Friday, October 26, 2018

Visiting San Francisco's SIX Mosaic Stairways

San Francisco is home to six beautiful mosaic stairways (see map here), but they were all inspired by one. 

The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project (2005)
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps project began in early 2003 when Sunset residents Jessie Audette and Alice Xavier conceived of the idea to bring people together and beautify the neighborhood. Later that year, project volunteers chose Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher as the project artists. The 163-step mosaic depicts a landscape that goes from the bottom of the ocean, to land, and all the way to the sun in the sky. More than 300 neighbors participated in the creation of the mosaic panels. Work started on July 13, 2005, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on August 27, 2005, which the mayor’s office proclaimed “16th Avenue Tiled Steps Day.” The inspiration for the steps came from SelarĂ³n’s staircase, a mosaic staircase in Rio de Janeiro named after artist Jorge SelarĂ³n. Jesse Audette discovered the staircase while living in that city.
Location: Moraga Street between 15th and 16th Avenues

Hidden Garden Steps (2013)
Inspired by the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, the neighboring Hidden Garden Steps were conceived in January 2010 and completed in November 2013. Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher were called in again to create this 148-step mosaic depicting flora and fauna, including flowers, ferns, butterflies, and a salamander that extends up 26 stairs.

Location: 15th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton Streets

Flights of Fancy Steps (2014)
One year later, Barr and Crutcher won a competition to design the 87-step Flights of Fancy Steps in the Bayview neighborhood. This mosaic pattern was inspired by decorative patterns from Ghanaian Adinkra cloth, Central American weaving, Middle Eastern tile and Native American pottery. Flights of  mosaic was placed on the Aurelious Walker steps, a stairway named for a pastor and champion of the Bayview neighborhood.
Location: Intersection of Arelious Walker Drive and Innes Avenue

Lincoln Park Steps (2015)
San Francisco’s most recent mosaic stairway is the Lincoln Park Steps, situated next to the Lincoln Park Golf Course. In 2007, a neighborhood organization, the Friends of Lincoln Park, began a seven-year long renovation of the 52-step-stairway. Barr and Crutcher came back for their fourth mosaic, which was  inspired by historic photographs of Sutro Baths and buildings of the 1890 World’s Fair in San Francisco. The renovated steps debuted their new design on May, 28, 2015.
Location: 32nd Avenue between California Street and the Lincoln Park Golf Course.

Kenny Alley Steps (2017)
Kenny Alley was a forgotten stairway across the street from the Excelsior Safeway grocery store. The Kenny Alley Steps were created in 2016 to beautify the area and increase foot traffic to the grocery store, local businesses, and public transit. The design is represents flowing water and hearkens back to the time when the Excelsior was part of a watershed. Kim Jensen, a local artist and teacher at the City Arts & Tech High School, led the design work. And another local artist, Matt Christenson, created a complimentary mural alongside the steps.
Location: Kenny Alley is situated between London and Mission Streets and between France and Italy Avenues 

Athens-Avalon Greenspace Steps (2017)
Opened in mid-2017, the Athens-Avalon Greenspace has transformed a former undeveloped plot of land and former dumping ground into a beautiful green space and neighborhood attraction for the Excelsior. This stairway was a long time coming. The original idea for improving the stairway came about in 2008 and the design was finalized in 2010. The stairway is lined with gardens full of drought-resistant plants and is just a few blocks away from San Francisco's second largest park: John McLaren Park.

Which stairway is your favorite? Where would you like to see the next mosaic stairway?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Tilden Regional Park - The Seaview and Big Springs Loop

Distance: 3.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 740 feet
High Point: 1,630 feet
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Fitness: Walkers, hikers, runners
Family Friendly: Yes
Dog Friendly: Yes, off-leash walking is permitted.
Amenities: Picnic benches and a portapotty are available at the Quarry Picnic area where the hike starts and ends. A few other benches are found along the trail.
Contact: East Bay Regional Park District
37° 54' 1.4868'' N 122° 15' 0.2952'' W

Map to: Quarry Picnic Site, Wildcat Canyon Road, Berkeley, CA
Strava Route: 

About Tilden Regional Park:
Once Ohlone ancestral land, this area then was used by the Spanish and then Mexicans who began ranching here. Americans continued the ranching tradition and eucalyptus forests were planted around 1910 by Frank C. Havens' Eucalyptus, Mahogany, & Land Company.

Tilden Regional Park became a park on July 16, 1936 and was named for Charles Lee  (1857-1950), an attorney and businessman. In the 1930s, he championed the creation of a system of regional parks, and became the first president of the East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors.

