Stairways of San FranciscoIn early March, we (Amy and James) together with a small group of friends, took a fabulous 4-day 82-mile walk through the city of San Francisco. The route was designed to include as many public stairways as possible. This was a five-star trip, and all of us had a boatload of fun.
a.k.a. 568 Stairways in 4 Days
The initial inspiration for our trip came from these two posts from Bobcat – Part 1 and Part 2. We are indebted to Bobcat for the inspiration, and for sharing his track, which we used to help design our own route.
Photo: top of the stairway that connects Brewster and Franconia Streets.
ResourcesThe fine book Stairway Walks of San Francisco describes 30 very short loop hikes and describes points of interest. If you’re considering walking any of the San Francisco stairways it is absolutely worth buying the book because of the descriptions of neighborhoods, buildings, and historical notes.
The CommunityWalk.com website has a nice page showing the location of dozens of the most scenic stairways, and you can download a kml file of the data.
This fine podcast episode about urban stairways from Roman Mars at 99 Percent Invisible gives a bit of history and flavor.
Route PlanningWe followed the route shown in this CalTopo map. We made a few wrong turns and found a few dead-ends, so we have also produced a modified version of our route that makes numerous minor improvements on the route we followed; this version is be a better starting point to plan your own trip. If you like or use these CalTopo maps, please make a donation to Bay Area Mountain Rescue as a way of thanking CalTopo for their fantastic free service.
As Bobcat mentions in his post, preparing for this trip was very time consuming. We wanted to walk ~20 miles per day for four days. We wanted to take in as many stairways as possible. We wanted to design the route to end two of the days’ walks at two homes where we spent nights. We wanted to visit the top of most of the city's hills. We wanted diverse scenery. We tried not to double back and walk anything twice. All of this made for some very convoluted route choices.
To plan the route, I started by adding data from several sources to my google Earth dataset: Bobcat’s track, the pins from CommunityWalk, and the 30 loops from the book. Then I exported it all to CalTopo where I could view all that information on OpenStreetMap. There is a symbol for stairways in the OSM rendering on CalTopo, and some generous users have added hundreds of SF stairways to the OSM database. Thus I could view the OSM map and create our own route plan that incorporated many stairways that are not included in the book.
We were fortunate in having places to stay for the night. Alternatives for other people without that resource include the myriads of types of public lodging available in the city, including a couple of hostels for those on a budget. The hostel near Fort Mason is particularly nice. San Francisco has an extensive public transit network, so getting to and from starting and ending points is easy. Get the Rover app for your smart phone, which makes real time trip planning incredibly easy. Tell the app where you are and where you want to go and it returns the public transit info with the nearest stops on both ends of you journey as well as when the next bus or trolley will arrive.
- Day 1: We met at the Luen Fat Bakery in Visitacion Valley (easy access from CalTrain or MUNI) and walked to Tower Market, near Portola and O’Shaughnessey. ~19 miles and 5600’ gain. We spent the night nearby at Amy's brother’s house.
- Day 2: We walked from Amy's brother’s house to a friend’s house in the Castro. Total for the day was ~21 miles and 6000’ gain. We got a very early start so we could watch the sunrise from the top of Mount Davidson. The sun was setting before we were done with our planned route so we cut out a loop through Buena Vista Park.
- Day 3: We walked from our friend’s house to the Ferry Building. Dinner at the Ferry Building watching The Bay Lights, and MUNI back to our friend’s house. ~21 miles and 3700’ gain.
- Day 4: We took MUNI back to the Ferry Building, and walked to Ocean Beach. ~21 miles and 5000’ gain.
What's a Stairway Walk?Bobcat describes one list of self-imposed rules for taking a Stairway Walk. We didn't follow those guidelines exactly, but we did have a great time engaging in the game of finding stairways. We had to set up our own rules as we went along as to what constitutes a stairway, because the five of us started talking about accumulating points, one point per stairway climbed or descended. Points are good for something (not sure what, but Saint Peter's name was bandied about). By our definition, we climbed at least 568 Stairways (the number may be higher as Amy had to remember to drop a waypoint for each Stairway as we walked along; almost certainly a few were missed) that met these criteria:
- Part of the landscape, not stairs to or on a building unless the building itself is the primary feature of the landscape, such as the steps up an old military battery.
- At least three steps. On our first day I don't think we had any Stairways less than about eight steps. But on the second day we walked a block of Ulloa Street, where the street is 5 or 6 steps away from the sidewalk, and each house has a set of public steps that leads from the sidewalk to the street. We zig-zagged to climb all 27 of them, and our unanimous opinion was that they constituted individual Stairways. So we established our rule that it must have a minimum of three steps to count.
