Distance: 3.5 miles
Duration: 1½ hours
Difficulty: 2.5 (on a 1-5 scale)
Transportation: Metro bus No. 45, 83, 84
This is an unexpectedly bucolic walk through city-center neighborhoods unknown even to most Los Angeles natives, offering great downtown views and unlikely encounters with nature and history.
Begin this walk on North Broadway, near the entrance to "Old Chinatown" at 951 N. Broadway. (Metered street parking is abundant, and it's free on Sundays.) Enter the gaudy, colorful Old Chinatown — in reality, it is the new Chinatown, built in 1938 and incorporating "Chinese" sets donated by Cecil B. DeMille; the original Chinatown was destroyed to make way for Union Station. Then walk from Broadway to Hill Street, admiring the shops where Chinese clothing, artworks and ceramics are sold. When you get to Hill, turn right and walk out of Chinatown, heading north toward the on-ramp for the 110 (Pasadena) Freeway.
Just past the on-ramp, bear slightly right, then turn left onto Cottage Home Street. Walk straight on as the street climbs slightly, under a lane of handsome crepe myrtle trees. On your right is the huge property belonging to the combined St. Bridget's Catholic Church and Cathedral High School, a Christian Brothers preparatory school operated for underprivileged boys since 1925. (The football field, just out of sight, says "Cathedral" on one end and "Phantoms" on the other, because the school was built on the site of an old cemetery. The mascot is a spooky skeleton in a shroud.)
Follow the road as it turns the corner and descends down Bishops Road. (A bishop did live here, long ago.) Just at the entrance to the school, cross Bishops and turn left, and begin walking up the sidewalk on Stadium Way. After a short distance, you'll see a sign reading "Radio Hill." Turn right here, and begin climbing a wide paved roadway.
You rise up under enormous old eucalyptus trees, gaining increasingly dramatic views of the downtown skyline to the south and landmarks like the Twin Towers jail and Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center to the southeast. Closer at hand, directly below, are the Gold Line light-rail tracks, heading for Pasadena, and the "Cornfields," a.k.a. Los Angeles State Historic Park.
Climb on. The city noise dims as the greenery thickens. When you come to a fork in the road, bear left and climb some more. At the top of the hill to the left is the massive radio tower that gives Radio Hill its name. To the right is tiny Butterfly Park, where helpful signs, defaced by spray paint, inform you that the trees and shrubs you've been appreciating include Western redbud, Monterey ceonthus, autumn sage and scrub oak. At the end of the park are views of the roaring 110 Freeway below and Dodger Stadium above.
Return to the paved roadway and descend to the fork in the road. Turn left again and follow the roadway as it winds around Radio Hill. (Watch for birds here. I had a very close view recently of a massive red-tailed hawk, sitting on a branch, munching on some fresh prey and only slightly disturbed by my presence.)
In time, the paved roadway meets a wide gate. Pass this, then cross Amador Street and pass another wide gate as the paved roadway continues. Cross under an overhang of craggy trees until you are almost on top of the 110 Freeway, then descend to meet Solano Avenue. Note a sad Cold War relic overhead — an air raid siren once used to alert paranoid residents to an impending nuclear strike. (The sirens used to be tested at 10 a.m. on the last Friday of every month but were decommissioned in 1986 and have remained quiet since. There are about 150 of the silent sentinels still standing in Los Angeles.)
Cross Solano, and walk a short bit to the left, toward the noisy 110. A few feet ahead, you'll find a relative anomaly — a pedestrian walkway going under the freeway. This is a remnant of the old "subway" system, one of a handful of pedestrian underpasses that in most cases were designed to help schoolchildren take a safe shortcut to school.
On the other side, bear right and walk 50 feet to see the school in question — Solano Avenue Elementary. If you want to see another L.A. rarity, at this point you could take a hard hairpin right at the top of the subway stairs and take another staircase that rises to a narrow pedestrian walkway that runs from Chinatown north into Frogtown, in the divide between the northbound and southbound sides of the 110. It's a dirty, polluted walkway, and as far as I know is the only one like it in the city.
But if you don't seek that noisy diversion, turn right just before the school, and climb two sets of stairs to Academy Road. Turn left, and follow Academy a block to the corner of Jarvis Street. Look to the right, and climb a public staircase up to a short but steep pathway that rises to Park Row Drive.
To the left, Park Row climbs farther into Elysian Park and eventually leads around to the Los Angeles Police Department's main training facility — the "academy" of Academy Road. But today take a right, and walk downhill to a wide bridge that crosses both sides of the 110 Freeway.
On the other side, bear left as Park Row divides from Buena Vista Drive. Follow the paved portion of Buena Vista to a cul-de-sac parking lot. Find a paved path just to the left of the handicapped parking spot, and follow this down the hill to an informational plaque concerning early irrigation systems that brought water from the L.A. River to the area's early settlers. Just to the left of this plaque, find a dirt path that drops downhill onto a wide grassy hillside.
Follow the shoulder of the hillside to the left, and aim for a set of public stairs descending to a paved road. Turn left onto the road, and continue until you see another set of stairs on the left. Across the road from this, take the paved path that wanders down to the right. Follow the path as it zigzags downhill to land eventually on North Broadway.
You're standing now at the base of the Portola Trail, named for Don Gaspar de Portola, a Spanish explorer, soldier and, late in his life, governor of Baja and Alta California. Turn right where the trail meets North Broadway, and begin the walk back to Chinatown. Along the way, don't miss two important houses of worship. The first is the temple of the Xuan Wusan Buddhist Assn., a small, incense-scented hall. (This must be a very revered site. I saw two drivers honk and slow down on North Broadway, their palms pressed together in prayer as they drove past.)
Further on, at 1051 N. Broadway, are St. Peter's Italian Catholic Church and Casa Italiana, two remnants of the once-thriving Italian community in the area. St. Peter's hosts regular Sunday Mass, and Casa Italiana hosts Italian opera. The hall celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and offers dinner and opera for $50.
Continue down North Broadway. When you have passed Bernard Street, you are back in Chinatown — and at your starting point.
Fleming is the author of "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles" and "Secret Stairs East Bay: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments and suggestions for future walks. Read the growing collection of walks at latimes.com/health.