The stairs at Kelsey Creek Farm
From their landings, stairways psychologically intrigue — their rising steps beckon to the imagination, inviting us to see where they lead. When we take stairs, we cut to the chase and explore a mystery, with the added bonus of exercise.
Stairways as urban adventure
Because of the rugged topography of the Puget Sound area, you can find stairways zigzagging up and down hillsides all over the region. Many stairways are secret shortcuts through quiet neighborhoods. Some stairways lead us to hidden woods. Some reveal views of the water. Others are spectacular themselves, feats of design and engineering.
The best stairways are rich with atmosphere — climbing them feels more like an adventure than a workout. Indeed, the stairway walks in this article lead families to hidden pockets of urban nature, delightful public gardens and fairy woods.
Climbing into history
In the book “Seattle Stairways Walks: An Up-and-Down Guide to City Neighborhoods,” Jake and Cathy Jaramillo build urban hikes around some of our area’s most interesting stairways.
The Jaramillos explain how many of the older neighborhood stairways around Seattle were first built “as a way for developers to expand and extend the links between trolley stops and residential tracks.”
Certainly, this is true of the Comstock Grand Dame, a romantic 85-step stairway that begins in a cul-de-sac on Comstock Street, just east of Queen Anne Avenue North.
Other stairways go beyond stylish functionality. For example, the 107 steps of the metal spiral staircase of Volunteer Park’s water tower in Seattle take you to the celebrated Olmstead vista of city, Sound and mountains.
Although some urban stairways seem to lure you into a private world, rest assured we all share the stairs: They're public and yours to explore. Some 500 outdoor stairways are maintained by the Seattle Department of Transportation and 100 more are managed by Seattle Parks.
Whether you find them at street’s end or on park land, public stairways offer a way to exercise both your body and your mind. Here are six of our favorites.
1. Wilcox Wall, Queen Anne (Seattle)
The perfect exercise for aspiring sleuths: See if you can find all 464 steps in the Wilcox Wall on the west slope of Queen Anne.
Actually an ornate brick-and-concrete retaining wall, Wilcox Wall has three double staircases, Gothic arches and Art Deco streetlights. Walking up and down this Byzantine beauty may make you feel like you’ve walked into a M.C. Escher print.
Designed by architect and namesake Walter Wilcox (who also designed the Arboretum Bridge) and built-in 1913, the Wilcox Wall runs along Eighth Place West for almost a half-mile. Approach its southern end from Marshall Park (1191 7th Ave. W., also called Betty Bowen Viewpoint).
Pair with: Snap some photos as Wilcox Wall is very photogenic — and the views of Elliot Bay from Marshall Park aren’t bad either. Bring a picnic and enjoy the lovely, fairy-tale splendor of nearby Parsons Gardens (650 W. Highland Dr.).
2. Howe Street and Blaine Street Stairs, Capitol Hill-Eastlake (Seattle)
Explore Seattle’s longest stairway as it cascades 388 steps down East Howe Street on Capitol Hill through Colonnade Park to Franklin Avenue East in Eastlake. Then try a return trip one block south via the charming 293-step Blaine Street Stairs, which escorts climbers into the hidden Streissguth Gardens of North Capitol Hill.
These parallel stairways date from trolley days and both start at 10th Avenue East, two blocks west of Highland Cemetery. (Perhaps on moonlit nights ghosts descend the stairways to take spirit trolleys to their jobs on the astral plane — who can say?)
Here in our world, when fitness buffs wax poetic about the great cardio workout stairways offer, it's stairs like these that they are talking about. Be prepared to sweat.
The route: Start at the top of the Howe Street Stairs (810 E. Howe St.) and enjoy peek-a-boo views of Lake Union and Portage Bay all the way down to Lakeview Boulevard East. Here, you carefully cross the street and into Colonnade Park, the fantastic mountain bike skills course under 1-5. The Howe Steps continue to Franklin Avenue East.
