Liz Thomas lives on the trail. An extreme athlete, she is one of the most accomplished long-distance hikers in the United States, traveling fast and traveling light. Over the past ten years, she’s backpacked more than 15,000 miles and completed the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail and the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail, breaking the unsupported women’s speed record on the last. She completed many of her hikes, including pioneering traverses of the Wasatch Range in Utah and the Chinook Trail in Washington, solo.
A boardmember of the American Long Distance Hiking Association, she is also a well-known “urban hiker,” having backpacked through several cities, including Denver and Los Angeles — arguably much more dangerous than any nature trail — walking on pavement instead of dirt.
But none of those accomplishments will make her a hero in Denver until she completes her next feat: an eight-day, 88-mile urban thru-hike of Denver, during which she will visit at least sixty breweries in the city. She began last Sunday and plans to complete the mission by this Sunday, March 19.
The Urban Brew Thru, as she calls it, is a trek that would make most beer drinkers cock their head to the side and raise an eyebrow, but for Thomas, it was the only way she was going to be able to accomplish the task.
“I made a New Year’s resolution in 2013 to visit every brewery in Denver. Unlike a lot of my friends’ resolutions, I figured this one was possible,” she explained Wednesday over beers at Comrade Brewing. A Denver native, she is a graduate of both Claremont McKenna College and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and she now lives in Claremont, California. But she’s rarely there, especially in the summers when she hikes.
Eventually, Thomas realized that the only way she was going to find the time to accomplish that goal was if she tackled it in the same way. So last year she began secretly devising a plan — and a route — through Denver.
The plan would mean walking everywhere and staying overnight at friends’ houses. It would mean hoisting heavy packs and carrying everything with her, including bedding, clothes and supplies. And unlike most long-distance hikes, where packs get lighter, Thomas collects coasters and brewery souvenirs, so her pack gets heavier as she goes.
“I am paranoid. I was secretive because I didn’t want anyone to poach the idea,” she says. Now that she is on the road, though, she wants people to know about the trip. “Denver loves beer. So I think that this will connect the idea and people who are maybe more well off and able to sit around and drink beer all day with those who can’t afford to do that and who have to walk or take public transportation.
“But mostly,” she adds, “I wanted to go to all the breweries in Denver, and this was a way to do it.”
A wide variety of friends have joined her for certain stretches of the thru-hike, but her companion for the entire trip this time is Naomi Hudetz, who has accompanied her in the past on several hikes. Hudetz lives in White Salmon, Washington, but wanted to join in because she simply loves urban hiking.
On Wednesday afternoon, Thomas, Hudetz and two friends, Bob Inman and Brian Davidson, hit the Bull & Bush, Copper Kettle and Comrade before hiking another four miles to a friend’s house in Washington Park, where they camped. It was a long walk, but a light day for beer compared to the previous Sunday and Monday, when Thomas visited 28 breweries. “We’ve been trying to stay with tasters and to stay hydrated,” Thomas says.
To do it, the foursome walked along the Cherry Creek Trail and Highline Canal for much of their hike. But over the past five days, Thomas has had to negotiate busy streets and intersections that weren’t made for pedestrians.
For instance, on Tuesday, as they picked their way from Station 26 Brewing to the Brewability Lab in east Denver, they had to continually cross the street along Smith Road to find a sidewalk, dodging semis where there were no crosswalks. On Sunday and Monday, in River North and lower downtown, they repeatedly found themselves in construction zones, which also made it difficult to find a safe pathway.
“In most cities like Denver, there are detours and work-arounds for cars, but not for walkers,” Thomas says. Even around Prost Brewing, in Lower Highland, they had to walk in the street because there was no sidewalk.
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Still, using Google Maps, they haven’t made any major mistakes, says Hudetz, who is also on the board of the American Long Distance Hiking Association. “You figure it out pretty quickly, and it’s a great way to see the city.”
Thomas says urban hiking requires a special set of skills beyond the discipline, endurance and know-how that it takes to complete a long-distance trail. Aside from being good at maps and being able to deal with the pounding rigidity of pavement, she also had to avoid the temptation to hang out in the sun and keep drinking beer all day at some of the breweries, she says with a laugh. “That temptation is pretty strong.”
The biggest hurdles for the trekkers actually turned out to be the brewery hours. Many don’t open until 3 or 4 p.m., so there is a limited window when they could visit. Thomas says her biggest fear on the trail was getting to one, tired and hot, and discovering that it wasn’t open yet or had closed for the day. To help avoid that, she created a master list of all 61 planned stops and the hours that each brewery keeps.
Today, Thomas and company plan to hit ten breweries along the Broadway corridor, along Washington Park and finish at Renegade Brewing. They’ll finish the quest on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. To follow along, check out @lizthomashiking on Instagram and the hashtag #urbanbrewthru. She also plans to make her route public once it is complete so that others can follow in her besotted but athletic footsteps.