By CBSLA Staff

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – Many Angelenos have turned to hiking groups as a way to tackle the mental health struggles brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

For Effin Gentry and his band of hikers, this is a Thursday evening tradition against the backdrop of the Hollywood sign to the west and a family of deer nibbling on oak leaves to the north. They gather together to bear witness to the magnificence of nature and share an evening with newfound friends.

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“After the pandemic, there’s a lot of people that haven’t been out, and been by themselves for a while, and this is a great way to get back into it,” Gentry told CBSLA Monday.

Gentry started the group “Hiking with Friends” 13 years ago to combat loneliness.

“Because I didn’t want to hike by myself,” Gentry said.

Effin was going through a tough breakup. At the same time, friends who’d committed to go hiking with him were often flaking out. So he posted a public message on Facebook inviting strangers to join him.

“My first hike I ever lead was, I called it the ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ hike,” Effin said. “A bunch of people showed up.”

Francisco Aplomb was one of them.

“What drew me to him was the family he’s trying to build,” Aplomb said.

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Friend-making and family-building with strangers through shared activities has been picking up steam. In South L.A., a group called “Ride Wit Us” draws hundreds of bike riders every week, each rider committing to lift the spirits of all fellow riders.

These rides and hikes are free to anyone who wants to join. They take place on trails between Ventura and Orange counties and draw crowds five days a week.

Hiking with Friends has been so successful it has expanded to “Kayaking with Friends” and “Camping with Friends.” It was on one of these camping trips five years ago in The Sierra Nevada mountains that Aplomb decided he would name his daughter Sierra.

“That’s where I became aware I was going to be a father,” Aplomb said.

Effin says creating the hiking community has been healing. He takes pride in what it has done for him and others.

“There’s always someone to show up and then we’re not alone,” Effin said.

His message to any nature lover struggling with isolation or loneliness:

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“Anybody feeling like they’re alone, they don’t need to be,” Effin said. “They could be hiking with friends.”