With its snaking freeways, miles of asphalt, convertible-friendly weather, urban sprawl as far as the eye can see, and promises of road trips in every direction, Los Angeles is the poster child for car culture. But it wasn’t always that way. It once had one of the most efficient public transportation systems in the nation and hundreds of sets of public stairs were built up around the lines in hilly neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Echo Park, Mt. Washington, El Sereno, Pasadena, and Hollywood to deliver Angelenos to and from their homes and the transit stops and stations.
Though the original streetcars and tracks are long gone, many of the public thoroughfares still exist and have become popular ways to explore some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and get some exercise.
The History of L.A.'s Staircases
In its 1920s and ‘30s heyday, the Pacific Electric Railway was one of the largest public transportation systems in the world. It had stops from Venice and Santa Monica to San Bernardino, from the San Fernando Valley to Newport Beach, from Echo Mountain to San Pedro. A secondary and complementary system, the Los Angeles Railway, operated Yellow Cars with a higher frequency within a much smaller area of central L.A. from the late 1890s. The railways connected neighborhoods and fostered the development of bedroom communities and suburbs. Its extensive reach fueled the region’s early development and housing boom by pushing L.A.’s boundaries farther and farther out and encouraging folks to move away from downtown and other city centers as it allowed for easy but lengthier commutes. Thus, the urban sprawl that is associated with today’s Southern California was a bi-product of the railway before it was worsened by the meteoric rise of the automobile.
But as anyone who has seen "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" could tell you, the iconic Red Cars were slowly and conspiratorially dismantled in favor of buses, cars, and freeway construction thanks to the greed of city officials and rubber, automobile, and oil company executives. The demise began just after World War II and the last Red Car rolled to its extinction in 1961. The last yellow trolley joined it in 1963. Most were sold for scrap metal; some were exported to Argentina and assimilated into Buenos Aires’ metro systems. When L.A. started rebuilding its subway and light rail options in the 1990s, it traced several old Pacific Electric rights of way for new Metro lines.
Luckily for today’s urban hiker, the roughly 400 staircases which ferried residents between their hillside homes and school, the market, parks, main drags, and streetcar stops were left alone when tracks were torn up. Although some fell into disrepair as more families bought cars and stopped using them on a regular basis and some became convenient spots well-suited to hiding mischief, drug deals, and sometimes more nefarious criminal activity, there has been a more recent movement to reclaim them, clean them up, and explore them. They remain to provide a walkable window into L.A.’s storied past, unique architecture, celebrity haunts and homes, filming locations, street art, natural scenery, and occasionally the seedier side of the city. They also happen to be great free workouts.
The Expert: Charles Fleming
Charles Fleming, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, wrote the bible on the stairs ("Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide To The Historic Staircases of Los Angeles") in 2010 and a sequel called "Secret Walks" in 2015. He has seen sales of both books climb dramatically since last spring and is forced to share his strolls with far more people than usual lately.
“A lot of people have turned to the stairs in this period,” he said. “They represent a great option to get outdoors and to people who can't go to their spin or yoga or pilates classes, or swim at the Y, or play tennis on public courts. The stairs are there, they're free, and they provide a good healthy workout.”
He personally became a connoisseur of companionways in 2006 after his doctor suggested he have a third spinal surgery in as many years. Instead, he prescribed himself long therapeutic walks near his home in Silver Lake. As he built up his strength and endurance, he started to incorporate the stairs, quickly realizing how special they were.
“The stairs and the walks that connect them became secret urban trails for me, offering an unusual backyard, backstreet experience of the city. As I hunted staircases, I felt like Henry Hudson searching for the Northeast Passage,” Fleming said. “Having done lots of country walks in England, Ireland, and France, I wanted people to be able to have a similar walking experience here.”
And because he was an author by trade and the only other guidebook about the landmarks was out of print, he decided to write a new one. He walked, measured, photographed, researched, and mapped more than 275 of them for the project, which until he starts up his free first-Sunday-of-the-moth walking tours again, is the best way to begin your own personal stairs quest and to figure out what you’re looking at when you do.
