Stairways help hikers climb the hills of San Francisco

01/03/2013 12:00 AM

01/02/2013 4:00 PM

It's no secret that we live close to one of the best cities in the world for walking. We also know that fall and winter bring the clear, sunny days and panoramic views that are only postcard dreams for summer visitors. The trick to enjoying our insider knowledge is finding paths long enough for an enriching outing, but short enough to include a meal and time to spot details along the way.

Today we'll share two favorite walks and give you an excellent way to find more and create your own – all in San Francisco. This city of 42 hills has more than 670 stairways.

For urban walkers, the best stairways have no traffic. These shortcuts between streets are often bordered by gardens cultivated by neighbors to enhance their piece of the public area and ensure your admiration as you step.

To get started, we consulted Adah Bakalinsky. She lives in downtown San Francisco and is among the city's strongest advocates for walking about its neighborhoods. Petite and spry at 89, Bakalinsky recently updated the seventh edition of her guidebook "Stairway Walks in San Francisco" (Wilderness Press, $17.95, 268 pages). Each of its 29 distinct walks is accompanied by a little history, a map keyed to precise directions, and public transportation information to the starting point.

Bakalinsky is observant. She notes elegant designs, architectural features and steps that are too steep, broken or untidy.

Amazingly candid about her lack of a sense of direction, Bakalinsky talked passionately about her walks in the living room of her downtown apartment where a south-facing balcony overlooks a parking garage roof.

"It's a true urban view," she quipped. At the moment, she's taking a break. "I'm walking about without thinking about when to turn right or left. I'm so afraid of giving someone a wrong turn," she said, her eyes sparkling behind rimless glasses.

In her latest edition, Bakalinsky added two walks and updated the other 27, "because neighborhoods change." One new walk is the Blue Greenway, a flat walk in the newly developed Mission Bay neighborhood, which stretches from Rincon Park just south of the Ferry Building, around AT&T Park, across Mission Creek, through the growing urban area along the creek to the Marina area with houseboats painted in various colors. Like all the walks in her guide book, this one takes about 2 1/2 hours, and it's the only one on flat terrain.

Bakalinsky calls the other new walk "Sunnyside" after the conservatory, which was rescued in 1973 from demolition by neighbors who subsequently turned it into a neighborhood center. It's on the south side of the city wedged between Balboa Park and Glen Canyon Park.

When Bakalinsky turned 89 in July, the city of San Francisco commemorated her work by naming the stairway at Waller and Broderick streets "Adah's Stairs."

Now for my two favorites.

If you have time for only one walk and it's a clear day, an excellent choice is Lands End. Although this coastal walk on the northwest edge of the city has been a rugged option for years, its paths have been thoroughly upgraded and improved. The steps are in excellent shape, and trails are mostly well signed. Visitors can easily spend all day traipsing around here.

Lands End is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service. In April 2012 the National Park Service opened the Lands End Lookout Visitors Center. It has a staffed information desk, a small cafe, a historical exhibit, a shop, free parking and restrooms. Nearby are two restaurants, Louis' Restaurant and the Cliff House.

Your decision on which combination of trails to take will depend on your stamina and your interest in history and nature. Bakalinsky outlines a long walk with at least five stairways. The visitors center has a free basic map and a $1 self-guided walking tour map full of photos and history. However, neither is as detailed as Bakalinsky's.

Trails weaving through this area offer panoramic views of Ocean Beach, the Sutro Baths ruins and the Golden Gate Bridge. They take you past the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Holocaust Memorial, the Chinese Cemetery Gate and the USS San Francisco Naval Memorial.

I suggest starting at the visitors center and following the well-marked Coastal Trail north. About 50 yards from the start are new redwood stairs to the USS San Francisco Naval Memorial. It's a good climb. People who can't make the stairs can drive up.

You can return to the trail by the same stairs or take different stairs that put you farther along the trail, which is built on the roadbed of the Ferries & Cliff House Railroad.

The trail and various stairways to Lands End, Mile Rock Beach and Eagle's Point Platform turn this walk into a good hike. Walkers not up to the exertion may detour at the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum or find a scenic picnic spot in West Fort Miley grassy area.

From here the walk back to the visitors center could take 40 minutes.

My second favorite walk takes in three adjoining neighborhoods and features a grand stairway with a view of the bay. What I call the Lyon Street Stairway walk is a shorter, urban option to the woodsy and rustic Lands End trek. On a clear day, the best starting point is the corner of Pacific and Lyon streets in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. Parking here is timed and sparse.

Walk north, down the stairway passing between the Presidio forest and mansions. The gardens are grand with statues and fountains. Many locals exercise on this steep pathway. At the bottom of the stairs, Lyon Street continues north for six blocks to the entrance to the Presidio where George Lucas has his Letterman Digital Arts Center.

Farther north is the Palace of Fine Arts. This area offers enough distraction for a day, but walkers will want to continue to the yacht harbor and out onto the jetty and the Wave Organ. Super-energetic folks can double back and take in Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge.

To return, you can retrace your steps, or more interestingly, go up Baker Street to Bay, turn left for one block and right on Broderick. Continue eight blocks to Vallejo, then left one block and right onto Divisadero.

Climb two more blocks to Pacific, turn right and go three blocks back to your starting point.

Walking spots

The Lands End Lookout Visitors Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 680 Point Lobos Ave., San Francisco; (415) 426-5240;

Birders can check out a map and bird spotting guide:

For information on West Fort Miley:


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