San Francisco’s Hidden Stairway Walks

Awesome views, secret passageways, hanging gardens and lush parks–stairways and former trails offer fantastic offbeat San Francisco city adventures. This is your chance to explore the Bay Area’s hills with a scenic perspective while getting a healthy dose of exercise. Following are two scenic stairway walks; both great for families as they combine exercise with kid-friendly parks and eats.

While San Francisco’s walk will take you along The Embarcadero to Levi’s Plaza (a stone’s throw from the Ferry Building), Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks walk starts and ends at family-friendly Solano Avenue, best known for the yearly street festival Solano Stroll or the Halloween costume contest.  Bring along the baby backpack or wrap or hike it with older kids who will love the elements of surprise of these two routes. Grab walking shoes, a camera, and water bottles, too.

San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill
Paper streets may sound tame but they’re a guaranteed workout! Marked on maps, these streets are only accessible on foot because they are too steep. So leave your car at home, you won’t need it. For the sake of romance, take the historical F line trams and get off at Sansome and The Embarcadero. Go down Sansome Street three blocks to concrete steps and steel called Filbert Steps. This is where you start your ascension. While the first block offers little in ways of eye candy, the second will leave you speechless. Wooden cottages, rose bushes, and sculpted gardens line both sides of the stairs. Peek down Napier Lane and Darrell Place and get to Montgomery Street. Your kids will love the “Teacup poodle OK” mural around a water hydrant on your right. Continue the stairs up to Coit Tower – enjoy the view – and come back down the Greenwich steps. They turn into Greenwich Street, leading you to Levi Plaza’s park, a zen place with water and rocks to relax before hopping back on the tram.

If you’ve worked up an appetite, near Levi’s Plaza, Cafe Destijl offers salads and paninis in a stylish setting – the cafe was named for a Dutch art movement- and Il Fornaio has Italian take-out or dine-in fare with a view on the plaza’s fountains. A few blocks away, the Ferry Building houses Ciao Bella Gelato, a must-stop for the younger set opposite Blue Bottle Coffee for their favorite grown-up. If the day sounds more like hot tea than icy treats, head the other direction to Ghirardelli Square’s Crown and Crumpet for tea and pastries.

Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks
At the top of Solano Avenue in North Berkeley starts the most unexpected urban stroll through parks, streams, volcanic boulders, and traditional Ohlone Indian sites. You will even find chickens to feed on the route! From Solano Avenue at The Alameda, go straight on Indian Rock Path, a narrow lane cutting between houses until it dead ends on Indian Rock Park, a climber’s Mecca. Look for stone steps carved on the right side of the rock and walk to the top. The 360 view on the Bay is breathtaking. Continue up on Indian Rock Avenue and turn into San Diego Road. On your left, you will discover John Hinkel Park with its lush canyon and stone amphitheater. Go down the park to Somerset Avenue and turn right into Arlington Avenue then left into Yosemite Road. This is where a clever resident set a chicken coop at street level with a bubble gum dispenser filled with chicken feed and treats for good dogs. Get your quarters out! After Great Stoneface Park, find Indian Trail at the south (left) corner of San Fernando Avenue and walk down Berkeley’s wild side. Turn left on The Alameda, left (up) Yosemite Steps after Capistrano Avenue and down Contra Costa Avenue back to Indian Rock Path. Turn right to Solano Avenue.

Elbowing chain coffee joints and grocery stores, Solano has smaller stores with a mom-and-pop feel and a Berkeley flair, all under the East Bay sun. After or before walking to world-class views, reward your stairway efforts with vegan take-out from Nature’s Express (they have a kids’ menu), French take-out at La Bedaine, or rich chocolate on tap or organic gelato from The Xocolate Bar. To feed your mind, stop at Pegasus Bookstore, an independent store that sells a good selection of new and used books at gentle prices. Wrap your day at Five Little Monkeys, a toy store your children will love where top notch quality is combined with sustainability and child interest.

You can find more inspiration for Bay Area hiking trails in Stairway Walks in San Francisco and Hidden Walks in the East Bay & Marin. The latter explores Sausalito and Mill Valley, too.

-Laure Latham