Getting Fit One Step at a Time


Illustration by Peter Hoey

In the spring of 2006, I was scheduled for my third spinal surgery in three years. I was in constant pain, unable to run, jog, or even stand for more than a few minutes at a time. The closet was full of hiking shoes and tennis rackets I couldn’t use. The calendar was full of movie openings, museum exhibitions, and cocktail parties I couldn’t attend. Surgery was the only option. But walking eased my discomfort a little. I started slowly—a block at a time. Soon I was up to a half mile. After a month, I added some hills. Then I began to explore the staircases.

Many Los Angeles neighborhoods with steep streets are laced with networks of public stairways. Vestiges of a time when the city was served by electric trolleys and streetcars, they provided residents access to transport lines in hilly “suburban” communities like Echo Park, Highland Park, and Mount Washington.

For a year I hunted and mapped the steps around my house in Silver Lake. Inspired by the “pub walk” guides I’d used to roam the English and Irish countrysides, I designed some stair hikes—hour-long routes linking multiple staircases together. As I grew stronger, I canceled my surgery date, got back on the tennis court, and took up snowboarding. And I kept walking, trekking along the staircases of Eagle Rock, Hollywood, Pasadena, and beyond. I marched up and down Beachwood Canyon’s granite steps—conceived as part of the gated Hollywoodland development—and Santa Monica Canyon’s 4th Street Stairs, now part of L.A.’s tsunami evacuation system.

Like a staircase-bound Magellan, I discovered a backcountry Los Angeles filled with streets I’d never driven, downtown views I’d never seen, parks and canyons I’d never known. From all that I wrote Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, a new book of 42 self-guided hikes through the city’s past. The eight listed in Los Angeles magazine’s handbook on stair walks—simplified versions of walks in the book—will get you started.