- Separated from other nearby Stairways by some boundary. Our boundaries included crossing a road or changing from uphill to downhill (i.e. to the top of a hill constituted one stairway; down the other side of the hill was a second stairway)
- A large distance between flights. A flight of stairs, a ten foot landing, another flight of stairs -- that's only one Stairway. If the Stairway is on a trail through a large park, and the "landing" is 50 or 100 feet before the next flight, that's still one Stairway. But sometimes trail segments between flights were 300 or 500 feet. When it got ambiguous, Amy was the sole judge, and the decision was based on gut feel.
- Ladders didn't count. But landscaped steps to the top of a slide in a playground did count.
- Individuals in our group earned bonus points (aka BoPos) by climbing Stairways that were not on the official route but were easily accessible from it. For instance, Union Square has many sets of stairs that lead to the same place and the official route doesn't climb all the variations, but some individuals did.
Overall Assessment: was it satisfying?James:
This was a terrific walk that was a lot more fun than I expected. Given the distance and gain we had each day, we were nicely tuckered out by the end of each day and felt like we had really taken a hike instead of just a walk in the city. Being San Francisco, another nice thing that I enjoyed was that when you were hungry, there was always some decent place nearby to get something to eat, the food options have tremendous variety and most of them are good. The architectural variety of the city was also something I had never really understood previously. Every house is different in some way and the neighborhoods are eclectic, colorful and often have a nice small-town feel to them. I also liked the Stairways that are officially named City streets with house address on them, but are only accessible by foot. Some of these foot accessible only streets actually had foot accessible only cross streets as well. And then you get a big vista with the Bay, the Marin Headlands, and the Pacific to remind you that the city is actually not so big at only about 47 square miles. Little things like a public rope swing on the side of a hill, murals on the walls, beautiful mosaic tile Stairways, and privately made, but publicly displayed art all enhanced the experience. Walking in remote mountains is great, but hiking urban places that are close to home have wonderful rewards as well.
I loved everything about this hike, and I put it in my list of five-star trips we've taken.
- The company was great.
- The big vistas were fantastic. We were nearly always in hilly neighborhoods, with big views of the ocean, the bay, the Golden Gate, the bridges, the Marin hills, the east bay hills. I liked crossing the tops of so many hills with their terrific views, and we had a long view in at least one direction for nearly the entire trip.
- San Francisco neighborhoods are vibrant, diverse, and beautiful. We think we live in perhaps the most beautiful urban area in the world.
- Gardens, gardens, and more gardens. Private gardens in yards. Community vegetable garden plots. Stairways landscaped in a cottage garden style by neighborhood volunteers. Gardens designed to attract butterflies. Publicly funded formal landscape installations. Magnolias, Camelias, Azelias, Ceanothus, and many others all in full bloom.
- Art everywhere. Public and private artwork. Whimsical art, like the UFO perched on a roof along a stairway corridor. Unexpected little artistic displays tucked into the corners of gardens, from plastic flamingos to lifesize welded bears. And world-class exhibits like The Bay Lights and the di Suvero installation at Crissy Field (which closes in May 2014).
- The Stairway theme was a fun game and provided a focus that helped unify the trip.
I lived in San Francisco for 27 years but realize after this walk I hadn’t scratched the surface. This city is loaded with whimsy, life, and a bold sense of humor.
Lasting impressions of note? Havens and Harry Streets, named staircase streets with no vehicular access to the wonderful homes on them. There are others, of course, but these stood out for me. And the two tiled staircases in Golden Gate Heights neighborhood. They are a must see, and my advice is not to look at any images of what they are ahead of time, so they come as a complete surprise. Also, definitely start at the their tops and work your way down so they unfold. Don’t make the mistake of starting at the bottom and walking up. Better to get to know these works of art a little at a time than have them displayed in their entirety right from the start.
A superb four day event verifying the positive facets of SF's reputation as one of the World cities that deserves to be called The City.
BirdsAs readers of this forum may have noted from past trip reports, we look for birds on our walks and this trip was no exception. We observed 75 species over the four day period as we benefited from the many large and small green spaces scattered throughout the city, as well as portions of its Bay and Pacific ocean waterfront habitats. A couple of Say's Pheobes were unexpected as well as hearing a calling House Wren in Glen Canyon. We were excited to see a Peregrine Falcon harassing a Red-tailed Hawk who was minding his own business perched high on a billboard overlooking Union Square. And the famous parrots of Telegraph Hill were abundant and noisy.
Our full photo show is here at Smugmug. Here are a few images that give a sense for the diversity and character of the hike.