Photograph by Rachel Ng
Read Caption

A climb to the top of the Eldred Stairs in Los Angeles yields vistas of the city and the San Gabriel Mountains.

Photograph by Rachel Ng

Explore some of America’s secret urban walks

Step into history and nature on these surprising summertime strolls in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

In a spring and summer of coronavirus lockdowns and travel slowdowns, our usual modes of escape—planes, trains, cruise ships—have become fraught with health, ethical, and even legal perils. Suddenly, flying to see relatives in Arizona or Amsterdam or hopping a train to New York City for the weekend have become major life choices instead of simple vacation whims. And many types of trips (cruises, vacations to Europe for Americans) aren’t even possible during this Summer of Corona.

It’s no wonder that people from Paris to Pittsburgh have turned to their own two feet—and places in their own backyards—to get out and see the world. In the U.S., depending on where you live, that might mean hiking in a nearby state park, running on a local beach, or just strolling through deserted downtowns.

Still, with so many people getting outdoors, many popular paths and parks are overrun. These writers, in three cities across America, found unusual, less-traveled places to walk. Here’s how they got out of the house—and out of their heads.

Steep, secret staircases in Los Angeles

An introvert, I welcomed the stillness of quarantine. Yet, after months of being homebound with my sweet-tempered cat in Long Beach, California, I missed the outdoors. Apparently, so did thousands of equally stir-crazy Angelenos who, once spring stay-at-home orders lifted, poured out onto beach paths and hiking trails.

It was hard to avoid crowds, but I had an ace up my sweatshirt sleeves. All over Los Angeles, cement or wood outdoor stairways are sandwiched between apartment complexes and tucked away in unassuming neighborhoods. Dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, these pedestrian byways were incorporated into new residential developments built around light-rail lines and trolley systems.

“The stairs were erected when the city started expanding into the hilly neighborhoods of Echo Park, Silver Lake, Mount Washington, and Highland Park,” says Charles Fleming, who wrote the book Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. “People moving into the hills often didn’t have cars, so, they needed an efficient way to get down to the Pacific Electric Railway trolley system, the markets, and the schools.”

View Images

A man runs up a set of stairs in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.

While the trolleys were dismantled in the ’40s and ’50s, the stairs remained. Fleming’s book documents more than 275 of them, each with distinct views and quirks. In hip Silver Lake, where street art flourishes, the Murray Stairway is painted to resemble piano keys and the Micheltorena Stairs bear rainbow stripes. Nearby, The Music Box Stairs and Three Stooges Stairs have silver-screen pasts: starring roles in Laurel and Hardy’s 1932 Music Box and the Stooges’ 1941 An Ache in Every Stake, respectively. Both movies feature the hijinks of delivering heavy objects—a piano and blocks of ice—up the outlandishly steep steps.

One morning during quarantine, I headed to one of the oldest—and most challenging—set of stairs in the city. The view from the bottom of the Eldred Street Stairs alarmed me with its 33.3 grade, which rises and dips like a roller-coaster track. Located in Los Angeles’s Mount Washington neighborhood, it’s the steepest street in California, beating San Francisco’s famed Filbert Street by 1.8 percent.

I took a deep breath and started climbing, my movements comically slow as I steadily gained 219 feet in elevation during the short 0.1-mile hike to the top. Sweat trickled down my forehead, and I had to take frequent breaks to catch my breath. I spied 1920s Craftsman bungalows, preposterously built along the hill. How did early inhabitants drive up to their garages, presumably in Model Ts? The street felt nearly vertical.

View Images

The Baxter Stairs cross through the Echo Park neighborhood in Los Angeles.

 

The journey was likely even more arduous for residents on Cross Avenue, who had to scale an additional 196 steps up a wooden staircase past the peak of Eldred Street to get home. At the bottom of the Eldred Stairs, legs quivering, I considered turning back. But the mystery of the foliage-shrouded climb ahead beckoned.

