Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Steepest Ways to Climb to the Top in Los Angeles

Hilly Los Angeles has hundreds of outdoor staircases connecting residential neighborhoods with main streets.

Micheltorena Steps3.JPG
The Micheltorena stairs, just off Sunset Boulevard. (All photographs by Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
In  Brief:
  • Hilly Los Angeles has more than 250 outdoor staircases.
  • Many are a century old, dating back to street trolley days.
  • Several have been decorated with colorful murals that are hits on social media.

  • A lot of Los Angeles is as flat as Florida, but the basin city is also defined by steep mountains and hills. Rising all the way from sea level to the mile-high summit of Mount Lukens at 5,074 feet, Los Angeles has the greatest elevation difference between its high and low points of any major city in the country.

    At hundreds of locations, the most direct – if not always the easiest – way to get around is to climb stairs. There are more than 275 municipal staircases throughout Los Angeles, according to Charles Fleming’s book Secret Stairs. They link residential streets with major thoroughfares that a century ago were served by what was reputed to be the world’s most extensive trolley system. “The staircases themselves are historical reminders of a time when Los Angeles was not a city of cars,” Fleming writes.

    Although they’re always called secret stairs – some residents would like to make them that, putting up gates or other obstructions – they’re really no secret. In recent years, artists such as Evelyn Leigh and Corinne Carrey have turned some into vertical murals that have proven to be catnip for Instagrammers. Others have cultural or historical significance.

    The greatest concentration of stairs – more than 60 – is in a hipster neighborhood called Silver Lake. Here’s a sample:

    Music Box Steps

    In the same way that San Francisco hills have proven irresistible for movie directors staging chase scenes, the obstacles involved with L.A.’s steepest steps provided fodder for early film comics. “The Music Box,” an Academy Award-winning comedy from 1932, features Laurel and Hardy continuously injuring themselves and others as they perform the Sisyphean task of trying to carry a piano up 133 steps.

    These steps are now marked with a plaque honoring Laurel and Hardy. A triangle park at their base is named for them and provides the setting for Music Box Steps Day, an annual community event held in October. Nearby, the Three Stooges used another set of steps to perform similar gravitational gags as ice delivery men in 1941’s “An Ache in Every Stake.”
    IMG_0397 (002).jpg

    Micheltorena Stairs

    Here’s a classic example of asking forgiveness, not permission. These steps just off Sunset Boulevard were painted in 2015, then retroactively approved as a public arts project by the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission four years later.
    Micheltorena Steps1.JPG

    Swan Stairs

    Geometric patterns dominate the Swan Stairs. Near the bottom, someone has stenciled the message, “Cell Phone Slavery Has Begun.” As if to prove the point, a young man was sitting nearby on a recent Tuesday, looking at his phone.
    IMG_0423 (002).jpg

    Je T’aime LA Stairs

    The Swan Stairs have three tiers. Leigh painted the middle one with this popular “I Love L.A.” message.
    IMG_0416 (002).jpg
    (All photos Alan Greenblatt/Governing)

    Murray Steps

    Disappointingly, the “piano stairs” have 90 steps, not 88.
    IMG_0410 (002).jpg

    Mattachine Steps

    This staircase offers an unobstructed view of the reservoir that gives the Silver Lake neighborhood its name. A man named Harry Hay lived alongside these steps and in 1950 founded the Mattachine Society, a pioneering gay rights organization. In 2012, the Los Angeles City Council officially renamed the stairs the Mattachine Steps.

    These steps are not painted and a historical plaque noting the Mattachine Society’s history has since been taken down. But they still make for good exercise, since climbing stairs is one of the most efficient ways to burn calories.
    IMG_0444 (002).jpg
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
    From Our Partners