From their landings, stairways psychologically intrigue — their rising steps beckon to the imagination, daring us to see where they lead. When we take stairs, we cut to the chase, and explore the mystery with the added bonus of exercise.
Stairways as urban adventure
Stairways by definition are flights of steps, often with multiple landings. Because of the rugged topography of the Puget Sound, you can find stairways zigzagging up and down hillsides all over the region.
Many stairways are secret shortcuts through quiet neighborhoods. Some stairways trail into hidden woods. Some lead to water. Some give rise to amazing views. 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, many of the stairways in this article take you to
hidden pockets of urban nature, delightful public gardens and fairy woods. Climbing into history
In their excellent book
, Jake and Cathy Jaramillo build urban hikes around some of our area’s most interesting stairways. Seattle Stairways Walks: An Up-and-Down Guide to City Neighborhoods
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
, a Comstock Grand Dame romantic 85-step stairway that begins in a cul-de-sac on Comstock Street, just east of Queen Anne Avenue North. (Jake and Cathy recommend visiting this elegant 1905 stairway in mid-June when it is festooned in purple wisteria and nostalgic ambiance. Bring your parasols!)
Other stairways go beyond stylish functionality. For example, the 107 steps of the metal spiral staircase of
in Seattle take you to the celebrated Olmstead vista of city, sound and mountains. Volunteer Park’s water tower
Although some urban stairways seem to lure you into a private world, rest assured we all share the stairs: they are yours to explore.
Indeed, street stairways are designed for public access and owned by their municipality. In Seattle, the more than
500 outdoor stairways linking city streets are maintained and managed by the Seattle Department of Transportation; while the 100-plus stairways of the city’s parks and natural areas are the responsibility of Seattle Parks.
Whether you find them at street’s end or on parkland, public stairways offer a way to exercise both your body and your mind. Here are six of our favorites.
Skip to the first stairway walk, or browse all the hikes:
Wilcox Wall, Queen Anne (Seattle)
The perfect exercise for aspiring sleuths: See if you can find all 464 steps in the
on the west slope of Queen Anne. Wilcox Wall
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 (Betty Bowen Viewpoint.)
Pair with: Bring your camera, 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.).
Getting there: To drive to Marshall Park (Seventh Avenue West and Highland Drive) from Queen Anne Avenue North, go west on West Highland Drive until it meets Seventh Avenue West. The park will be in front of you and the top of Wilcox Wall will be to your right. There is only street parking.
>>Next: Howe Street and Blaine Street Stairs
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 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 Colonnade Park of North Capitol Hill. Streissguth Gardens
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 Howe Street Stairs 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 back 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.
are shorter and border the The Blaine Street Stairs 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 their classic sandwiches like basil egg salad or the kid’s PB&J on wholegrain campagnolo.
Getting there: To drive to the Howe Street/Blaine Street Stairs, take 1-5 towards North Capitol Hill. From Northbound 1-5, take Exit 168A and turn left on Lakeview Blvd. Turn right onto Harvard Ave. E. and right again on E. Boston Ave. Or from Southbound 1-5, take Exit 168A and merge onto Boylston Ave East. Turn left onto East Roanoke St. For both routes, turn right onto 10th Ave E. Find street parking near Howe/Blaine Streets. The upper end of the Howe Street Stairs is at 810 E. Howe St. (The top of the Blaine Street Stairs are in a small cul-de-sac at East Blaine Street on the west side of 10th Avenue East.)
>> Thornton Creek Water Channel Stairs (Northgate)
Thornton Creek Water Channel Stairs, Northgate (Seattle)
Take one of Thornton Place’s stairways to have a sunbreak in a newly minted 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.
Just south of Northgate Mall, you will find the terraces, bioswales and artful buoys of the recently daylighted
Thornton Creek Water Channel. 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.
Getting there: To drive to Thornton Place, take 1-5 north towards Northgate. Take Exit 173, turn right at First Avenue Northeast and turn left at Northeast 100th St. From Southbound 1-5, take Exit 173 and merge onto Corliss Avenue North; turn right at North Northgate Way and right again at First Avenue Northeast; turn left at Northeast 100th Street. The Thornton Creek water channel is on your left.
>>Next: Kelsey Creek Farm Stairs
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 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 mid-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, you can
continue on the Pipeline trail and loop back on the Lower Hillside Trail to get back to where you started. All in all, this loop is less than a mile and adds 50 more steps to the stair count.