The Best Routes to Explore
The book is divided into neighborhoods or regions and then further organized into walks within those areas. Some wanders include multiple sets of stairs while others focus on one. For each journey, there’s a map and a chart with stats like distance, number of steps, and difficulty level. There’s also a detailed discussion of the stairs’ history and construction, geography, and points of interest you’ll see along the way. These run the gamut from the downtown skyline, the house where William Faulkner wrote the screenplay for "To Have And Have Not," the Pacific Ocean, 100-year-old bungalows, wildflower patches, bridges, street art, the Angels Flight funicular, sculptures, lakes, secluded communities only accessible by stairs, and a massive temple founded by the first extremely popular female evangelist. Many locals and tourists have followed Fleming's book for routes (such as @secretstairsla) or have stumbled upon the staircases themselves.
As many tourists to L.A. are short on time and likely have to settle for doing one or two step strolls while in town, Fleming offered suggestions on where to start depending on where you’re staying in the vast city—walk 40 (Santa Monica), walk 29 (Los Feliz), or Walk 12 (Echo Park). “Those all feature the best combination of scenery, architecture, and workout. Walk 40 is shaded by massive eucalyptus trees and scented by sea breezes. Walk 29 includes a loop around Griffith Observatory with massive views. Walk 12 starts at a beautiful lake and wraps around some of SoCal's most beautiful Queen Anne homes and Victorians from the 1880s.”
Walk 12 came up again when asked what is the best choice for architecture buffs as does walk 37 which travels around the Hollywood Bowl and the pedestrian-only neighborhood of High Tower. High Tower, Fleming says, “feels like you’re visiting another place and another time.”
If you’re looking to break a sweat, Fleming says Walk 42 in Pacific Palisades is “the toughest walk in the book with a final climb that will challenge the fittest walker.” With a name like Giant Steps and the longest stretch of stairs at 531 steps, that is to be expected. It also has the best ocean views and remote beauty. Echo Park walks 14 and 15 group together some challenging climbs but reward those who push on with big views. Swan’s Way, AKA Walk 25, is great for cross-training and cardio with some of the steepest staircases in the city. Walk 7 in Highland Park near the Southwest Museum has steep stairs after you have already tackled the hike up one of Los Angeles' steepest streets.
If you were hoping for the opposite, Fleming recommends Walks 22 (the Coffee Table Loop) and 27 (Silver Lake Court) as they "feature nice flat sections and not too many stairs."
Asking Fleming to name his favorite is impossible for him. “I have too many favorites to name [one],” he says before identifying a few contenders. “Walk 1 though Pasadena's La Loma neighborhood is peaceful and quiet. Walk 41 (Pacific Palisades’ Castellammare) features the staircases I first encountered as a boy. Walk 26 (Cove-Loma Vista Loop, pictured above) has great views of Silver Lake, passes through some important historic spots, and has the staircase that I lived next to in the 1980s.”
Know Before You Go
First and foremost, the byways are public, on public property, and built and maintained by taxes. Occasionally nearby homeowners will try to gate or lock them, but that is not legal. They are in various states of disrepair and upkeep so expect to cross paths with litter, eroded spots, broken handrails, graffiti, and overgrown vegetation—but sometimes you will be surprised by the absence of those things. They also have varying amounts of shade. If you are going exploring in the summer, avoid the hottest parts of the day and bring plenty of water.
Fun Facts About L.A.'s Stairs
There are plenty of other interesting things to note including:
- The Allesandro Loop (no. 16) features several unique wooden staircases, which have been in use since the 1920s. They were never replaced with cement.
- In 1950, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society, one of America’s first gay rights organizations, on the hillside by the Cove Avenue Mattachine Steps in Silver Lake. There’s a plaque.
- Silver Lake’s Micheltorena Stairs are the most photogenic as they sport rainbow colors and painted hearts.
- The granite Saroyan Stairs in Beachwood Canyon are gussied up with center planters that double as rest stops.
- "The Music Box" steps featured prominently in the same-named 1932 movie that won the very first Best Live-Action Short Oscar. Laurel and Hardy attempted to move a piano up the daunting path.