Noe Valley Voice September 1998

Go Climb a Hill!

By Jim Christie

September is going to be my "Spare the Legs Month."

How come? Well, after three days of scaling all the neighborhood's hills,
I need a break. My calves are rippled with fist-sized knots, my Achilles tendons are twanging like guitar strings, and my quads are quivering like kumquats. (Yes, kumquats quiver just before they're plucked.)

I'm also dizzy, dehydrated, sunburned, and out of breath, and my back has the flexibility of a steel plate. Otherwise, I feel fine.

You too can feel fine. Just go climb these great hills of Noe Valley.


The Steepest: 22nd Street from Church to Sanchez

The steepest climb in Noe Valley is only two blocks long, but be forewarned: This is where time and distance can be distorted. This is where the phrase "sucking wind" was first uttered by some intrepid climber, now deceased. This is where traffic flows one-way downhill because there isn't an automobile clutch in America that can survive the ascent.

But don't let hyperbole scare you. The good news is 22nd Street has steps on its steepest part. If you tire, or even if you don't, stop halfway up the hill at Vicksburg Street, turn around, and enjoy the spectacular views. Potrero Hill lies directly to the east, and the Bay Bridge to the north. When you're rested, continue up toward the three-pronged mast of Sutro Tower floating in the clouds. Check out the house at 3676 22nd St. Many Noe Valleons claim that their homes are built on bedrock. Here's one that can prove it.

Start: 22nd and Church. Summit: 22nd and Sanchez.

Alternative Highs: Two other good climbs wind up on the Sanchez summit.

1) Hike up Sanchez from 24th to 21st Street. When you reach the top, admire the Tudor mansion once owned by San Francisco Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph.

2) From Church Street, ascend either Hill or 21st Street instead of 22nd. Both streets have nice houses, gardens, and views, and will bring you huffing and puffing to Sunny Jim's house.

Secret Vice: One of my favorite things to do with out-of-town guests is to drive them down 22nd from Sanchez, and punch the gas pedal at the crest. (Warning: Don't do this after a meal.)

Calf-crunchingest: 29th Street

from Noe to Diamond

If you've ever tried to imagine the G-forces astronauts experience upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere, this climb's for you. The first part -- 29th Street from Noe to Castro -- is relatively easy, and you'll see luxuriant flower boxes at 531 29th, and a startling mannequin in the window of 587 29th.

But after you cross Castro, take a deep breath. Halfway up the next block you'll feel as if your legs have sunk into wet cement and the sidewalk is inches from your face. If you need to rest, turn left into the peaceful cul-de-sac formed by Zircon Place, or pick some blackberries from the bushes on the north side of 29th Street. Scan the panoramic view of Bernal Hill and the Bay beyond.

Start: 29th and Noe. Summit: 29th and Diamond.

Alternative High: Here's a fun nearby route: Climb Valley Street (one block north of 29th) until it dead-ends. Then take the stairs up to Diamond. You'll find beautifully landscaped median strips along the upper part of Valley.


Longest: Clipper Street from Castro to Portola Drive

Clipper is a popular cross-town traffic route, so you'll enjoy this climb more during non-rush hours. The stretch from Castro and Douglass boasts some of the most colorful houses in Noe Valley. I like the rainbow-painted house at 521 Clipper, and was surprised by its Lilliputian garage. (A closer look showed that the apparent small size was an optical illusion.)

Above Douglass Street, walk on the right side of Clipper, which has a paved sidewalk part of the way. The Clipper Arms Apartments have been undergoing a massive facelift, but just past the construction is a long stretch of great downtown views. After Clipper Terrace, the path is unpaved and single-file to the top.

Start: Clipper and Castro. Summit: Clipper and Portola Drive. For stunning views of Noe Valley and the city, turn right on Portola/Upper Market and walk to the traffic turnout on the right.