Today, the 2,079-acre park has almost 40 miles of trails, some of which allow not only just hikers, but bikers, and horses, too. (Dogs are allowed off-leash on all trails, but are not allowed in Tilden Nature Area.) Tilden also features a number of other attractions including a steam train, a botanic garden, an antique merry-go-round, an entertainment space called The Brazilian Room, and an 18-hole golf course. The park is situated just south of the Tilden Nature Area, a separate 740-acre park.

The Seaview and Big Springs Loop reminds me of the three bears in Goldilocks—and not just because you can see part of the much-loved "Three Bears" biking route from the trail—it's because in many aspects it's "just right". It's short, but moderate. It includes both open meadows and periods of shade and trees. It climbs enough to give you views of San Francisco, the bay, the San Pablo Reservoir, but it doesn't tire you out too much.

Route overview
Get Moving:
Locate the trailhead for the Quarry Trail in the back of the Quarry Picnic Site. Turn left to follow the trail uphill.

At 0.1 miles, reach a junction with the Seaview Trail. Stay straight here and continue uphill. After 0.3 miles total, you'll see a singletrack trail on your right, the Big Springs Trail. Stay on the Seaview Trail here, but you'll be on the Big Springs trail later on on this route.

Even though you haven't climbed very far yet, if you turn around, you should already see great views of the San Francisco skyline. Continue to follow the trail. It will be tree-lined and shaded, which will make the climb nice during summer. If you look left as you climb, you'll eventually see the San Pablo Reservoir.

San Pablo and Briones Reservoirs

At 1.1 miles total, reach a low concrete wall in the shape of a circle. There is a bench here and in front of the bench is a small stone inth. At this stage, you're at 1,600 feet of elevation—almost at the high point of this hike. This—and the views of the San Francisco skyline and bay make this a perfect spot to rest and take in the views.

Overlook. A good place to rest and check out the views.
The small labyrinth has great views of San Francisco and the bay.

The trail's elevation tops out at 1.2 miles where you'll find another bench overlooking the bay. You should also be able to see both the San Pablo and Briones Reservoirs on your left as well as Mt. Diablo.

From here (despite one small climb of 20 or so feet), you start a long descent. At 1.6 miles, you'll reach a trail marker where you turn right on the Upper Big Springs Trail (the other way is a continuation of the Seaview Trail that is also part of the: East Bay Skyline Trail, the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the American Discovery Trail, and the Mokelumne Coast to Crest Trail.

Over the next 0.7 miles, you continue to descend, losing 400 feet in elevation. Here you arrive at briefly at South Park Drive, a road with a few parking spaces along it. Continue along the side of the parking area. As the parking area ends, pick up the Lower Big Springs Trail.

In less than 0.1 mile, you reach a junction with the Quarry Trail. Stay right to head slightly uphill on the Lower Big Springs Trail. As you climb, you'll go through some eucalyptus groves and start to get views of Mt. Tamalpais and eventually the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco's Sutro Tower and the Salesforce Tower.

This climb will take you 0.7 miles to 3.1 miles total, at which point you cross the Quarry Trail again. Here, turn left to take the Quarry Trail downhill a final 0.4 miles back to the start.

Go Farther
Check out the nearby Tilden Nature Area.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Wildcat Canyon - Exploring the trails of the dog-friendly East Bay

Distance: 6.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,055 feet
High Point: 1060 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to Challenging
Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Fitness: Walkers, hikers, runners
Family Friendly: Parents with small children can do an out-and-back on the Wildcat Canyon Trail for an easier hike.
Dog Friendly: Off-leash; on-leash walking on Nimitz Way. Watch out for coyotes if you have a small dog.
Amenities: Porta potties and picnic area at in the Alvarado Staging Area; picnic area; a few benches along the trail.
Contact: East Bay Regional Park District
GPS: 37° 57' 7.2396'' N 122° 19' 6.3912'' W 

Map to: Alvarado Staging Area, Park Avenue, Richmond, CA
Strava Route:

About Wildcat Canyon:
Covering 2,427 acres, Wildcat Canyon is a popular destination for hikers, runners, mountain bikers, horseback riders—and wildlife. The park houses a wide range of animals including, but not limited to: deer, squirrels, foxes, coyotes, and snakes.

