Walk About Martinez -- Stairways of San Francisco

Garden stairways of San Francisco and the Martinez Walking Club, this week in Walk About Martinez

It was another incredible fall day in San Francisco when several friends and I set out to take another hike from the guide book, Stairway Walks of San Francisco.  Our first foray with had been wonderful, and this one proved likewise. 

It was Thursday morning and there was almost no one in line at the cable car turn around for the Powell Street car.   Several of our group tucked inside the car and others hung off the running boards to get the most of the brisk morning air. 

If I was a dog I’d probably go about with my head hanging from the windows of every moving conveyance I could find.  The wind in my face reminded me of sailing across the Bay, lee rail under.  Just behind me was Lisa, a United Airlines pilot, hair flying wild in the wind, probably just as in love with the blustery experience, but feeling it at 20,000 feet.  Here we were flying up and over Powell Street and down to Fisherman’s Wharf for the start of our hike at Mason and Bay. 

Those old machines move people slowly across the City at a pace set over a hundred years ago, in a more leisurely age.  Yet the exhilaration of hanging off the sides as we squeeze past parked buses and tuck our arms in tight to avoid their protruding mirrors, makes it seem like a carnival ride.  The fun of climbing those City hills in a San Francisco cable car never grows old.

This walk began in what was, at one time, deep water, well offshore of the 1849 north coast, and wound us in and out of little “twittons” an English word describing a very cute little lane.   What we learned is that these quaint streets originally housed factories, fish markets, shops, opera houses and bordellos.  It was a vibrant part of early San Francisco, very different from the quiet residential neighborhood it has become.  

Up Mason, Lombard, Powell and Chestnut, in and out of flowered cul-de-sacs and stairwayed connections -- often the only direct way from one street to another -- past gardens crowned by ornate mansions with views, oh what views, we walked our way to the top of Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower.  From that vantage the Ferry Building was  beautiful.  Looking down obliquely at the stately front, the long line of windows and porticoes is foreshortened, run together as it were, in a rhythmic progression.  I could see why the author gave it such praise.  

“The view to the east of the graceful 1895 Ferry Bldg. and its famous clock is distinctive.  (Lit up at night, it is a cameo, a Cinderella, surpassing all other commercial buildings in its delicate beauty.)”    

From there we hiked down the Greenwich Street steps and back up the Filbert Street stairs.  These two streets -- absolutely too steep to ever be true streets -- have been turned into some of the most beautiful public/private cliffside gardens in the world.  If you come to San Francisco to do just one set of stairway walks, make your way to Telegraph Hill and just go up and down these two floral dreams.  Great swaths of ginger blend with the still blooming princess flowers, datura and tree ferns, bananas and birds of paradise.  Clematis and passion flower vines twist and tie the whole thing together in one fantastical array of wildness and cultivated wonder. 

One of the high points of the day was the stairway up and into tiny, Jack Early Park.  In 1963, Jack began planting trees in a neglected area and it has become a gem of hidden San Francisco.  Not more than a few hundred feet deep, it begins across from the intersection of Pfeiffer and Grant.  Its stairs lead up through a forest of plantings to an observation deck overlooking one of the great views from the hills above North Beach.  Peaceful, serene like few places in the City, it would be a gorgeous spot to watch a full moon rise over the Bay.

Not far, on Francisco Street, we met the owner of a tiny fisherman’s cottage dating from 1863.  The fisherman had originally come ashore at Bay Street -- now deep in town -- and walked a short ways uphill to his little home.  It’s now dwarfed by the three story apartments built on both sides.  The owner was friendly and eager to talk about the restoration he was working on, that will make it a modern home with as much history left intact as he can manage.  It was so small, sandwiched between the looming, latter day apartments, that we had a real sense of the working class origins of this now trendy neighborhood.  It was much like the little Queen Ann's Cottages that dot the old neighborhoods of Downtown Martinez.

By the time we’d worn out our stair legs, it was time for lunch, and then a leisurely stroll to our start to catch the cable car back to Bart.  But instead of taking the easy way, this bunch of intrepid hikers chose to fast walk it all the way across North Beach and the Financial District, with one short peaceful stop at the National Shrine to Saint Francis in the heart of North Beach.  The filtered afternoon light of the stained glass fell across the frescoes of the Saint in a luminous, almost psychedelic display of dappled beauty, a fitting end to another wonderful walk in our world class, big city neighbor.

Local hiking news: Last Monday I had no hike scheduled and seeing a notice in the Patch for a jaunt with the Martinez Walking Club, I headed out to Hidden Valley Park at 9am and met a group of folks who have been walking together every Monday for many years.  They walk the Canal Trail and the neighborhoods nearby and I got to explore a section of Martinez I had never seen before.  It’s a lovely corner of the town well worth a stroll.

They are a great bunch, convivial and interesting and they make a newcomer feel right at home on a first walk.  Some have been doing this for eight to ten years.  This walk was organized through the Martinez Senior Center, but not everyone looked like a senior, and the walk was at a brisk pace, just what we all needed to counteract the effect of our too sedentary lives.  

There are walks organized by the Martinez Senior Center on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Mondays: 9am, Hidden Valley Park, 1 to 2 hours in neighborhoods and Canal Trail

Wednesdays: 9am, Mtz Senior Center, 1 hour in neighborhoods and Marina Park.

The Pleasant Hill Senior Center organizes walks on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Tuesday: 8:30 inside Sun Valley Mall near Johnny Rockets, 3 to 4 miles, level, and 50 cents for the kitty.

Thursday: Meets at different places for a more serious hike.  See the web page for details.

These options cover most of the week and from what I heard from the folks on the Martinez walk, the Pleasant Hill bunch is just as nice.

 “Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.”  

John Muir

Kristin Henderson November 12, 2011 at 08:57 PM
I worked in prerenovated Ferry Building for 7 years and was glad to see the Embaradero Freeway taken down. At the bottom of those odd and enchanting step streets on Telegraphic Hill is the place Philo Farnsworth invented the Television. You remind me that even after 25 years of living and/or working in SF, I learn something new about my City: Jack Early Park. I wonder if it is one of those other step gardens on Russian Hill and I just do not know it. There's many out there in all neighborhoods. You never get tired of San Francisco, and there's nothing better than when you are very young, very broke, and very new to it, that you take to foot and discover these things on your own. What great riches in the butterlight of windows and diamond light of clock faces, in the newly minted autumn air of San Francisco.
Scott Williams November 13, 2011 at 07:52 AM
Great comment. I've loved San Francisco all my life, as that wonderful Oz across the Bay, but I feel like I'm just getting to know her now more intimately as we walk this little alleyways and stair streets. It is the Emerald City, majestic, beautiful, whimsical and lots of fun to explore. I don't get tired either.


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