Hairiest: The Harry Street Stairs

Thanks to El Niño, there's one climb, on the border of Noe Valley and Glen Park, where hikers can feel transported to an Asian jungle. It's Harry Street (also known as the Harry Stairs), a mostly wooden stairway ascending from Laidley to Beacon Street. As you venture up the Harry steps, you'll be enveloped by a forest of towering banana trees, vines and creepers, thick leathery palm leaves, exotic flowers, snakes, and monitor lizards. (Just kidding about the latter, but it feels like there should be reptiles here.)

The climb is steep, but there are handrails most of the way. Harry Street also has some charming houses, including a Hansel and Gretel cottage, tucked away in the dense foliage. (Bring a machete.) It must be nice to live at this fairy-tale address, but I don't envy Harry Street's mail carrier or appliance delivery people.

Start: To warm up, begin at the corner of 30th Street and Harper (between Noe and Sanchez streets). Walk up Harper's two blocks and cross Laidley. The Harry Street Stairs begin to the right of 100 Laidley.

Summit: After 241 steps, you'll emerge at Beacon Street. To cool off, turn left and follow Beacon as it curves down to Miguel. Then turn left where Miguel plummets back to Laidley. Turn left on Laidley and stroll back to Harper. You'll see at least a dozen unusual houses on this loop, including the famous "Owl" house designed by architect Jeremy Kotas (140 Laidley), and the pink and purple Victorian mansion associated with San Francisco madam Mary Ellen Pleasant (196 Laidley).


Toughest: 28th Street from Sanchez to Douglass

Ah, 28th Street. If you know of a more exhausting sustained climb in Noe Valley, let me know (so I can avoid it). You'll want to rest early and often while making your assault on this mountain.

Take five while you gaze at the house at 520 28th St. -- the one with the giant letters spelling out "Holly Rock." Holly Rock has two private stairways ascending through terraced succulents, and the house itself is perched on a brick and stonework battlement. The grounds are lavishly decorated at Christmas, so you might want to wait till after Thanksgiving before scaling this hill.

Also check out the house next door at 530 28th St. It has a funicular for the delivery of supplies. (Harry Street residents, take note.)

In the intersection at Diamond and 28th, there's the outline of an old cable car turnaround. By the time you reach 635 28th, you might not appreciate the smiling face of the potbellied Buddha statue out front. Push on, though. Douglass Street is a crisp, green haven.

Start: 28th and Sanchez. Summit: 28th and Douglass. To relax, stroll down two blocks to Douglass Park, or another two blocks to Douglass Playground.

Alternative High: There's a shorter but ultimately steeper climb that ends one block over from 28th: Start at 26th and Castro, and proceed uphill as Castro curves into Newburg, which merges with Duncan Street. Climb the grueling 700 block of Duncan (second steepest in Noe Valley) up to Douglass. One block more and you're crossing Diamond Heights Boulevard. And hey, you're in the suburbs!


I also surveyed three other hills last month. You might want to try these climbs too:

The Castro Hill: Begin at 24th and Castro streets, and walk over the Castro Street Hill to the Castro District. Turn left at 18th Street and then left on Collingwood for the return jaunt to Noe Valley. By all means, go see a movie at the Castro Theater first.

Billy Goat Hill: Begin at Noe and 30th streets, head up 30th, then take the dirt trail straight up Goat Hill until you reach the eucalyptus trees near the summit. Sit on a rock and contemplate when all of Noe Valley was pastureland.

Grand View: Start at Douglass and 24th (or Elizabeth or 23rd) and climb to Grand View Avenue. Turn around, peer down into Noe Valley, and say, "Some day this will be MINE, all MINE!"


In September you won't find me on any of these inclines. During my "Spare the Legs Month," I'll be walking to and from 24th Street along my favorite "flat" route: Church Street.

But you probably need to experience the peaks of Noe Valley for yourself, right? So have fun and go climb a hill!

Voice staffer Jim Christie walked up and down all the hills mentioned in this story during a three-day stint in mid-August. Next, he plans to do a feature on places to nap in Noe Valley.