Until the 1920s, Wildcat Canyon was a water source for the East Bay, but in 1935, the East Bay Regional Park District began acquiring this land as parkland. Alvarado Park—the northern section of Wildcat Canyon where this hike starts—used to be a private park, and was taken over by the City of Richmond in 1923. It was once home to an open-air pavilion, a dance hall (later converted into a roller rink), and the Grande Vista Sanitarium, a center for people struggling with addiction and other mental health issues. Wildcat Canyon contains WPA-era stone masonry work, which has earned the park a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. It was transferred to the East Bay Regional Park District in 1985..

The featured route starts out slowly, but builds to be much more interesting as it goes along. From the wide fire trails of the Wildcat Creek Trail, you’ll take the single track Havey Canyon Trail to enjoy a tree-lined ascent. After a short stint on paved Nimitz Way, you arrive at the San Pablo Ridge Trail, where you’ll take in views of Mount Diablo, Mount Tamalpais, the San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

This hike is pretty in the winter after a rain when the grass on the hills is green (though the trails can be muddy). In spring, with good timing, you can expect to see a number of wildflower species. In summer, expect to be hot and bring enough water to last you 6.8 miles.

Route Map
Get Moving:
Pick up the Wildcat Creek Trail from the Alvarado Staging Area parking lot at the end of Park Avenue in Richmond.

After 0.2 miles, you'll see a junction on the left for the Belgium Trail. Stay straight on the Wildcat Creek Trail, but you'll come back to this trail later. Continue on the wide paved and then dirt trail. If you're treading quietly, you may hear Wildcat Creek below you to your right. At 1.8, 1.9 miles, and 2.0 miles, you'll pass the Mezue and Leonards Trails to your left and then Rifle Range Road to your right.  At the intersection with Rifle Range Road, take a quick detour to your right to see a WPA-era stone arch bridge across Wildcat Creek.

Remain on the Wildcat Canyon Trail for 0.1 more mile until you reach a junction with the Havey Canyon Trail on your left. Take that left and stay on the Havey Canyon Trail for 1.5 miles, during which time you'll climb 540 feet. For the first mile of this singletrack trail, you'll enjoy a wooded area lined with bay laurel trees, blackberry, and poison oak. For most of this time, the creek is on your left, but at 2.7 miles total, you'll cross the creek for the last time on this route. At 3.1 miles total, you emerge from the woods and enter a grassy area that you'll stay on for the next 0.5 miles. When I hiked this route,  my hike, I saw a number of cows on this stretch—and coyotes. While this area is off-leash for dogs, I kept my dog close here.

At 3.6 miles total, you'll reach paved Nimitz Way (where you'll have to put your dog on leash temporarily). Nimitz Way is named for Chester William Nimitz, Sr. an admiral in the United States Navy who was Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet in World War II. You'll stay on Nimitz way for  0.4 miles, and during this time you'll climb an additional 100 feet. Above you on the hill to your right is a former Nike Missile site, and as you pass this site, you can start to see Mount Diablo to the southeast and the Golden Gate Bridge to the southwest across the bay.

At 4.1 miles total, you reach the San Pablo Ridge Trail. For me, this 1.5 mile stretch of trail is the highlight of this hike. Though you've already done most of the climbing on this route, you still have to contend with a few rolling hills on this section. Here you'll also get more views of Mount Diablo and then San Francisco.

At 4.5 miles you reach your highest point on the hike—1055 feet. And at 4.9 miles, you climb to a last hill before starting a 400 foot descent to reach the Belgum Trail at 5.6 miles total.

Follow the Belgum Trail 0.9 miles—all the way down back to the Wildcat Canyon Trail. Along your way, you'll pass the Clark-Boas Trail and the Monte Cresta Trail on your right, but stay straight. For the first 0.3 miles of this trail, you'll encounter the last incline of this route. And 0.4 miles into your route, head off the trail just for a moment at 6.0 miles total to stop at a bench and get great views of San Francisco.

A room with a view:
The Belgum Trail is named for the Belgum—or Grande Vista Sanitarium, which stood here from 1914-1977. Founded by Dr. Hendrik Belgium, the sanitarium housed drug and alcohol addicts as well as people with mental health issues. You'll know you're entering the sanitarium's former grounds when you suddenly see palm trees along the route. Dr. Belgum perished in a fire that raged through the center in 1948. After his passing, his brother, Bernard Belgum and sisters, Ida Belgum, Ruth Belgu, and Christine Heiman tended to the estate—though they had no medical training. Bernard Belgum died in 1963 and there were no heirs to inherit Grande Vista. The grounds were abandoned and the rest of the buildings were burned down in 1977. In 1978, the East Bay Regional Park District acquired the land. 

