Enter a secret world of stunning nature, architecture and stairs – so many stairs – in the Berkeley Hills.
Every now and then, you wake up and think to yourself, “I’d like to go for a hike.” But I don’t want a hike that will make me curse my decision with each plodding footfall, but that I will look back on with self-inflicted amnesia as a rewarding use of time.”
Here’s one such hike, folks. An intricate network of stairways and paths known locally as the “secret” or “hidden” stairs can be found in the East Bay hills. They’re said to number in the hundreds, with some built as shortcuts down to old Key System streetcars and others for who knows what.
There are numerous ways to explore them – if you’re interested in architecture and nature, check out our guide to the historic stairs and fire trails behind UC Berkeley – but today we’re focusing on the area between the Berkeley Rose Garden and Lake Anza. It is a very hilly terrain with spectacular views of the open Bay. Wild turkeys roam the landscaping of multimillion-dollar homes, and the odor of fire and earthquakes lingers in the air.
My companion and I climbed at least 11 staircases and paths made of concrete, wood ties and dirt, rough-hewn boulders, and lily pad-like stone tiles on a recent trip. (It’s not the most accessible hike.) We saw wildlife ranging from Anna’s hummingbirds to hawks and deer, as well as an unusual number of strange totems and sculptures, lending the day an overall “Blair Witch Project” vibe. Here’s a map of our route, which was chosen at random from the stairs near Spruce Street and Santa Barbara Road:
My knee hurt right away as I ascended the first step, anticipating what was to come. The stairs rise and rise, eventually losing all levelness and shifting downward to the left like a haunted mansion in some Tim Burton film. This could be due to the Hayward Fault, which runs directly beneath Berkeley. It’s slowly tearing the city apart, as evidenced by misaligned curbs, torn-and-stretched asphalt, and even the college stadium itself, which was designed in two separate, moving pieces.
Peeping into people’s nice yards, all of which are within touching distance of the public right-of-way, is part of the fun of exploring these East Bay stairways. (No, you should not.) In turn, you may notice locals peering back at you, saying, “Oh look, some more randoms.” Today, however, there was only a zen statue basking in the afternoon sun on this porch.
At this point, the steep concrete path resembles a luge track, ready to launch you over the water and into the vicinity of Treasure Island. A natural, grassy amphitheater on the north side of Cragmont Rock Park is popular for picnics. We move on after picking a perfectly ripe blackberry from the vines growing on the fence.
We come across the day’s first strange totem. It’s a pink tutu-wearing wooden horse.
“Our club and our local practice rocks, including Cragmont Rock in Berkeley, have hosted many fledgling climbers who later went on to greatness,” according to the club’s official website. “These include David Brower, Galen Rowell, Arlene Blum and Peter Mayfield.”
Sure enough, a couple of people have climbed up there and are taking in the spectacular view.
Our second surprise sculpture of the day atop someone’s garage. There’s a metal cowboy on a metal horse. “Westworld” would have been a lot more entertaining if these guys were creaking and clanging around.
Because the roads have become so narrow, cars are now parked on the sidewalks. It makes one wonder about Berkeley’s evacuation plan during the peak of wildfire season. Will people use the hidden stairs to escape a conflagration if cars become clogged on these twisty roads? That’s a terrifying thought.
We take a detour to check out a banner that we thought might be advertising a plant sale. Nope.
It’s helpful to have a screenshot of a map on your phone because cell service can be spotty in some areas and the stairs can be difficult to find. Some false leads end up on people’s property. On a previous trip, I asked a woman if a path along the side of her house was open to the public, and she chased me down the block, yelling about where I got that information. In any case, here’s a stairwell hidden behind a massive construction machine.
Some of the paths are in better condition than others. There are volunteer groups that meet on a regular basis to beautify these right-of-ways. When you walk past the lovely flowers, charming stepping stones, fruit orchards, well-kept trees, and random lawn decorations, you can really feel the path tenders’ love.
There are numerous opportunities to gape at massive redwoods, such as this one, which spreads upward like a forest god’s umbrella.
We arrived at the summit of our hike near Grizzly Peak Boulevard. San Francisco appears to be floating on a bed of clouds from here.
The hike can be extended to Lake Anza via the Fred Herbert Path at this point. It leads you through a shady grove of redwoods and wildberry bushes down to the lake’s rim road; from there, you must find your own way to the water. We choose to return to our starting point, our calves already feeling as if they’ve been crushed in a pneumatic press. The descent is filled with interesting architecture and design touches, such as this ominous Gate of Crows guarding one person’s yard.
There’s a creek to cross with a wooden bridge that’s more of a plywood sheet right now, and some homes that have the rustic charm of the Russian River.
A deer casually saunters out of someone’s immaculately manicured lawn near the end of our journey.
Several resources may be useful if you decide to take this walk. The Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (berkeleypaths.org) offers information on individual stairways and sells a popular path network map. “Secret Stairs: East Bay,” by the L.A. Times’ walking columnist Charles Fleming, is another well-researched guide on the subject, with hikes to do on more than 400 paths and stairways in Berkeley and Oakland.