Staircases serve a purpose. They get us from one level to another in our homes; from one floor to another in a building. They can be short or long, curved or straight, steep or gradual. Some of us use then by choice, some of us head straight for an elevator if its available. I have a love/hate relationship with stairs. I am not a fan of uphill climbing :o) The strenuous monotony that comes with putting one foot in front of the other on a steep set of stairs doesn’t typically appeal to me. However, the nostalgic notion of hidden outdoor staircases tucked in our cities hillsides, leftover from a time of streetcar suburbia, was enough motivation to get me in the car early in the morning on the President’s Day holiday. The combination of the beautiful weather, the sights, smells and sounds of spring, and the lovely hillside setting was enough to keep me moving. It was even enough to turn me around at the bottom to head back to the top.
The various staircases you can find throughout the East Bay were originally put into place to help hillside residents gain access to the Key System streetcar lines that crisscrossed Oakland and other East Bay cities from 1903-1960. As the staircases fell into a period of disuse during the subsequent decades, most were left in pretty severe states of disrepair. Neighborhood groups have had success with the City of Oakland in recent years, advocating for repair work; as a result the Merriwood Staircases were renovated in 2003.
Several months ago I purchased the book Secret Stairs East Bay by Charles Fleming, and had long ago put the Merriwood Stairs at the top of my list since they are pretty close to home for me. I grew up in Montclair, and Thornhill Drive has been a part of my life since preschool days. On this holiday morning I parked just past the elementary school, grabbed my backpack, and headed up the first staircase, located just past house #5915 on Thornhill Drive. For me, the morning turned into a lovely opportunity to enjoy some peace and quiet, and I quickly became entranced with the signs of spring, the sleepy neighborhood full of quaint and quirky houses, and the curious task of finding my way from one staircase to another. I had Fleming’s book in hand, and I doubt I would have found them all on my own without it.
I followed Fleming’s recommended route, which he states is about 1.2 miles and has you covering 637 steps, some uphill and some down. I will briefly recap the route at the bottom of the post, but I highly recommend the book as a great guide to this walk and others. I chose to do it twice, and double backed on some of the steep staircases at the end to get a workout in. No joke, some of these stairs are STEEP. While coming down, I was definitely holding the handrail and watching my step. I lost track of their exact location, but I believe it was on the staircase between Merriwood and Valley View where you stop to say Hi to Cleo and Pato, two adorable Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goats living a quiet hillside life under their owners home.
As I went up and down, connecting through little hillside neighborhood pockets, taking in the bay views through roof tops, it was easy to remember why I love Oakland . It was a refreshing change of pace for me to step outside of my own neighborhood walking routine, into this more challenging one. My calves are still aching from some of my uphill climbs. However, as I sat at the top of one of the steep sets of stairs I got to take a moment, catch my breath, enjoy the signs of spring, and appreciate the winding adventure these historic stairs took me on.
Here is a quick recap of Fleming’s route – most of the staircases are marked with the green signs you have seen in my pictures, you just need to know where to look.
1.) Begin at the staircase on Thornhill Drive, just past house #5915
2.) Cross the Marden Lane cul-de-sac and continue on next staircase
3.) You will land on Merriwood Drive, turn RIGHT
4.) At the next intersection turn LEFT onto Valley View Road
5.) Hard LEFT turn onto Taurus Avenue
6.) Turn RIGHT onto another section of Merriwood Drive
7.) Go uphill slightly, about 75 feet, and bear LEFT on Sherwood Drive
8.) Go uphill and turn RIGHT on Abbott Drive (corner property is an interesting castle home)
9.) Just after house #35 on Abbott Drive is a marked staircase to take you back downhill
10.) This series of steps takes you back down to Merriwood, turn LEFT at the bottom
11.) Go slightly uphill, just after house #5960 you will find another staircase on the right
12.) Take these steep, wooden stairs down to Valley View Road, turn RIGHT at the bottom
13.) Go down the street just the length of one lot and there will be another set of stairs on the LEFT
14.) Take these stairs down to the cul-de-sac end of Doncaster Place
15.) Cross the cul-de-sac and take one final staircase that will put you at the corner of Merriwood and Thornhill
16.) Turn right and carefully walk along Thornhill Drive back to your starting point
I hope you find some time to get out and enjoy your own uphill adventure!
All photos by Adrienne Schell