Stay on the Belgum Trail until 6.5 miles total. Then, once back at the Wildcat Canyon Trail, turn right and continue the final 0.3 miles back to the start.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Urban Hiker SF's 2017 Holiday Gift Guide

The holidays can be fun—or stressful—if you're trying to pick out the perfect gift for a loved one. To make your job a little easier, we at Urban Hiker SF have compiled a list of gifts for your favorite urban explorers. These are my own personal recommendations and are not sponsored by these companies. I've organized this list into a few categories: fitness trackers, hiking gear, clothing, books, and misc. in case you want to scroll down to the category that's most relevant for what you're looking for.


Fitbit: I wear a Fitbit every day and love how it tracks my sleep, measures my heart rate, reminds me to move, and lets me use the Fitbit app to enter friendly competitions with friends (or solo). Though it's one of the more expensive models, I wear and recommend the Alta HR because I love seeing how my resting heart rate goes down after a few days of activity or how the amount of sleep I get affects my mood for the rest of the day.

Amazfit: If you're looking for a tracker that doesn't look like a fitness tracker, some people (including my mom!) prefer the Amazfit Equator, which looks like an design-y bracelet. It doesn't have a display, but you can always open up the Amazfit app to track your progress.


Backpack: Every hiker needs a good backpack, and I have an older version of the Deuter Speed Lite. The backpack has two easy-to-reach pockets for water bottles on each side as well as another easily-accessible top zip-up pocket where I store my wallet and phone. The pack is light enough to carry for long hikes but large enough to fit layers, snacks, and anything I'd need for a full day of hiking. Another great thing is that it has a special pocket for a hydration reservoir (see below) and a drink tube holder on one of the backpack straps for easy drinking access.

Hydration reservoir: If you're going on a longer hike, you will need a good hydration reservoir. I have a three-liter one as I know I never want to run out of water on the trail. Three-liter reservoirs are common and there's a wide selection of them here. I've got this one from Platypus and it works great for me.

Headlamps: Headlamps let you keep the urban exploring going long after sundown. I have this basic Petzl model, which I use for hiking and camping. When buying a headlamp, just make sure you get one with >50 lumens, so it's bright enough to see on the darkest nights. If you want a detailed buying guide for headlamps, check out this one from REI. 

Hiking Poles: Hiking or trekking poles are great for a number of reasons, including reducing the impact of hiking on your body. They can also propel you forward and can be a big help on hills. I personally like adjustable, collapsable poles, so you can stow them in your backpack when you're not using them. And while some people swear by anti-shock hiking poles, they can be significantly heavier than regular poles and therefore not ideal for longer routes. Again, check the REI guide for more details. I don't necessarily have a recommendation here, but here is Amazon's pick for poles.

Tecnu: According to the American Skin Association, 85% of the population is allergic to poison ivy, oak, and sumac—and 10-15% is extremely allergic. 

The great thing is that you can prevent reactions from these plants even after exposure with something called Tecnu. This product wipes away the urushiol oil that causes the reaction, and keeps you away from annoying (and potential harmful) rashes. I buy 50-packs of the stuff like this: Tecnu Oak-n-Ivy Cleanser, Box of 50 0.5 oz. Packets and throw a few packs in my bag before every hike.

Clothing is very personal, so I'm just offering two ideas here that should work for most people.

Wool arm warmers: I discovered wool arm warmers when I was more of a biker than a hiker. Now, I don't understand why more hikers don't wear these. I much prefer putting on and taking off these than wearing a long-sleeved shirt. If you live in a warmer climate, you can always opt for fleece arm warmers instead of wool ones.


Scarf with built-in insect repellent: I am lucky—when I'm in the outdoors, mosquitos leave me alone. But I know most aren't so lucky. I don't personally need this item, but received one for free, and I just love it because it's really cute! The clothing includes Insect Shield® repellant and you can even wash it up to 25 times.

Urban Hiker SF T-Shirts
We created a new line of urban hiking-themed t-shirts that help you show off  your love of SF. T-shirts either feature our logo or our favorite SF landmark, Sutro Tower. 


I love Stairway Walks in San Francisco. My dad bought me this book when I moved to San Francisco 10 years ago, so for me, this is the quintessential urban exploring book for our city. The fact that this book is in its eighth edition is a testament to its enduring success.

And of course I need to suggest my book, Urban Trails: San Francisco! If you want to explore not just stairways, but also the 70 miles of hiking trails that San Francisco has to offer, this is a great book for you. The book includes 50 different routes, 40 right in the city, 6 north of the city, and 4 south of the city.


