San Francisco Stairway Walks Route Guide

Route Summary

What: a series of ten (mostly) urban Stairway Walks.
Where: San Francisco.
Distance: about 109 miles.
Highlights: Ocean and bay views, eclectic architecture, gardens, art and lots of stairways.

History

In early March 2014, we took a fabulous 4-day 82-mile walk through the city of San Francisco with a small group of friends. The route was designed to include as many public stairways as possible; we counted 568 on our trip. This was a five-star trip, and all of us had a lot of fun. It was one of the most creative trip we have ever taken, with unexpected surprises around every corner. It reinforced our opinion that San Francisco is America’s most beautiful city.

Our inspiration was Joshua “Bobcat” Stacy’s trip report: Part 1 and Part 2. We are indebted to him for the inspiration, and for sharing his track, which we used to help design our own route.

When we finished the hike we had a strong desire to share the joy we had experienced with others, but few people we know prefer to hike 20-mile days or have the time to hike for four consecutive days. So we broke the route into eight legs of about eleven miles each; we have subsequently added two more legs.

In 2015 we organized about one hike per month and invited friends to bring some friends and join the fun. We completed the series of ten hikes over the course of the year. We had so much fun we repeated the series in 2016 and are just completing the 2017 edition. We walk at a leisurely pace, stop frequently to enjoy views, gardens, art, and conversations with passersby. We stop for lunch along the way. Ten to twelve miles is a suitable distance for a full day’s outing, and this has proven to be a terrific way to spend time with friends.

What is a Stairway?

The stairways are outdoors, public, and part of the landscape. Stairways used exclusively to access buildings do not count. A stairway must have a minimum of three steps to count. On some very steep streets, steps are built into the sidewalk. On steep trails there are often railroad-tie stairways. Pedestrian corridors through hilly neighborhoods are often stairways, sometimes several blocks long, sometimes lavishly landscaped by the neighbors. The most famous San Francisco staircases are “streets” that provide access to homes that have no vehicular access.

Why Go

The neighborhoods of San Francisco are diverse and beautiful. The route passes through dozens of public parks and over the tops of many hills with grand vistas. San Franciscans do not landscape or decorate their homes in a cookie-cutter fashion and there are plenty of delightful surprises. Flowers bloom year-round and gardens are diverse and luxurious.

This route is a great way to spend time with friends. Unlike hiking on more remote trails, people can join for an hour or a whole day, so nobody is left out. It’s a great way to show out-of-town visitors what San Francisco is all about by getting away from the standard tourist destinations and into the neighborhoods.

Each of the ten legs is beautiful and great fun; together they are a grand tour of one of the world’s great cities.

One long hike versus multiple short hikes

Our original 82 mile route was one continuous line. When we split it into independent legs we generally maintained the continuity, so most legs start where the prior leg ended. In a few cases we violated that structure, particularly the start and end of section #4, but one could make minor modifications and follow sections 1-9 in sequence on a single long hike, similar to our initial trip. Section 10 is a bonus section that does not start near the end of section 9.

We have walked the whole route three times since our original hike and continue to make minor improvements to the routing.

Resources

This article contains ten sections, one for each leg of the route. Each section has a map image and a gallery of photos from that leg. Click the map images to open interactive CalTopo maps. Instructions for using CalTopo.

There are gpx files and printable maps for all ten sections in our Dropbox folder.

Adan Bakalinsky’s fine book Stairway Walks in San Francisco describes 30 short loop hikes and describes points of interest. Our routes includes most stairways in this book, but our routes are much longer and include many other stairways and neighborhood parks. This book includes descriptions of neighborhoods, buildings, and historical notes and should be interesting to anybody walking our routes.

Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco is an excellent series of short essays about the city’s history and culture.

This fine 99 Percent Invisible podcast episode about urban stairways describes the history of urban stairways.

Only a few of the plethora of notable buildings, museums, gardens and public art installations are marked on the CalTopo maps. Other than those few, we leave it to the walker to discover and explore. Pay close attention to details of the map routing, particularly on hike #6 where the route leads inside several buildings. Hopefully other walkers will discover interesting bits and pieces that we have missed and we welcome suggestions for improvements.

Many thanks to our stair-climbing friends who provided some of the photos that appear in this article: Steve L., Tim H., Joerg S., Annette D., Carol G., Ana R., Grace P.

As for all our trips, we used our two favorite mapping tools: CalTopo.com to prepare gpx data and printed maps, and Gaia GPS while hiking.

Navigating

Staying on course requires the more attention than any other route we have ever followed. At literally every street corner and every trail junction you must check the map. The person in the party in charge of staying on track has to be vigilant, so much so that sustained conversation is a challenge. More than any other route described on DoingMiles, this one warrants using Gaia GPS or some other smartphone app. Get the gpx files from our Dropbox folder, then import into Gaia, and use it to keep track of where you are and which way to turn. Off course, if you go off route, you may discover something else of interest.

Parking and Transit

All of these hikes have easy public transit connections at both ends for people who have access to BART or SF-Muni; we use Google Maps iPhone app for transit information. Sadly, for people like us who live in the South Bay, CalTrain does not have early weekend trains to San Francisco so we often resort to driving. For most routes we include information about where we park.