Ascending the deserted stairs felt like stepping into the past. I imagined some silent film hero tipping his straw boater hat as I passed. But I was alone, joined only by Monarch butterflies and playful sparrows who darted among the blue morning glories and overgrown weeds peeking through the stair railings.

I finally reached the top, popping out onto a narrow residential street with a scenic overlook. I soaked in the cool breeze, plus spectacular views of craggy Mount Baldy and the San Gabriel Mountains. I was done for the day, but that first outing inspired me to conquer other climbs: the Mattachine Steps in Silver Lake, dedicated to Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest LGBTQ rights group in the U.S. Next on my list: an Echo Park trek that leads to Angelino Heights, a late 19th-century neighborhood dotted with Victorian and Queen Anne mansions that seem popped out of a storybook.

During the pandemic, I’ve dreamt of time traveling to life after the crisis or to the glorious before times. Venturing up these old stairways is, in a way, like journeying into a bygone Los Angeles. It’s been just the escape I needed. —Rachel Ng

Down by the river in Chicago

Ordinarily, the glassy expanse of Chicago’s Lake Michigan attracts both photo ops and crowds of people who walk, bike, run, or sun themselves along the shore. But when this spring’s COVID-19 shutdowns closed the lakefront, I found a different watery escape: strolling the connected parks and paths along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

The multi-forked, 156-mile river winds from Lake Michigan through a series of other waterways that finally connect with the Mississippi River. Historically, the Chicago River has been a route for both indigenous people and European settlers, allowing Chicago to flourish as a major industrial city. But for me, during this pandemic, trails along the river have transformed into a secret world where I can get my nose out of my phone and into nature. Well, at least for a couple of miles a couple of times a week.

View Images

Measuring 1,000 feet long, the new Riverview Bridge on the North Branch of the Chicago River is the longest pedestrian bridge over water in the city.

All it takes to get to my hideaway? A quick turn into what I think of as my personal portal: a cut in the railing of the Belmont Avenue Bridge near my home in the Avondale neighborhood. Just west of Western Avenue, I leave the busy road and zigzag down a concrete ramp to the meandering asphalt trail along the river.

The murky green water to my left, I walk through a thicket of trees and step inside a corner of Richard Clark Park called The Garden. Even during the pandemic, this hidden dirt-bike park was semi full of excited kids whooping and whipping their wheels over multiple mounds of soil, twisting and turning in an exhilarating escape from confinement. My 12-year-old nephew was often among them.

In the Garden, happy screams echo through the trees, a diversion from my doomscrolling on Twitter before I continue on my walks. And the land the bikes roll on has a long history of fun: it’s the site of the former Riverview Park. The legendary amusement park operated wooden roller coasters and toboggan rides from 1904 to 1967 under the slogan “laugh your troubles away.”

As I walk north on the trail, a contemporary grey stone building rises like a series of undulating waves. It’s the WMS Boathouse, designed by local architectural star Jeanne Gang, opened in 2013 as part of the city’s ongoing efforts to revitalize the riverfront. Gang used her trademark crisp engineering and green infrastructure elements (rain gardens, porous concrete that helps store and filter river water) to make a structure that’s both a design and environmental win.

In other summers, I’d rent a canoe outside the boathouse, or peek inside at the rowers who train here. Though the building is quiet this year (rentals and programs are on hold for now), the structure’s serene, zigzaggy roof still soothes me, a reminder that tough times, like flowing water, eventually move on.

Just beyond, my running shoes hit Riverview Bridge, a new concrete path that gently climbs 18 feet above the river. The slither of concrete with rusty steel tooth-like railings is popular with runners and bikers. Me, I slow down to a saunter high above the water, surveying the tops of surrounding trees, imagining I’m far from home before I turn around.

The bridge connects to an old path in California Park, where it ends. For now, at least. Work is underway for more legs of what urban planners aim to make one contiguous river trail. In these long, repetitive days, even small developments—like an extension of my secret world—feel like hope. —Kate Silver

Graveyard rambles in Washington, D.C.