To be fair, I do not have this book yet: 111 Places in San Francisco That You Must Not Miss, but I've been intrigued by its title and think this could be fun for  people new to the city as well as seasoned veterans who are looking for new things to do.

I'm going to stop here with the books, but could mention so many more! Maybe I'll do a whole post on books for urban explorers. :)


365 Mile Challenge: This year I joined the 365 Mile Challenge, an online community (run on facebook/over email) where the goal is for everyone to strive for 365 self-powered miles in one year. As someone who runs a hiking company, I knew I'd hit 365 miles, but I joined anyway to meet other hikers. The community is well-run and has lots of giveaways too for hiking gear. I ended up winning a swag bag with probably $200+ worth of stuff! You can sign up to be notified when 2018 registration opens. I gave this to myself this year and it was a blast to be a member. While anyone can join, I'd say 99% of the people in the group are women. For people looking for more of a challenge, it looks like there is a 1,000 mile challenge too (run by another group)!

Urban Hiker SF Gift Certificates: Gift Certificates are available on the Gifts & Merch page of our website. Gift certificates are sent to your recipient—or you—instantly, so they're great for even the most last minute of shoppers.    

I hope you've enjoyed this holiday gift roundup for hikers. Happy Trails and Happy Holidays from Urban Hiker SF. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mt. Umunhum—Open to the Public at Last

At a book signing for Urban Trails San Francisco in early 2017, an attendee asked me if I
had heard of Mt. Umunhum. Um...unhum?

I had done a fair bit of hiking in the Bay Area to research and write my book, so I was perplexed as to why I hadn't heard about this mountain. When I returned home, I Googled it and realized that Mt. Umunhum had been closed to the public since 1958. Lucky for me, it was set to re-open in September 2017. 

Silicon Valley is somewhere there under the clouds

Resting Place of the Hummingbird
That gave me some time to learn more about this place. At 3,486 feet, Mt. Umunhum is the fourth highest peak in the Santa Cruz mountains and the highest point on the Bay Area Ridge Trail

The mountain's name means "resting place of the hummingbird" in the Ohlone language. In fact, at one time, this was a large Native American population centers—with 70 diverse tribal units.

Here's a timeline of what happened to the mountain since then:
  • Mid-1800s: the area was part of a nearby mining operation.
  • 1870s: German and Austrian immigrants poured into the area to escape the Franco-Prussian War. 
  • 1957-1980: The US government built and operated the Almaden Air Force Station here. It was part of a network of radar stations used to watch over the area during the Cold War. 
  • 1986: Midpeninsula Regional Open Space bought the land for $260,000.
  • 2009: Federal funding helps restore the peak.
  • 2014: Santa Clara County Measure AA provided funding to complete road and trail improvements, parking areas, and weather shelters.
  • September 2017: Mt. Umunhum opens to the public!
So finally...after months of waiting...not long compared to the years others have waited...I got to hike Mt. Umunhum this past weekend. Here's a bit more about my hike:

About the hike
Distance: 8.4 miles
Elevation: 1,401
Difficulty: Challenging according to this calculator, but I felt it was moderate.
Trail type: Multi-use (we saw a fair # of mountain bikers on the trail)
Dogs allowed: No :(
Official Map:

We started our hike in the Mount Umunhum Summit Parking Area at the end of Mt. Umunhum Road. We had initially planned to park in the Bald Mountain Parking Area lower down on Mt. Umunhum Road, but all 20 or so parking spots were already taken by the time we got 9:30 am. So off to the summit we went. 

View from the Summit Parking Area

The summit parking lot offers some nice views of Silicon Valley below. Once you've explored those views, climb 159 stairs to the actual summit. There, you find "The Cube" a Cold War era radio building. Behind the cube, you'll find the start of the Mt. Umunhum Trail. 

The Cube
The trail is in good condition and is wide enough to walk two abreast. It has some overlooks with views of the valley below, but is mainly wooded and surrounded by trees. It took us about 1.25 hours to get back to the Bald Mountain Parking Area where we originally tried to park. We stopped in the parking area to take a quick lunch break and then headed uphill. Our return trip took about 1.5 hours. While I was scared about doing the uphill with 4 miles already in my legs, the grade is gentile with 350 feet of elevation each mile.

Parting thoughts
Overall, I enjoyed this hike and am glad we did it. I wanted to make sure I saw this peak for its significance for the area, but I might not drive 3 hours each weekend to do this unless it's a spectacularly clear day. 

Up for a visit? Visit the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve website for park hours, directions, and info on an audio tour.