San Francisco is known world wide for stunning views and hilly terrain. Some streets are so steep that more than 300 stairways exist throughout the city, providing access and shortcuts to areas difficult to reach otherwise.
There are the famous routes to Coit Tower where one can catch a glimpse of the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and the now famous Mosaic Stairs in Golden Gate Heights. Although not as crowded as say, Lombard (the crookedest street in the west), these top stairwalks can be bustling.
Instead, grab Adah Bakalinsky’s stairwalk bible, now in it’s 20th edition, and explore some of the more quirky areas. The book offers up the popular routes, but many of the stairways highlighted are tranquil spots, used only by locals and known only to a handful of people. Most walks take no more than an hour and string a number of staircases in a neighborhood together, with informative descriptions of the history, architecture and flora and fauna of the area.
Together, families can explore the nooks and crannies of this great city. My family often decides on a route and picks a restaurant or café in the area to make our ultimate destination. Avid hikers, we love to take our boys on treks outside the city, often inspiring them with treats or the prospect of counting banana slugs. Some days however, we just can’t get out of town, but want an outdoor activity that feels like a hike. Then we reach for our stairwalk book and pack a few snacks and layers of clothing.
One time it was dumping rain and each with an umbrella in tow, we geared ourselves up for the urban adventure. With each stairwalk we discover unique and unusual surprises, including hummingbirds, caterpillars, amanita muscaria mushrooms, blackberries, glorious flowers in bloom, secret cottages with magical gardens, never-before-seen views, maniacal exercisers and even a friendly kitty who followed us for blocks.
Most of these walks can be accessed by MUNI or BART (public transportation) and all can be great activities for out of town guests and spry grandparents. Many walks include benches or vista spots where one can catch one’s breath. These stairwalks are particularly great options when kids are portable, either in backpacks or frontal carriers. Take photos of your stairwalk and add them to a Flickr pool.
Here are a few of our recent favorites:
Telegraph Hill: The popular Filbert and Greenwich Street staircases leading up to Coit Tower.
Highlights: Gardens full of roses and irises and trees filled with the loud and colorful wild parrots and views of the Bay Bridge. At the top visit Coit Tower!
Begin the walk at: (down) Telegraph Hill Blvd and either Filbert or Greenwich streets; (up) Sansome Street at Filbert or Greenwich.
Upper Market: The Saturn and Vulcan stairways lead through the residential neighborhood above the Castro district.
Highlights: Quirky cottages where residents share a stairway with no street access and views of the city streets below. Look for a giant statue-less pedestal.
Begin walk at: Levant Street near Lower Terrace.
Mt. Davidson: Covered with eucalyptus forest, Mt. Davidson is the highest point in San Francisco at 927 feet and the site of the controversial mammoth Easter cross. In 1997, the cross was purchased for $26,000 by The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California, which placed a bronze plaque at the base memorializing the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Sadly, there are often beer bottles and trash around the place since certain locals take advantage of the isolated park.
Highlights: Views of the city, a real sense of wilderness, blackberry bushes, wildflowers and the cross at the top! It can be muddy in the rainy season, so wear good hiking shoes.
Begin walk at: The bus stop (at the junction of Dalewood and Lansdale) and head up the unsigned but obvious trail.