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San Francisco’s Hidden Stairways

The Vulcan Steps

There’s a whole bunch of things I love about San Francisco, and many of them have to do with the fact that it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It’s the kind of city where you say to yourself one morning, “I’m gonna go discover something cool,” and then you invariably do.

I’ve been intrigued by this city’s stairways ever since a dear friend of mine took me to the Vulcan Steps on my first San Francisco visit in 1994. And it might seem like searching out steps is an odd thing to do in a city known for iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid and tourist hotspots like Golden Gate Park and Chinatown. But it’s the fact that they’re under the radar that I find so appealing. They allow you to reach corners of the city that are off the sightseeing beaten path. You have to do a little work to get to them, but you’ll be well rewarded.

View from the Vulcan StepsOf course geography is a major reason why there are an estimated 300 sets of stairs scattered throughout the city. San Francisco occupies a very hilly peninsula, and in places the incline is so steep that building a street would be impractical—or impossible. Stairways thus provide access to areas unreachable by any other means, as well as a convenient shortcut if you happen to live in the vicinity. Some stairways are better known than others—like the Filbert Steps that lead up to Coit Tower—but many more are well-kept secrets, and I’m going to share a couple with you.

I was captivated by the tucked-away beauty of the Vulcan Steps and always come back to them when I’m in town. They connect Ord and Levant streets in a neighborhood near Buena Vista Park, between the Haight and the Castro. I recommend that you start at the top of the steps (off Levant) and walk down them to Ord Street. The stone steps are shaded by trees and bordered by luxuriant vegetation. The houses lining the steps are architecturally varied, and if you’re like me you’ll be wishing that you could live in one of them, despite the fact that they’re accessible only on foot (think about that the next time you go grocery shopping). Vulcan Steps garden

About halfway down there’s a very nice view of the rocky summit that is the centerpiece of Corona Heights Park, framed by a tall date palm; this makes a good photo op. A bit farther down on the right is a lovely little garden with a white stone pagoda (another good photo op). When you reach the bottom take a look at the masses of aloe plants growing along the right-hand side of the steps.

Saturn StepsHalf a block away (toward 17th Street) the Saturn Steps run parallel to the Vulcan Steps, connecting Ord and Saturn streets. There are gardens along these steps as well, and brick terraces with benches where you can sit and take in the view. At the top of the steps follow the path to the Saturn Street cul-de-sac and proceed up Saturn Street to the Lower Terrace (off Roosevelt Way). There are more nice views from the elevated perspective of this maze-like residential enclave. Then retrace your path and walk down the Saturn Steps back to Ord Street.

If you’re up for a strenuous hike (it’s good exercise!), take Ord Street to 17th Street, turn right and follow 17th to Stanyan Street (it’s a steep hill, but you’ll start descending before you reach Stanyan). Turn right on Stanyan and walk four blocks to Parnassus Avenue. Turn left on Parnassus and walk two blocks to Willard Street. Turn left on Willard (another uphill street) and walk about a block until you see the Farnsworth Lane street sign on the right side of the street. You’ve reached the bottom of the Farnsworth Steps.

These stone steps also are bordered with vegetation that makes for a lovely, leafy little hike. It only takes about five minutes to get to the top, and you can pause along the way for a great view of the Haight below, with the downtown skyline in the distance. There’s a house at the top that once belonged to Philo T. Farnsworth, an inventor who was one of the main individuals responsible for the development of the all-electronic television. 

Farnsworth stepsThe Farnsworth Steps connect Willard Street with Edgewood Lane. When I reached the top and looked down Edgewood, it didn’t seem to have access to any other street. Was this some self-contained island that existed apart from the rest of the city? If so, where do Edgewood Lane residents shop, and how do they get there? And I wondered again what it would be like to live along one of these stairways. The settings are utterly idyllic and the views gorgeous—but how much of a drag does it become to constantly go up and down steep steps in the course of meeting life’s daily demands? Somehow I think I’d get used to it.

I checked out some additional city steps that I’ll write about in a future blog, so stay tuned—and please share your own stairway experiences. As Robert Plant so memorably sang all those years ago, there might be a few that lead, at least rhetorically, to heaven.   

The Vulcan and Saturn steps can be accessed via Ord or Levant streets. The Farnsworth Steps are two blocks south of Golden Gate Park’s southeastern corner, near the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center complex.

All photos by Greg Weekes

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