Secret Stairways and Colorful Murals: Urban Hikes for Everyone

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Hiking is always fun but throw in hidden staircases and gorgeous murals, and you’ve got yourself a real adventure! Explore the city on foot and soak in the beauty of the stairs, the views from the top and our Bay Area’s very own local artists. Here’s a guide to a few of our favorite spots!

 

Nicole Findlay

Staircases

The Hidden Steps on 16th Avenue

You'll find the Hidden Garden Steps at 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street in the Inner Sunset. The steep staircase, adorned with beautiful mosaic tiles, depicts colorful flowers, plants, insects and more!

At the top, turn right and follow 16th Avenue through the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood. Here, you'll reach another set of beautifully tiled stairs where you can climb from the sea (at the bottom) to the stars (at the top).

And when you get to the top of that staircase, why not turn right, and catch a third set of stairs? This not-as-pretty concrete set leads you to the tip-top of Granview Park. The views of the Pacific Ocean, the bay, and the entire city below are jaw-dropping. Pat each other (and yourself!) on the back. That was quite an urban climb!

The Steps to Macondray Lane

Have you seen "Tales of the City?" You know, the 1993 miniseries (with a sequel in 2019) featuring Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Paul Gross and Barbara Garrick? Well, Macondry Lane was the inspiration for Barbary Lane in "Tales of the City." It's a secluded, greenery-lined pedestrian walkway in Russian Hill between Leavenworth and Taylor Streets. At the Taylor side, there's a set of wooden stairs, and from the top, you can see the beautiful bay.

Explore 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'll 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 with a dead end 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-degree view of the bay is breathtaking. Continue up Indian Rock Avenue and turn onto San Diego Road. On your left, you'll discover John Hinkel Park with its lush canyon and stone amphitheater. Go down into the park to Somerset Avenue and turn right onto 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.

Scale South San Francisco's Sign Hill

We bet you've seen this place hundreds of times as you've zoomed up 101 toward San Francisco: A hill covered with white letters, reading "SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO THE INDUSTRIAL CITY," —it's the Hollywood sign's way-less-glamorous, NorCal cousin.

But did you know that this city park situated on the face of San Bruno Mountain is also a rare grassland habitat with endangered animals, stairs, and kid-friendly hiking trails? Getting to the letters is easy from Grand Avenue, just a short, uphill walk through a quiet suburban neighborhood. The Letters Trail is quick and takes you right up to the big white signs. (If you're looking for something longer, there are three other trail options to choose from: Ridge, Seubert and Iris Hill). Three-year-olds should be able to walk this trail on their own.

Dipsea Stairs

This staircase is not necessarily urban, but it's hidden in Mill Valley—and one of our favorites in the Bay Area. For the more experienced hiking family, this 3.70-mile loop tackles 680 stairs—but wow! How amazing are you going to feel when you reach the top? This trail takes an average of 1 hour and 53 minutes to complete, and feel free to bring your furry four-legged family members (as long as they stay on leash).

Climb Telegraph Hill

Paper streets may sound tame but they’re a guaranteed workout! Go down Sansome Street three blocks to a concrete-and-steel stairway called Filbert Steps where you start your ascension.  Wooden cottages, rose bushes, and sculpted gardens line both sides of the stairs. 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. These turn into Greenwich Street, leading you to Levi Plaza’s park, a zen place with fountains to splash in and rocks to relax on.

Murals

Mission District, San Francisco

Balmy Alley: Located between 24th and 25th Streets, this block-long alley is one of the best spots to see murals. The murals began in the mid-1980s to express anger over human rights violations and political corruption in central America. Today, new murals pop up all the time and can include gentrification and government injustice.

Clarion Alley: The Mission of Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) transformed Clarion Alley into a space filled with murals. There's been over 900 since 1992.

Walking around the Mission District is like stepping into an outdoor art gallery. If you'd like to see even more murals and learn about each piece—take a walking tour

Beach Chalet, San Francisco

Murals from the Works Progress Administration era cover the entire first floor of the Beach Chalet building. Enjoy the free art show before grabbing a bite to eat. The Beach Chalet restaurant (upstairs) and Park Chalet (downstairs and outside) are both delicious. The beach is just across the street, too! What could be better? Gorgeous murals, a delicious lunch, and a family frolic in the sand!

North Beach, San Francisco

Tucked into alleys on Columbus Street, you may have to search a little to find the murals in this neighborhood. But when you do, it's worth the effort. Our favorite, though, is not hard to spot. Stand on Columbus and Broadway and look above the New Sun Hong Kong Restaurant. We promise you can't miss it!

Chinatown, San Francisco

More and more colorful murals have popped up in Chinatown in the past decade. Take a stroll through this lively neighborhood and see how many you can spot! Our favorite is the giant blue dragon On Trenton Street and Pacific Avenue.

MacArthur Bart Station, 555 40th St, Oakland

Two murals inside the station are almost identical. Can your family find the differences? What do you think the murals look like? Peacock feathers, hot air balloon, a symbol of diversity? The beauty of art is that it's up to your interpretation. 

Downtown Oakland

The walk between the 12th and 19th Street Bart Stations has some really striking artwork. You'll find murals honoring the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, John Lewis, the Oakland skyline and more! 

Flax Art & Design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland

The kids will surely get excited when they see the huge T-Rex dinosaur painted in rainbow hues. 

Jack London Square, 4th and Webster, Oakland

The giant Oakland Dreams mural is definitely Instagram-worthy. It represents youth holding on to their dreams. Beautiful and inspirational!

—Nicole Findlay & Sarah MacDonald

RELATED STORIES:
The Best SECRET Parks In San Francisco
Uncovering Magical Places: Hidden East Bay Parks and Gardens
Hidden Parks & Gardens of the Peninsula 

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