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Stepping Into The Past: Hiking The Secret Stairs of Northeast Los Angeles

by Michelle Nati

posted on November 13, 2018

Photo Courtesy: Michelle Nati

You’ll see them dotting the hills of northeast Los Angeles: steep concrete staircases connecting the streets above to the main thoroughfares below. Long forgotten by many, these so-called secret stairs have since found new life with fitness buffs and Angelinos looking for an Instagram-worthy snap. But there’s more to them than a heart-pumping workout, and a great photo opp.

A Brief History of the Secret Stairs

In its early days, Los Angeles was an agricultural hub: Farms of fruit trees covered vast swaths of land. Residents primarily moved between them on foot, walking along dirt paths (now the grand boulevards of the city) and climbing hills. It was beautiful and unspoiled, but getting around could be quite arduous.

As various industries took root in LA in the early 20th century, developers moved in. Farms were sold and subdivided into smaller, residential tracts. The city expanded quickly, with houses built in every possible nook and cranny. Cars weren’t yet affordable for the average resident, so city planners and real estate developers built staircases in key places to connect residents in the hillsides to the mass transit system below. By the 1920s, Los Angeles boasted the world’s most extensive trolley system with more than 1000 miles of rail line in use.

But it wasn’t to last. As the post-war American dream of a car in every garage took hold, ridership on trains and trolleys plummeted. By the early 1960s, LA’s mass transit system was dismantled and the stairways the city planners built stood silent and in disrepair; most were all but forgotten.

Today, as Los Angeles enjoys its resurgence as a walkable city, the staircases have once again become popular as a way to exercise and see the city and its humble beginnings from an entirely different vantage point. With at least 450 sets of stairs covering the hills of Los Angeles, there’s no way to cover them all; these are some of our favorites:

Named after an Oscar-winning Laurel and Hardy short, the Music Box Steps are quite-possibly LA's most-famous set of stairs. (Photo Courtesy: Michelle Nati)

Music Box Steps

The most famous LA staircase, the Music Box Steps, is located at 923-925 Vendome Street in Silver Lake. It was here that comedy duo Laurel and Hardy attempted to deliver a piano to a hillside home in the 1932 Oscar-winning short, The Music Box. The staircase is marked with a plaque to commemorate the film and ends on Descanso Street at the top of the hill. The climb includes 139 steps with multiple landings, and is relatively easy to climb. That is, as long as you’re not lugging any heavy furniture.

Edendale Stairway

Eleven years after the release of The Music Box, The Three Stooges tried their hand at delivering a block of ice to a hillside home with disastrous results in An Ache In Every Stake. The 147-step staircase is located in a Silver Lake cul-de-sac at 2257 Edendale Place and has remained mostly unchanged since the Stooges made the climb — the same pipe railings that line the staircase in the film can still be seen today!

A monument to LGBT pioneer Harry Hay, the Mattachine Steps lead to a stunning view of the Silver Lake Reservoir. (Photo Courtesy: Michelle Nati)

Mattachine Steps

In the same neighborhood, the staircase located at Cove Avenue in Silver Lake, otherwise known the Mattachine Steps, serve as a monument to LGBT pioneer Harry Hay. Hay lived in the house adjacent to the staircase when he founded one of the first gay rights organizations in the US, the Mattachine Society, almost two decades before Stonewall. In 2012, on Hay’s 100th birthday, the city marked the steps as historically- and culturally- significant and renamed them in his honor. The structure’s 161 steps end in a residential cul-de-sac that boasts a breathtaking bird’s eye view of the Silver Lake Reservoir below.

Baxter Stairs

For those looking for the ultimate workout, the Baxter Stairs in neighboring Echo Park is considered to be the steepest staircase in all of Los Angeles. Not for the faint of heart, this hike starts at 2100 Park Drive, and consists of 230 steps over about 180 vertical feet. Those that reach the top, near the hiking trails of Elysian Park, will be rewarded with killer views of downtown LA and the Hollywood sign. If an easier climb is more your speed, consider one of Echo Park’s lesser-known stairways, like the Laveta Terrace, Clinton, Curran, or Avalon stairways.

Historic-Cultural Monument No. 535 (aka the Beachwood Stairs), has a surprising tie-in to a 1960s TV series. (Photo Courtesy: Michelle Nati)

Beachwood Stairs

A little further west, on North Beachwood Avenue and Woodshire Drive in Hollywood, is Historic-Cultural Monument No. 535, otherwise known as the Beachwood Stairs. The staircase was built in the 1920s as a retaining wall and is a vestige of the Hollywoodland housing tract. Granite from the nearby Bronson Canyon Quarry in Griffith Park — locally known as the Bat Cave after the Batman TV series of the 1960s — was used to construct the double set of steps separated by a stone wall. The steep staircase has 148 steps with built-in benches before the climb ends at Belden Drive.

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