Hiking the stairways of Echo Park, Silver Lake

You could climb Mt. Whitney — or, like writer Dan Koeppel, get exercise (and more vertical ascent) on a 16.2-mile ‘walking tour’ of Los Angeles’ outdoor stairs.

By Janet Cromley Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

One . . . more . . . step. Almost there. Top of the hill. Don’t step on the smashed guavas. Step over the giant philodendron. Ignore the snapping dog.

More than 75 years ago, Laurel and Hardy struggled to maneuver a piano up these 131 Silver Lake steps in the classic comedy “The Music Box,” cementing the staircase in cinematic history.

Hauling an oversized load up the oxygen-depleting ascent hasn’t gotten any easier, but it’s worth the trip.

Huff. Puff.

Wheeze a little while sucking a deep breath of eucalyptus into bursting lungs — and then, there it is: a dazzling string of vintage, eclectic homes at the top of the longest outdoor staircase you’ve ever scaled.

Looking back down the steps, one feels what early settlers may have felt gazing for the first time at the wilds of the Los Angeles basin: Mine. All mine.

The “Music Box” staircase, which shoots straight up from Vendome Street to Descanso Drive, is one of 52 stairways in 46-year-old writer Dan Koeppel’s personal 16.2-mile stair hike — comprising 4,182 steps, with a 7,445-foot elevation gain.

The walk hopscotches up and down a matrix of city-owned steps around Silver Lake and Echo Park, just north of downtown Los Angeles, and offers up dazzling overlooks of East Los Angeles, Griffith Park Observatory, the Hollywood sign, the Silver Lake Reservoir and downtown Los Angeles. The overall effect is a little like taking a local historical garden tour while going full throttle on a StairMaster.

The city-owned concrete steps scattered across Silver Lake and Echo Park today were built mostly in the mid-1920s as developers began to build upward into the hills, says Bob Herzog, co-chairman of the Silver Lake History Collective and a self-proclaimed “stair nut.” They lead down to former transit points for the storied Red Cars of the Pacific Electric Railway, a onetime network of rail lines and streetcars.

Some of the stairs have been removed, but many still remain on steep hillsides, flanked by vintage bungalows housing hardy folks willing to haul trash and groceries up and down as many as 200 steps. Some of the stairs are chronicled in the 1990 book by co-authors Adah Bakalinsky and Los Angeles Times reporter Larry Gordon. The Echo Park Historical Society offers tours of them.

The stairs have a devoted following of regular hikers, such as Silver Lake resident Charles Fleming, 52, a freelance book writer who takes friends along on monthly hikes. “The stairs give you a backyard view of the city that you don’t get from freeways and main arteries,” he says. “I’ve walked through areas where people are raising chickens and roosters and neighborhoods with artfully done tile or statuary or landscaping. You’d have no way of seeing that if you weren’t on a public staircase.”

Five years ago, Koeppel, who moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1991, began threading the stairs into a heart-pounding hike. As of this year, he has created something of a masterpiece: an intricate, winding trek through back alleys and small residential streets, exposing layers of the city’s history like the rings of a tree.

On a recent day he was escorting a small group of white-collar weekend warriors ages 32 to 65 up the first of the staircases. Their eventual goal: traverse the entire route, all 4,182 steps. The trek quickly revealed that this is not a hike for sissies. In fact, the elevation gain is 1,300 feet more than the gain between Whitney Portal — the trail head where most Mt. Whitney hikers begin — at 8,360 feet, and the summit at 14,505 feet.

But the terrific scenery and botanical display — agave, jade and other succulents, lemon trees, bougainvillea, night-blooming jasmine, and a smorgasbord of palm trees — gooses the hiker onward, even as the body cries out for mercy.

It was easy to see how the stairs became a preoccupation for Koeppel, a freelance writer and the author of “To See Every Bird on Earth” and “Banana.” In 2003, while training for a hike up Mt. Whitney and with writing deadlines looming, Koeppel gazed up the “Music Box” steps and grasped the possibilities.

“I was writing this book about my dad, and I was so stressed that I needed something I could do right out my door,” he says. A silent movie fan, Koeppel knew the history of the stairs and decided to create a little route.

“The first route was maybe six staircases, two or three miles,” he says — encompassing Griffith Park Boulevard to the west, Silver Lake Boulevard to the east, and the northern edge of the Silver Lake Reservoir.

Then, while casing out more of Silver Lake, he noticed more stairs — and then more — and decided to try to string them together. “I really just wanted to do a longer route,” he says.

Over the next two years, Koeppel began methodically hunting for stairs in his neighborhood and then beyond. He consulted walking guides, the Thomas Guide, two GPS systems, topographic software and websites offering interactive topographic data.

“I worked from the south,” he says, starting with the “Music Box” stairs “and added stairs as I explored northward, then expanded eastward (crossing the reservoir), then further east [into Echo Park], then turned the whole thing into a single route.”

He collected stairs with a singular passion, the way someone else might collect rare coins. He came by his extreme focus honestly, he says. His father, Richard Koeppel, is a world-class birder who has obsessively logged more than 7,000 sightings of birds over his lifetime.

Dan Koeppel continues to nurture the route, adding more staircases as he finds them and shortening it when he finds shortcuts, all while respecting The Rules. Ah, The Rules. Koeppel has refined a set of quirky regulations to accompany the hike: The route must not repeat a set of stairs, and stairs must be traversed only one way. No searching out new stairs in a car or asking mail carriers for directions. “That’s like asking a math professor to do your math homework,” he says.

Koeppel tries to do portions of the walk two or three times a week, and in the last few years an eclectic band of his friends and acquaintances has taken up the walk as well.

He still gets a thrill discovering stairs. “I found a new one in Silver Lake just a few months ago,” he reports. “There’s always one waiting to be found.”

Step-by-step directions for the route are available at homepage.mac.com/discovolonte/stairs/, but keep in mind that there are not always street signs or house numbers along the route, so it’s easy to get lost.

“People need to see this as an adventure,” Koeppel says, “and not like they’re getting poor customer service.”

janet.cromley@latimes.com

Allthestairs

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