From the bottom of the Howe Street Stairs, continue a few more blocks to Eastlake Blvd. for snacks, or return up the stairs through the Colonnade Park. At Lakeview walk a block south and carefully cross the street to the bottom of the Blaine Street Stairs.
The Blaine Street Stairs are shorter and border the Streissguth Gardens, a delightful hillside woodland garden that may waylay you with one of its short, rustic trails to picturesque views of the Olympics, Lake Union and downtown Seattle.
Pair with: Bring your own power snacks, or take a side-trip to Grand Central Bakery’s Eastlake café (1616 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle) for one of their classic sandwiches like basil egg salad or the kid’s PB&J on wholegrain Campagnolo.
3. Thornton Creek Water Channel Stairs, Northgate (Seattle)
Take one of Thornton Place’s stairways to have a sun break in a nifty Dr. Seuss landscape, where colorful art mixes with nature, science and educational elements.
Enjoy whimsical public art while learning about watershed ecology through the interpretative signs that dot the park and mark the two street-access stairways: the 64 steps down from Northeast 100th Street or the 32 steps that jog down from Fifth Avenue Northeast. (Explore more of the daylighted creek at the nearby Thornton Creek Natural Area.)
Just south of Northgate Mall, you will find the terraces, bioswales and artful buoys of the recently daylighted Thornton Creek. Designed to filter pollutants from run-off and stormwater draining into the creek, the landscaped channel is fun to explore. In addition to its street stairways, there are more steps to the restaurants and cinemas of Thornton Place.
Pair with: For a quick snack, try the Jewel Box Café in Thornton Place for frozen yogurt, bubble tea, and panini. For a light lunch, try the conveyor-belt rolls and nigiri at Tengu Sushi, also in Thornton Place.
4. Kelsey Creek Farm Park Stairs (Bellevue)
For a bucolic excursion, visit the 163-step stairway that leads to the forested hillside a stone’s throw from Kelsey Creek Farm’s historic white barns.
On any given day, you may have a close encounter with a barnyard animal on your way to these stairs: cows, goats, pigs, chickens, sheep and ponies all live on this historic farm owned by the City of Bellevue.
If you visit in October, you may spy salmon in Kelsey Creek, as well as catch the beginning of the brilliant autumnal show by the vine maples, black cottonwoods, alders, and big-leaf maples in the surrounding forest.
To find the stairway, start at the north end of the parking lot, at the bridge crossing over Kelsey Creek’s tributary, Goff Creek. Take the trail at left and follow it up and over a small hill covered with conifers and make a left at the trail junction. Follow the trail’s sharp right and listen for the creek and the noisy kingfishers that patrol it. Take the trail over another bridge, this time over Kelsey Creek, and make a left and keep left to the timber stairs.
After these main stairs, continue on the Pipeline trail and loop back on the Lower Hillside trail to return to your starting point. All in all, this loop is less than a mile and adds 50 more steps to the stair count.
Pair with: Bring hand sanitizer in case you get to pet the ponies! Consider a stop at Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya (14855 Main St., Bellevue) for gyoza and noodle soup.
5. Mercerdale Hillside Stairway, Mercer Island
Leafy and lovely, this 321-step stairway skirts the upland forest along the north edge of Mercerdale Hillside and adjacent Mercerdale Park.
If you can coax your companions away from the delights of Mercerdale Park (slides! skate dot!), follow the curving sidewalk deeper into the park. Pass the native plant garden and continue to the plaza of Bicentennial Park (77th Avenue Southeast and Southeast 32nd Street). Here you can find restrooms and the trail to the Mercerdale Hillside stairway.
A perfect place to train for future family hikes, Mercerdale Hillside’s north stairway will lead you to a wooded wonderland. For a longer hike, take one of the trails into the forest downslope. Eagles reportedly have a nest in a Doug fir on the south edge of the natural area.
Pair with: Try the new burgers-and-shakes place Old 76 that took the spot of our old fave, Freshy's (2411 76th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island).
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2014 and most recently updated in 2019.