What does a grounded traveler do when shelter-in-place, stay-at-home orders narrow the confines of life to the local neighborhood? I got curious. Back in March, I dusted off my unused copy of Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles by Charles Fleming. The guidebook opened up a whole new world of microadventures right in my backyard. After my first walk (#24 Silver Lake Terraces East), I was hooked and committed to doing all of the walks as my pandemic “project.” At the time of writing this article, I’ve completed 32 of the 42 treks.
Each walk feels like a scavenger hunt, eliciting a sense of discovery as you learn when the stairs were constructed (many are 1920s era), admire the architectural landmarks (from modern and Moorish to Neutra and Craftsman), and uncover other neighborhood curiosities (vintage cars, murals, and more). Fleming peppers the book with interesting trivia, pointing out details like a Silver Lake studio where Beck recorded “Guero,” the Hollywood Hills street that fictional detective Harry Bosch called home, and residences once inhabited by mystery writers and Hollywood legends.
The book is divided into five neighborhood chapters: Pasadena and the East, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Hollywood, and Santa Monica and the West. Before my walks, I took pictures of those particular pages from the guide because I did not want to carry the book around. Plus, Fleming’s turn-by-turn directions are very specific and intricate, so memorization is not an option. There’s a reason they call them secret stairs, as many could easily go unnoticed from the sidewalk!
The walks gave me a better understanding of how LA’s distinctive neighborhoods stitch together geographically—especially on the east side. It was fascinating to become more familiar with the eclectic pockets of Silver Lake and Echo Park, and explore residential areas of Mount Washington, Glassell Park, and Highland Park. Some of the most surprising and delightful finds were quiet bougainvillea-lined “walk streets” inaccessible by car, as well as wide-open nature spaces and parks hidden in plain sight.
Between the miles walked, hills hoofed up, and stairs climbed, these urban hiking adventures make for a great workout. Understandably, COVID-19 sparked a renewed interest in the book, which was first published in 2010. Fleming says, “I have heard from literally dozens of people who have written to me with variations on the theme of, ‘After my gym/spin class/Pilates studio was closed by COVID, I discovered your book and it has become my favorite activity! I am now walking every day/evening/weekend with my husband/children/workout buddies and I can’t thank you enough…’”
I asked Fleming if he had a favorite staircase in Pasadena and he said, “One of the most elegant staircases in the city, next to Lacy Park, runs from Virginia Road up to Park Place in San Marino. But it’s out there all by itself with no ‘stepbrothers’ nearby, so I couldn’t make it into a walk. But I love the string of stairs in the La Loma area and made them the first walk in Secret Stairs.”
Some of my personal favorite walks from the book include #2 Eagle Rock, #7 Highland Park, #15 Avalon-Baxter Loop in Echo Park, #26 Cove-Loma Vista Loop in Silver Lake, and the extra magical #37 Hollywood Bowl and High Tower Loop. The walks range from 1.5 to 3.5 miles, and each route is circular, so you will always end up back where you started. It helps to read through the directions before you head out, as some of the walks require sturdier shoes for what I like to call “off-roading” on unpaved trails. And it is always wise to bring water because your heart rate will definitely be raised, depending on the steepness and number of stairs.
Fleming recently put the finishing touches on his third edition of Secret Stairs, which includes more than 100 changes and updates. It is being released just in time for the holidays and makes a great gift for local friends and family. When it is safe to do so, Fleming also plans to resume his popular monthly guided Secret Stairs walks, which are free to the public and announced on the Secret Stairs Facebook page. I intend to be one of the first to sign up!