SEATTLE - Public stairwells can seem alluring and mysterious, leading you up or down, but to where? To what? Jake and Cathy Jaramillo want to know. They always want to know. Their romantic view of stairways has led them to tread on most of the 507 public stairways around Seattle - and they've strayed onto a few privately owned ones as well.
They walk city streets like a couple house hunting, looking up at street signs and checking them with maps.
What is the reward for finding a stairway?
It can lead to a sweeping view of Lake Washington (from stairs at the corner of South Cooper Street and Arrowsmith Avenue South in Rainier Beach). Or a view of Mount Baker (at the corner of Crockett Street and Taylor Avenue North). Or the reward is the stairwell itself (the Art Deco and Gothic-esque Wilcox Wall along Eighth Avenue West and Eighth Place West on Queen Anne Hill).
"Stairs are like scenic byways into the neighborhoods," said Jaramillo, co-author with his wife of a new pocket guide, "Seattle Stairway Walks: An Up-and-Down Guide to City Neighborhoods," just published by The Mountaineers Books. "You get great views and small moments of serendipity. You get a pocket park or a work of art that is done by somebody in the neighborhood. You learn about their stories."
What to make of the Jaramillos? Stair geeks? Stair masters?
The retired couple moved from Los Angeles 12 years ago, wandering Seattle neighborhoods, taking in magnificent views around upper Queen Anne, canyons such as Ravenna Ravine, and bodies of water such as Lake Union. What did all these sights have in common? The couple got to them by taking stairs.
"Seattle is a city of stairs," said Jaramillo, who also leads backpacking trips for the Sierra Club during the summer.
They discovered that neighborhood stairways connect to parks and greenways, ponds and creeks and sites with mountain views. Seattle has some of the most complicated and beautiful urban topography, he said.
In part it's the legacy of John C. Olmsted, who in1903 designed a park system integrating greenways, playgrounds, open space and scenic views into the urban landscape.
The couple got the idea for a stairway guide, while - what else? - climbing a stairway.
In the fall of 2008, they drove north on 15th Avenue to Ballard and saw some steps up the western slope of Queen Anne. Upon climbing these Wheeler Street stairs, "We were blown away by the view toward Magnolia and right there, the idea of doing a book of stairway walks popped into our heads," he said.
They strung together 1- to 4-mile neighborhood walks centering on public stairways, using a Thomas Guide and, later,
maps and neighborhood websites.
Their book features 25 scenic routes - 22 in Seattle and three in the surrounding area.
Climbing Queen AnneThe Queen Anne hike where they had their epiphany starts at the corner of West Boston Street and 13th Avenue West. It takes you down 308 steps and up 216 steps along a three-mile route that includes views of Fishermen's Terminal to the north and a stop at Rachel's Playground.
Each plotted route in the guide includes informational tidbits (e.g., Rachel's Playground was named for 6-year-old Rachel Pearson, who died in the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash on Jan. 31, 2000; she used to play in this park).
Every stairway walk brings a discovery - a funky decorated mailbox, a hidden park trail. And then there are the seasons. In April, the route around Wahkiakum Lane Stairway at the University of Washington Quad is framed with blooming pink Yoshino cherry trees.
In winter, the roar of the rushing water through Deadhorse Canyon greets your climb in Rainier Beach. "You might not recognize it as the same creek at the height of the dry summer season, when it runs much more quietly," Jaramillo said.
Recently, we strolled around West Seattle, near their home, a 3.5-mile walk that includes four long stairways. We started on the main drag of California Avenue Southwest, in the Fauntleroy-Morgan Junction area, and dodged into narrow lanes and alleys to Thistle Stairway, the second-longest set of stairs in Seattle, with 360 steps.
That led to a stone astrolabe and a community garden. Then we crossed the street to Lincoln Park, taking the North Beach Trail, 128 stair steps down, to a bluff overlooking Blake Island. You can see seals from here, the couple said.
We circled back toward Lowman Beach Park, climbing 69 steps up the hidden Beveridge stairways and strolling back to our starting point.
"If you don't walk it, you just miss all these treasures," Jaramillo said.
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