The extensive public transit network in San Francisco makes it easy to cut these routes short. When we hike with friends, sometimes people leave early by catching a bus or an Uber/Lyft ride from wherever they happen to be located when the time comes to depart.

Amy’s Assessment

I loved everything about this hike, and I put it in my Top Ten List.

The big vistas were fantastic. We were nearly always in hilly neighborhoods, with big views of the ocean, the bay, the Golden Gate, the bridges, the Marin hills, the east bay hills. I liked crossing the tops of so many hills with their terrific views, and we had a long view in at least one direction for nearly the entire trip.

San Francisco neighborhoods are vibrant, diverse, and beautiful. We think we live in perhaps the most beautiful urban area in the world.

Gardens, gardens, and more gardens. Private gardens in yards. Community vegetable garden plots. Stairways landscaped in a cottage garden style by neighborhood volunteers. Gardens designed to attract butterflies. Publicly funded formal landscape installations. Magnolias, Camelias, Azelias, Ceanothus, and many others all in full bloom.

Art everywhere. Public and private artwork. Whimsical art, like the UFO perched on a roof along a stairway corridor. Unexpected little artistic displays tucked into the corners of gardens, from plastic flamingos to lifesize welded bears. And world-class exhibits like The Bay Lights and the four Andy Goldsworthy pieces in the Presidio.

The Stairway theme was a fun game and provided a focus that helped unify the trip.

James’ Assessment

This was a terrific walk that was a lot more fun than I expected. Given the distance and gain we had each day, we were nicely tuckered out by the end of each day and felt like we had really taken a hike instead of just a walk in the city. Being San Francisco, another nice thing that I enjoyed was that when you were hungry, there was always some decent place nearby to get something to eat, the food options have tremendous variety and most of them are good. The architectural variety of the city was also something I had never really understood previously. Every house is different in some way and the neighborhoods are eclectic, colorful and often have a nice small-town feel to them. I also liked the Stairways that are officially named City streets with house address on them, but are only accessible by foot. Some of these foot accessible only streets actually had foot accessible only cross streets as well. And then you get a big vista with the Bay, the Marin Headlands, and the Pacific to remind you that the city is actually not so big at only about 47 square miles. Little things like a public rope swing on the side of a hill, murals on the walls, beautiful mosaic tile Stairways, and privately made, but publicly displayed art all enhanced the experience. Walking in remote mountains is great, but hiking urban places that are close to home have wonderful rewards as well.

#1 Visitacion Valley to Bernal Heights via McClaren Park

Starts at: Luen Fat Bakery, 110 Leland Avenue.
Ends at: Mission and Santa Marina.
Lunch Stop: Cortland and Bennington; Epicurian Trader and other restaurants.
Distance: 10.2 miles.
Parking and Transit: The route starts within walking distance of the Bayshore CalTrain station.

#2 Glen Park to West Portal via Mount Davidson

Starts at: Cafe Bello, corner of Bosworth and Diamond.
Ends at: West Portal Muni Station.
Lunch Stop: Monterey near Foerster; Blue Iguana Taco Truck and others restaurants. Nice picnic tables at Sunnyside Playground two blocks away.
Distance: 12.0 miles.
Parking and Transit: There is unrestricted on-street parking at the end of the walk, on Claremont between Ulloa and Dorchester. We park there and take Uber/Lyft or public transit to the start of the hike.

#3 West Portal to Noe Valley via Inner Sunset and Twin Peaks

Starts at: Peet’s Coffee, 54 West Portal, near the West Portal MUNI station
Ends at: Philz Coffee, Douglass and 24th Street.
Lunch Stop: Irving and 10th Avenue; San Tung and San Tung 2 (1031 and 1033 Irving) have the best chicken wings in the city. Other restaurants nearby.
Distance: 11.4 miles.
Parking and Transit: There is unrestricted on-street parking at the start of the walk, on Claremont between Ulloa and Dorchester. We park there and take Uber/Lyft or public transit back after completing the hike.

#4 Circumambulate the Castro

Starts at: Dolores Park Cafe, corner of Dolores and 18th Street.
Ends at: Colette Crutcher’s Goddess Mural, on 16th Street near Sanchez.
Lunch Stop: Cole and Carl area; Reverie Cafe has good food and backyard garden seating. Other restaurants nearby.
Distance: 9.7 miles.
Parking and Transit: You can take your chances at finding street parking near the start or end of the route, but it’s not always easy. We park on Claremont near the West Portal MUNI station and take public transit to the access the hike.

#5 Mission Murals to Market via Mission Bay

Starts at: Kidpower Park at 45 Hoff, between 16th and 17th Streets.
Ends at: Market and Yerba Buena Lane.
Lunch Stop: Connecticut and 18th Street; Goat Hill Pizza. Other restaurants nearby.
Distance: 11.1 miles.
Parking and Transit: Park at the Daly City BART station and use BART to access each end of the hike. Or park on Claremont near the West Portal MUNI station and use MUNI to access each end.