Bring hand sanitizer in case you get to pet the ponies! Consider a stop at Pair with: Kukai Ramen & Izakaya (14855 Main St, Bellevue) for gyoza and noodle soup
Getting there: To drive to Kelsey Creek Farm Park (410 130th Place S.E., Bellevue) take I-405 to Bellevue. From southbound I-405, take Exit 12’s ramp right and follow signs for Southeast Eighth Street. Turn left and after 0.4 mile, bear left onto Southeast Seventh Place. Turn left onto 130th Place Southeast. From Northbound 1-405, take Exit 12 and ramp right for Southeast Eighth Street. Turn right onto S.E. Eighth St, and after 0.3 mile, bear left onto Southeast Seventh Place. Turn left onto 130th Place Southeast. (The last intersection is Southeast Fifth St.; if you reach Southeast Fourth Place you’ve gone too far.)
Next: Mercerdale Hillside Stairway (Mercer Island)
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 Playground (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 down slope. Eagles reportedly have a nest in a Doug fir on the south edge of the natural area.
Pair with: For the best grilled cheese on M.I. drop by Stopsky’s Delicatessen (3016 78th Ave. S.E., Mercer Island) or try their “Sham on Rye” vegetarian Reuben. For $1 sushi, kids bento, and hot noodle soup, go to Yuzen (8451 S.E. 68th St., Suite 104, Mercer Island).
Getting there: To drive to Mercerdale Playground (3249 78th Ave. S.E.) take I-90 to Mercer Island. Eastbound, take Exit #7B and turn right onto Southeast 30th Street. Westbound, take Exit #7, turn left onto Island Crest Way, and turn right on Southeast 28th Street. Then for both routes, turn left on 78th Ave Southeast Park entrance is on the left.
>>Next: Eagles Landing Stairway (Burien)
Eagles Landing Stairway, Burien
In an enchanting forest of conifers and big-leaf maple, you’ll find this adventurous concrete-and-steel 289-step stairway cascading down a precarious slope toward the tidelands of the sound.
Named for the bald eagles that nest in the upper park, Eagles Landing is also home to owls, woodpeckers, osprey and songbirds. The park’s many interpretive signs prompt a self-guided nature walk through this fragile ecosystem.
Risk trying to find parking in Eagles Landing’s dinky five-car parking lot, or begin your hike a little further up the hill at
(1620 S.W. 149th St., Burien), which has restrooms and a nice playground. Lake Burien School Memorial Park
To find the stairs, take the park’s main trail past the eagle-viewing area and down through the understory thick with vine maple, hazelnut, Oregon grape and sword fern. Many of the hillside’s big-leaf maple are ageing out and are prone to disease and windfall. The trail comes to a Y-junction in a clearing where one such giant has recently been cut, take the fork uphill to the right. After you’ve crested the hill, you’ll see the beginning of the magnificent Eagles Landing stairway, which will take you all the way to the Sound.
Take your binoculars for wildlife viewing. If you get hungry, try the sunshine-yellow Pair with: Taqueria La Estacion (14820 Ambaum Blvd. S.W., Burien) rumored to the best taqueria in the state.
Getting there: To drive to Eagles Landing Park (14641 25th Ave. S.W., Burien) from Southbound WA-509, take the ramp for WA-518 toward Burien. Turn right onto South 148 St. (which changes into Southwest 148th St.) From Northbound WA-509, take ramp right for WA-518 toward Renton. Turn left onto WA-518 (the road name changes to South 148th Street and then changes again to Southwest 148th Street.) Both routes from Southwest 148th St., turn left onto Ambaum Blvd Southwest and then right onto S.W. 149th (which changes into 25th Ave. S.W.) You will see the small parking lot of Eagles Landing Park on the left.
>>Next: More information
More information on stairways around the Puget Sound
For in-depth information on some of Seattle’s more interesting stairways, check out Jake and Cathy Jaramillo’s Seattle Stairway Walks book and website.
To find a stairway near you, visit the map page on
To explore more thoroughly the hill’s more than 100 public stairways, visit
Queen Anne Public Stairs website.
Want a guided stairway walk experience? Check out
Feet First for upcoming stairway tours and events, as well as more walks and maps. LOVE THIS ARTICLE? WE BET YOU'LL LOVE THESE, TOO: