One of the great joys of living in LA is the myriad ways one can escape up into the hills. Leave the car behind and hoof it almost anywhere, and soon you’re exploring new corners – marveling at the many ways Angelenos live, and discovering new perspectives on our city grid as you travel around corners and peer through the trees. It’s easy to get up pretty high on the many canyon trails, but did you know there are other ways to gain altitude? Los Angeles has a web of short, steep staircases built into hilly neighborhoods. They were designed to help people get from the cross town bus and trolly lines up into their homes on the hillsides. Some are well-traveled to this day, and others are littered with pine needles and require some mild bushwhacking skills. All are chronicled in a fabulous book by journalist Charles Fleming called “Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historical Staircases of Los Angeles”.
A friend called me recently, excited to share an adventure she’d discovered after reading “Secret Stairs.” I’d heard about Fleming’s personal odyssey to map the many hidden shortcuts in LA’s hillsides, and anyone who falls down a historical rabbit hole is my kind of hero. So, I crossed town to meet her in Beachwood Canyon on a cool Saturday morning with Dexter, my up-for-advenrure Labrador. We parked near the Beachwood Cafe to meet up. PROTIP: This is not easy to do on a weekend because the long flat lower portion of Beachwood is a popular location for tourists to grab a shot of the Hollywood Sign. Our advice is to arrive early – it’s cooler that way, too. About a block or two above the cafe is the first staircase.
Get ready to climb- it’s immediately steep! If you have runners in your group, be careful of your footing. Some of the staircases are less well- traveled (and definitely unswept). Your heart beat will climb as quickly as you do, but at the top of each set of 80-100 stairs you’ll find yourself on flat road where you can walk and bring your heart rate down. Think of it as historical interval training – you can check out views enjoyed from the cozy hillside homes, peer through overgrown hillsides at more than a few homes that can fairly be called castles, and catch your breath before the next set of stairs.
We fell under the spell of Fleming’s friendly narration, reading his simple but pithy guide to the area. He explains the history of the neighborhood, uses house numbers as navigation points, and provides plenty of odd facts that keep you tuned in. If you don’t feel like carrying his book, Fleming has provided .pdfs for some of the more popular hikes (including this one in Beachwood). Down load it to your phone and follow carefully – following his directions are key if you want to wind up back at your car! PROTIP: It’s a good project in our Waze-enabled lives, especially if you have kids along.
Charles Fleming started exploring LA’s hidden staircases as a trick to exercise more – after two hip replacements and a lot of pain and stiffness, he was considering back surgery and was told to spend more time walking. What started as a clever inspiration to get moving became a passion project, and the curious journalist soon delved into the history of each area’s network of steps. The project turned first into a website (click here), then into a book in 2010 (a best seller for Santa Monica Press). Fleming eventually wrote a second book in 2015 based on more adventures, Secret Walks, and has recently published a book about the Berkeley Hills. He teaches at USC Annenberg, and writes the LA Walks column and covers cars and motorcycles for the Business page.
He never had back surgery… all the more reason to follow his lead.
To adventure in Beachwood Canyon is to dip back into the history of Hollywood. The neighborhood was developed in the 1920s, mandating that all homes be fashioned in the English Tudor or Normandy style. This makes for a pleasing, consistent aesthetic. The influence of film sets is strong and some of the houses tip a bit too far towards “storybook” homes, but that’s a matter of opinion. Many a young writer has rented in this neighborhood when he or she first gets to LA, holed up typing the great American screenplay. That vibe still plays out – and it’s comforting to spend a few hours here in the bosom of a cozy community where dreamers have perched for nearly 100 years. Be sure to venture a few blocks beyond the final staircase, where you can add a loop that goes around Lake Hollywood (see my other story about it here), or at least just take in the view.
The castle-like home at the entrance to Hollywood Land is called Wolf’s Lair (it was built by early art director, Milton Wolf). It was recently owned (and refurbished) by Moby; the pool was designed by John Lautner, and everyone from The Beatles to Debbie Reynolds, once lived on the three-plus acres behind. You’ve stepped into history, so enjoy the moment – or, as this sign says, relax and slow down.
It’s time to descend. As we descended back to the main road, we were actually peering into people’s yards. Of course, that was the original intent of this network- when you hop off the bus from the market, they make it easier to get your groceries to the kitchen. And this quirk of city planning actually leads to an intimacy not always found in city life. One lady who was working in her yard offered Dexter some water (she had a bowl set out for visiting pooches) and even invited us into her colorful mid-Century modern house to look around. It didn’t seem strange at all to be so friendly, and in fact we got quite chatty with a few other groups who were navigating with Fleming’s guide.
While it may be the case that the staircases are not so “secret” anymore, that doesn’t actually seem like a bad thing. Fleming has turned his hobby into a valuable guide to the city. Intrigued, I purchased both Fleming’s books, (“Secret Stairs” and his second volume of “Secret Walks”) and discovered four walks in Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades that I’d never taken, even after living on the Westside for decades. The one I’m trying next describes a route to pop up and down from the beach to the bluffs along the palisades, and includes fascinating details about old businesses and famous homes. The Stairs book contains chapters about Pasadena and the East Side, Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Hollywood/Los Feliz, as well. Happy Adventuring and thank you, Charles Fleming.
Secret Stairs website with three .pdf walks (Beachwood, Silver Lake and Pacific Palisades)
There is now an iPhone app for the Silver Lake walks – click here
Here’s a nice history of the Hollywoodland by a real estate agent in the area.