A few years ago, USA Today ranked the "Ten Most Beautiful Places in America." The second — behind only Sedona, Ariz., and its red rock buttes — was the top of Mount Washington in Pittsburgh. Yeah, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Though "mountain" is an exaggeration, the tall, steep hill offers a panoramic view of the woefully underrated city's skyline. Structures built after 1970 — including PNC Park, Heinz Field, the U.S. Steel Tower and a Philip Johnson-designed glass castle called One PPG Place — loom over the aging factories, giving Pittsburgh a modern look. A succession of gold-colored bridges drape over the three rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio — which merge to form the city's focal point.
I'd actually argue the view offered to paddlers by Kayak Pittsburgh is better than the one from Mount Washington — if only because from the small paddle boats KP launches straight onto the Monongahela, you can see Mount Washington itself, with the iconic cable inclines crawling up and down, in addition to the rest of the skyline.
A project of a nonprofit called Venture Outdoors, Kayak Pittsburgh (kayakpittsburgh.org) takes a quintessential wilderness sport and puts it in the heart of a big city. Fifteen bucks gets you an hour's rental. It's $8 for each addition half hour (and $20 an hour for a two-seater). Kayak Pittsburgh's vessel of choice is the 12-foot Emotion Advent-Edge (probably because it's easy for beginners to enter and exit its ample cockpit). Stacks of the yellow boats sit on its dock beneath the Roberto Clemente Bridge, right across from downtown.
Paddle west, along the North Shore, and you'll pass PNC Park (home of the ill-fated Pittsburgh Pirates) and then Heinz Field (home of the more fortunate Steelers). Both stadiums have extended sections of seating (putting nosebleed attendees at heights level with city skyscrapers' middle floors), so paddlers see arms of seats sticking out past the trees and benches along the shoreline. Go a little farther and you'll reach the Carnegie Science Center and can paddle along the side of the U.S.S. Requin, the 311-foot World War II submarine permanently docked outside the center.
Because the middle of the river is designated for motorboats, you can't (or at least probably shouldn't) cross over toward Point State Park, where the three rivers actually meet, and sneak onto the Allegheny River. Still, there is plenty to see heading east on the Monongahela, including the 1.5-million-square-foot David L. Lawrence Convention Center, whose hulking roof forms a wave pointing down toward the river. But it's the smaller sights I enjoy on this leg of the river: joggers, cyclists, fishermen and the round slab of concrete, leftover from a demolished dock, where some of my friends go to hold illicit bonfires.
This is another reason why the kayak experience is better than that of standing atop Mount Washington with a pair of binoculars: Instead of looking down on the vast urban organism that is Pittsburgh, you get to feel like a part of it.