During the pandemic, I‘ve been strolling amid hundreds of people, none of them wearing masks. But don’t COVID shame me: they’re all buried six feet under in historic Washington, D.C. cemeteries, so I’m not worried about social distancing.

My adopted hometown is famously rich in green spaces—Rock Creek Park, a ribbon of grass, trees, and water; the monument- and museum-studded National Mall. But during months of lockdown, my usual paths were jammed with runners and walkers, many unmasked and going about their sweaty, potentially germ-spreading business like it was 2019.

So my husband Callan and I retreated to cemeteries for walks that were often, well, deathly quiet. Our ambles started in March in Glenwood Cemetery, a still-active burial ground in the northeast quadrant of the city near Catholic University.

View Images

Built in 1859, the chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood was designed by James Renwick Jr., also the architect of the Smithsonian Institute’s “Castle” on the National Mall.

We came seeking exercise and a look at the grave of Reginald Wycliffe Geare, an early 20th-century architect infamous locally for designing D.C.’s Knickerbocker Theatre. It collapsed in a blizzard in 1922, killing 98 people. Geare also drew up the plans for our 1920 townhouse, which seems to weather storms OK, so we wanted to pay tribute.

On laps around Glenwood’s rolling acerage, Callan and I discovered more than Geare’s simple, flat stone. In spring, cotton candy-pink cherry blossoms backdropped weathered, grouchy stone cherubs. On Memorial Day, we witnessed a funeral procession where brightly dressed mourners on motorcycles provided a bittersweet foil to the dark hearse they followed.

Each time we dropped by, greeted by a swarm of life-sized, trumpet-playing stone angels, we’d discover more evidence of life and death’s rich pageant: a clutch of early 20th-century Greek immigrants in a family plot; recent, silk flower-decked tombstones engraved with Ethiopian surnames, a sign of D.C.’s large immigrant population. And just last week, my genealogist husband discovered two distant relatives were interred there under an expansive elm, an Ancestry.com data point made real.

View Images

A weathered stone cherub tops a gravestone at Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

I cop to morbidly scanning headstones for 1918 or 1919 passings (Spanish flu?). But I mostly consider these strolls a pleasant revival of the 19th-century cemetery movement holding that graveyards should be like public parks, gathering places where well-dressed Victorian crowds held picnics, concerts, or even horse races.

“Back then, if you had distinguished out-of-town guests, you’d take them to see the gravesites of local worthies and show off the sculptures,” says Keith Eggener, a graveyard historian, architecture professor at the University of Oregon, and author of the book Cemeteries. “They became so popular, people started to lead tours of them and write guidebooks.”

Those boneyard guides would’ve had a lot to talk about at the Georgetown nabe’s shaded, creek-side Oak Hill Cemetery, which I turned to for one-on-one, six-feet-apart strolls with girlfriends as D.C. rolled from crisp spring to boggy, hot summer. Amid tombs dating back to the 1850s, the steep stone steps and winding paths worked out both my calves and sense of mortality.

Civil war officers, sea captains, and other notables are buried amid the towering oaks. Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s body was temporarily interred here in a cliffside masoleum in 1862, inspiring George Saunders’ recent graveyard novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. And legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s remains are entombed here behind a metal sculpture of a tree.

One June day, as I turned to leave the graveyard, I saw a spotted baby deer peeking out from behind a grizzled Victorian gravestone, all bright eyes and shaky legs. The lush, secluded surroundings seemed to make Bambi—like me—feel very alive indeed. —Jennifer Barger

Los Angeles-based writer Rachel Ng hopes to be fit enough to walk the Great Wall of China someday. Follow her on Instagram.
Kate Silver is a Chicago-based travel, business, and health writer—and walking enthusiast. Follow her on Instagram.
Jennifer Barger is a Senior Editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.