In addition to making our hearts beat faster and quads crying, stairs in the Bay Area connect us to the world around us and help us reach mountain views, gardens, works of art, seascapes, and neighborhoods. Through them, we can also learn incredible stories about the region, whether the stairs lead through a Civil War-era fortress, past a mosaic from the neighborhood, or along America’s oldest trail racetrack.
Here are five incredible outdoor stair hikes that will take you down secret garden paths, mosaic stairs to the historic batteries near the Golden Gate Bridge, and more.
Each article includes recommendations on “grab a bite” as well as suggestions for hiking routes with practical Google Maps. (Just be sure to cross streets: many routes cross streets with no pedestrian crossings.) Take in phenomenal views and fresh air on these epic stair hikes.
Communication Hill, San José
Inspired by San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, Communications Hill was named after the 30-meter high communications tower on its summit. Today it is a popular borough near downtown San Jose. Though the cypress-lined Grand Staircase is the star, the neighborhood in William Lewis Manly Park also has views of the Santa Cruz Mountains from scenic overlooks, charming stairs that lead to hidden courtyards, and even ping pong tables – bring your own balls as well Paddle with.
Hike: A 3.5 km loop explores the Communications Hill neighborhood, where you can visit the Grand Staircase, Vieira Park, and William Lewis Manly Park via a combination of stairs, sidewalks, and the paved Communications Hill Trail.
Route: At https://tinyurl.com/communicationshillloop you will find a Google map adapted for you for this hiking route.
Details: On-street parking is often available near Vieira Park, Grassina Street, and Adeline Avenue in San José (www.sanjoseca.gov), as well as near the Great Staircase on Mullinix Way. The Grand Stairway hours are 1 hour before sunrise to 1 hour after sunset. No public toilets.
Eat a bite: Get a meat or vegetarian empanada at the friendly Milohas, a Colombian empanaderia, 4.5 miles southwest of Communications Hill at 4662 Meridian Ave. It is open Tuesday through Sunday and can be ordered online at www.milohaspastries.com.
Hidden garden stairs, San Francisco
The same artists – Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher – who designed San Francisco’s famous 16th Avenue Tiled Steps are behind a brilliant mosaic staircase called Hidden Garden Steps, 0.3 miles down the street. The wondrous and detailed mosaic, unveiled in 2013 and invisible on the way down, shows vast wildflowers and forest animals flowing up 148 steps like a waterfall and surrounded by lush gardens.
San Francisco’s hidden garden stairs are a riot of multicolored mosaic set in a lush garden. (Courtesy Melissa Ozbek)
Hike: A 2.7 mile circular hike begins at Golden Gate Park, visits both mosaic stairs, and then leads to a view in Grandview Park. On the way back, pick up a pre-ordered treat from Arizmendi Bakery to enjoy at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Details: Find the hidden garden stairs on 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street in San Francisco. http://hiddengardensteps.org. There is street parking near Hidden Garden Steps and on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Golden Gate Park. Public toilets in the San Francisco Botanical Garden at 1199 Ninth Ave .; www.sfbg.org.
Eat a bite: Arizmendi Bakery produces morning biscuits, gourmet thin crust pizza, and vegetable focaccia squares from the excavation site at 1331 Ninth Ave. Open Tuesday to Sunday. You can order online at www.arizmendibakery.com.
Berkeley Rose Garden and Stair Walk, Berkeley
Berkeley’s secret garden-like paths and stairs were built in the early 20th century to give residents on the hillside access to the trams and railroad lines far below. Many of these steps and trails were overgrown or forgotten until 1997 when residents founded the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, a volunteer group that publishes and maintains a map of the trails. Today, more than 100 numbered paths and stairs provide a peaceful burst of nature as you explore the neighborhood.
A visitor takes a reading break on the stairs of the Berkeley Rose Garden on July 22, 2020. (Aric Crabb / Bay Area News Group)
Hike: The Berkeley Rose Garden is a wonderful starting point with 250 varieties of roses on a terraced amphitheater. Card in hand ($ 12, www.berkeleypaths.org), explore the stairs northeast towards Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Or follow this 4.1 mile loop up a dozen flights of stairs …
Details: The Berkeley Rose Garden at 1200 Euclid Ave. is open every day. www.cityofberkeley.info. On Euclid Avenue, you will find on-street parking and public toilets in Codornices Park.
Eat a bite: The Fava serves fresh, seasonal dishes. Get a falafel flatbread sandwich (I recommend hummus) to enjoy a few blocks north in Live Oak Park. Fava is open Wednesday through Saturday at 2114 Vine Street. Online orders are possible at www.favaonvine.com.
The Dipsea, Mill Valley
The 7.5-mile Dipsea is the second-oldest course in America, after the Boston Marathon – and the oldest trail running race – in 1905 for a bet among members of a San Francisco sports club to find the fastest from Mill Valley to run to the Dipsea Inn. It usually takes place on the second Sunday in June, but after you’ve virtually driven last year – you can run the race on the track by yourself or do it in your own neighborhood – this year’s race is scheduled for November 7th.
The Dipsea Trail runs 7.5 miles from downtown Mill Valley to the Pacific on a course that includes more than 650 steps. (Courtesy Melissa Ozbek)
The racetrack is also a popular hike with great views of the ocean, rainforest-like canyons, wildflowers, long stairs, and maze-like intersections. Starting in Mill Valley, it climbs three long flights of stairs – more than 650 steps – through mountain quarters and then descends to Muir Woods. Next, it crosses the southern slope of Mount Tam to the Pacific.
Hike: The seven-mile easy hike begins at Old Mill Park in Mill Valley and takes the moderately strenuous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach. New signposts and route photos are helpful for navigation.
Details: Find on-street parking near Old Mill Park, Throckmorton Avenue, and Old Mill Street in Mill Valley. www.cityofmillvalley.org/community/parks/. Schedule pickup at Stinson Beach or take the West Marin Stagecoach bus back to Mill Valley. https://marintransit.org/stagecoach. There are public toilets in Old Mill Park and Stinson Beach.
Eat a bite: Get a deli sandwich – like pesto and toasted vegetable-filled dipsea – at Mill Valley Market on 12 Corte Madera Ave. The market is open daily and you can order online at www.millvalleymarket.com.
Fort Point to Historic Batteries, San Francisco
The northwestern edge of the San Francisco Peninsula is a phenomenal place to take in views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the coastal batteries. Under the bridge, near its southern anchorage, is Fort Point, a brick Civil War fortress that was completed in 1861. Go up to the roof and cannon mounts to look out over the Marin Headlands, San Francisco Bay, Angel Island, and Alcatraz.
The path that leads from Fort Point to the historic batteries has incredible views of the bay and bridge. (Courtesy Melissa Ozbek)
A distinctive arch extends across it, rainbow-like and specially designed to preserve Fort Point when the Golden Gate Bridge was built in the 1930s. Stairs near the Warming Hut on Crissy Field connect to the Golden Gate Bridge Visitor Plaza, Batteries, and the Bluff-Side Sea view on the Batteries to Bluffs Trail.
Hike: A 3.7 mile balloon loop begins at Fort Point, climbs up the bluff and under the Golden Gate Bridge to the Batteries to Bluffs Trail. It returns via the Coastal Trail.
Details: The Fort Point National Historic Site is open Friday through Monday at 999 Marine Drive in San Francisco. www.nps.gov/fopo. Free parking. Public toilets near Fort Point and the Warming Hut.
Eat a bite: The Warming Hut Park Store offers tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, as well as packaged treats, energy bars, snacks, and souvenirs. Open Thursday through Monday at 983 Marine Drive; www.parksconservancy.org.
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