllTrails, The Outbound and the “Hiking” filter within the Strava app. 
  • Zoom out on Google Maps and look for green space near parks, within neighborhoods and in nearby communities. Once you find one, zoom back in to look for hiking, walking and biking trails, which show up as a dotted green line. 
  • Just get outside and start exploring! Plot a new route to walk to work or to your favorite neighborhood spots and see what you notice along the way. Visit a park you’ve never been to and check out new-to-you trails. You won’t know what’s out there until you take the first step. 

Hole-in-the-Rock Trail 

0.26 mile

Strenuous summit hikes like the 2-mile climb up Camelback Mountain via Echo Canyon Trail are a stone’s throw from the heart of downtown Phoenix. But shorter hikes, arguably just as beautiful, are nearby too. The Hole-in-the-Rock Trail, a quarter-mile hike in Papago Park, gives you a view of the Phoenix skyline through a naturally formed hole in a sandstone hill, with a fraction of the work of Camelback Mountain. Want to hike a longer micro-trail loop? Check out the surrounding 1.2-mile Little Butte Loop

Marion Harlow Memorial Grove Loop 

Los Angeles 
0.8 mile 

This dog-friendly trail is tucked within the northeast side of Los Angeles’ second-largest city park and offers views of the San Gabriel Mountains on a clear day. Known for its wildflower blooms in the spring and respite from the summer heat under shade trees, the nearly 1-mile Marion Harlow Memorial Grove Loop is a perfect quick trail for LA residents or visitors who want a taste of what it’s like to live like a local. For a longer route option, link up to the Portola Trail, a 1.6-mile point-to-point route that extends to the east side of the park. 

Horner Park Nature Path 

1 mile 

Check out a wilder side of Chicago on this northside trail, a 1-mile wood-chip path that runs along the bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River. The Horner Park Nature Path overflows with native Illinois prairie grass in the spring and summer and a serene setting for cold-weather hikes come winter. This quiet escape makes you forget you’re just a stone’s throw from busy city streets. 

Ensign Peak Trail 

Salt Lake City 
1 mile 

A micro trail that leads to a mountain peak? We’re in. The Ensign Peak Trail is a steep but short hike that’s approachable for families and new hikers. Folks with lots of hiking experience love this trail too, especially for the stunning views of Salt Lake City along the route. You’ll want to pack sunscreen, a hat and a sun shirt in the summer months, as there’s minimal shade along the way. Come winter, bring traction devices to stay steady while hiking over any ice buildup on the trail.  

Forest Park Loop Trail 

Queens, New York 
1.2 miles 

Hike the largest continuous oak forest in Queens and the borough’s largest forest. With views overlooking New York’s Jamaica Bay, the 1.2-mile Forest Park Loop Trail travels along the north segment of the Orange Trail and connects to part of the Bridle Path. You can also explore other segments of the Forest Park trails if you’re searching for a longer route.  

Ruby Hill Park Loop Trail 

1.6 miles 

Watch mountain bikers and BMX riders shred Ruby Hill’s terrain park and singletrack trails while you hike. The 1.6-mile Ruby Hill Park Loop Trail in south Denver travels along the perimeter of the park with views of downtown and the South Platte River. For another Denver micro trail we love, visit the Bluff Lake Nature Center on Denver’s east side. The popular, family-friendly 1.4-mile Bluff Lake Nature Center Loop makes a circle around the park’s namesake through heavily wooded marshland. 

Morningside Nature Preserve Trail 

1.7 miles 

With the nickname “City in a Forest,” it’s no wonder there are so many nature areas to explore in Atlanta. One of our favorite micro trails can be found in the Morningside Nature Preserve Trail, a 31-acre woodland area that was saved from demolition and development by locals in the late 90s. A 1.7-mile singletrack path meanders along boardwalks, over a suspension bridge and next to the South Peachtree Creek, a sandy-bottom and slow-moving creek surrounded by lush hardwood forest. 

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