A Wandering: Beachwood Canyon’s Secret Stairs
Just because we are in one of the most populated cities in the country I wasn’t going to stop hunting for adventure and exercise. The gist of Los Angeles is that you spend more time in your car than out of it so your views are often limited to metallic rear ends, movie billboards and palm trees. Yelp to the rescue. Turns out there’s an urban adventure that lies just beneath the Hollywood sign.
Hiking to the Sign itself should be on every Cali visitor’s To Do list but that’s not what I’m talking about. We parked the car across from the Beachwood Market in the Hollywood Hills. It was 92 degrees and my already overtired 9 year old was whining that she’d rather get a slushy than walk. My sister was her backer. I pressed on. I have three days left here, dammit, and we’re doing The Secret Stairs. All over the city are these steep staircases of 100-plus steps. In fact there are some 450 staircases scattered throughout Los Angeles.
Back in the early 1920s, before everyone had wheels, the “Hollywoodland” people would move between their homes and the city via these challenging stone staircases. The real estate boom at the time centered around the burgeoning movie business. Movie stars, industry folks and investors were relocating to the Golden State to “make it”. Developers Tracy Shoults and S.H. Woodruff saw an opportunity to create a new neighborhood for celebrities and upper middle class to hide away in a secluded canyon. They carved out winding roads, built retaining walls and planted a 45-foot high sign complete with 4,000 light bulbs to advertise it – Hollywoodland. At night, people from miles away would see it flash “Holly,” then “Wood,” then “Land” and then the entire word, “Hollywoodland.” The sign fell into disrepair by the Great Depression and it wasn’t until the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce restored the sign, minus the last four letters, in 1949 that it became somewhat of a monument and replaced and repaired over the years.
Actors, writers and musicians like Madonna, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Heath Ledger, Busby Berkeley, Kevin Bacon, Anna Kendrick, Keeanu Reeves, Peter Tork and Jack Black all lived among the staircases of Hollywoodland at one time or another. Musician Moby has a three-acre estate at the top of Belden Avenue overlooking Lake Hollywood.
Most of the existing LA staircases like the one in the Pacific Palisades have become outdoor gyms where hoards of yoga-panted pretty people line up to stretch and do vertical laps for their quad workout. These particular steps in Beachwood Canyon, however, are extra special; for one, they’re quiet; for another, they are a hike through Hollywood history.
The stairs are unmarked and if you’re not looking for them you won’t find them. Some brilliant “explorer” decided to link them (and publish the trek) on a connect-the-dots sort of walk that creates a marvelously cool 2-mile loop of uphills, downhills, bends and steep climbs.
These enchanting granite and wrought iron staircases weave in and out of winding narrow roads that carry you among the whimsical homes and fortresses of the original Hollywood elite and provide inspiring views of Griffith Park Observatory, the Hollywood Sign and all of the LA basin depending on the street. I’m not going to give you a detailed map of these stairs. You can download it here. That’s what we used.
Instead, I will tell you about our walk which ended with Sage telling me it was one of the most fun hikes she’s ever done. We came armed with a small water bottle, Camelbak backpack, my PDF map, a camera and the dog, and off we went. We looked like the tourist cliché. Sage groaned at the site of the first stairs. I didn’t pull punches. I told her we had about five more similar shots to tackle before we got back to the car; over 800 steps. She wasn’t happy with me. Tough.
The heat and the effort were enough to make any couchsurfer whine but after the first flight and the banter we shared about the historic architecture, the houses we loved and those we didn’t; the trek became like a game. You had to keep your eyes peeled as you didn’t know what you might see next; Buddhist statues, precarious hillside homes on stilts, yucca trees and Prince Valiant murals.
The stairs have somewhat fallen into disrepair despite being designated a historic landmark so be careful if you hike them. They are still solid but eroded and cracking in spots and often covered in pine needles and dead leaves that might make the careless falter. When you pop onto the narrow, curvy roads also be wary of cars. You would hate to have your pooch run down in such an enchanted locale.
There are warning/no trespassing signs planted in front of the majority of homes but the few folks we encountered were nothing like their literal watchdogs. They were warm and friendly; interested to hear where we were from and what brought us on this makeshift hike.
The map eventually spit us back at my car. In less than two hours we passed away the hot afternoon as if going on a scavenger hunt. Auntie Julie, Sage and I had so much fun they nearly forgot they were forced to exercise. My plan worked!
P.S. If you aren’t up for a workout take a drive but I will call you a pansy if I hear about it.