#6 Market to Ferry Building via Coit Tower

Starts at: Peet’s Coffee, 773 Market Street.
Ends at: Ferry Building.
Lunch Stop: Picnic or takeaway lunch at the rooftop garden on the second floor of the Galleria. Sutter between Kearny and Montgomery.
Distance: 8.4 miles.
Parking and Transit: Park at the Daly City BART station and use BART to access each end of the hike. Or park on Claremont near the West Portal MUNI station and use MUNI to access each end.

Route Notes

The lunch stop is one of San Francisco Privately Owned Public Open Space (POPOS) rooftop sun terraces. It is not easy to find, but is worth the effort. There are two POPOS gardens in the Crocker Galleria, accessed from the second floor. The one in the southeast corner is accessed via a door marked “Roof Garden”; it is closed on weekends. The garden in the northwest corner is open on weekends and is a terrific place to eat a take-away lunch; reach it by climbing a stairway marked “Roof Terrace” from the northwest corner of the upper level.

#7 Ferry Building to Lombard Gate via Fort Mason

Starts at: Peet’s Coffee in the Ferry Building.
Ends at: Lombard Gate.
Lunch Stop: Picnic lunch at the benches next to Fort Mason Pier 2. Two take-away or sit-down restaurants and a Safeway nearby. Fort Mason Farmers’ Market on Sundays.
Distance: 11.2 miles.
Parking and Transit: On weekends there is unrestricted street parking at the end of the route on Lyon Street south of Lombard, or at a lot in the Presidio (access from Ruper Street, shown on the CalTopo map). Take MUNI or Uber/Lyft from there to the starting point.

#8 Presidio Loop

Starts at: Lombard Gate.
Ends at: Lombard Gate.
Lunch Stop: Picnic lunch at one of the overlooks.
Distance: 11.3 miles.
Parking and Transit: On weekends there is unrestricted street parking on Lyon Street south of Lombard; Lyon Street north of Lombard is unrestricted only on Sundays. There is also unrestricted weekend parking at a lot in the Presidio; access from Ruper Street, indicated on the CalTopo map.

Route Notes

Pets are not permitted in the cemetery.

The four Andy Goldsworthy pieces are a highlight of the trip. This short video documents three of them.

#9 To and Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge

Starts at: Lombard Gate.
Ends at: Cliff House, next to the Sutro Baths.
Lunch Stop: Picnic lunch at Baker Beach; no food services.
Distance: 10.4 miles.
Parking and Transit: On weekends there is unrestricted street parking at the start of the route on Lyon Street south of Lombard, or at a lot in the Presidio (access from Ruper Street, shown on the CalTopo map). Take MUNI or Uber/Lyft back after completing the walk.

#10 Marin Headlands via Bridge and Ferry

Starts at: Bridge Cafe, Golden Gate Bridge South Plaza.
Ends at: Ferry from Sausalito to the Ferry Building.
Lunch Stop: Picnic lunch at Rodeo Beach. No food services available.
Distance: 13.0 miles.
Parking and Transit: Park at Daly City BART (only possible on weekends) and take Muni #28 bus (but not #28R) directly to the bridge plaza. At end of the trip, take BART from near the Ferry Building back to Daly City. Alternately, park near 19th and Kirkham and take the above-mentioned #28 bus to the bridge plaza; at the end of the trip, take the N-Judah to 19th and Judah.

Route Notes

Unlike the other routes, this one has few opportunities for shortcuts or ducking out early. Muni bus 76x runs on weekends from the financial district to the lunch spot at Fort Cronkhite. It also stops at the Visitor Center. A couple of the bus stops are marked on the CalTopo map.

While this walk spends little time within the city limits, walking across the Bridge is classic, the views of the city from the Marin Headlands are fabulous, and if you take the late ferry back from Sausalito after dusk you will have a terrific view of the Bay Lights.

2017-11-13T09:11:44+00:00 Nov 12, 2017|Hike, Near SF, Public Transit, Route Guide, Top10|

5 Comments

  1. Raphael Nov 13, 2017 at 9:02 am - Reply

    thanks a lot for these amazing ways to visit SF. If one day I have chance to go again I’ll use your guide.

    • Amy&James Nov 13, 2017 at 9:04 am - Reply

      Rafael – if you ever make it back to San Francisco let us know and we’ll schedule a group walk for you to join!

      • Raphael Nov 16, 2017 at 1:08 pm - Reply

        thank you. it would be with pleasure

  2. Barbara Nov 13, 2017 at 10:26 am - Reply

    Dear Amy and James, great this overview and amazing pictures. Thanks for sharing. I will still need to do the remaining hikes I haven’t yet done. And that’s just one reason for another trip to the Bay Area. Best regards Barbara

  3. Laurel Nov 13, 2017 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    Oh my.. you guys have outdone yourselves. This is so so useful, and interesting and beautiful and inspiring. THANK YOU. Having been on several of the walks, either with you, or based on your instructions, all of which we’ve enjoyed completely, I have probably told 5 people about them, and tried to re-create your instructions. This website will get me to tell more people, and certainly get them to go!! And, we will surely walk more based on your accounts here. I have no criticism, just thanks and awe! Keep up the great walk. 🙂

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