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Stairway Walks Reveal Some of Seattle's Hidden Spaces

There’s the Seattle you see on a map, criss-crossed with roads and transit lines, and there’s a kind of parallel grid of shortcuts and forgotten byways: the staircases. Venturing through Seattle’s stairways can give you a fresh point of view on the city, a new appreciation for our urban topography, and one heck of a thigh workout.

That’s where Cathy and Jake Jaramillo make their discoveries. Stairs “take you into hillier terrain, into the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods. You can see things you wouldn’t see otherwise,” Jake said.

The husband-and-wife team has published a book of 21 “Seattle Stairway Walks,” and they lead occasional tours. For me, they chose a winding route—372 steps up and 569 steps down—through the Mount Baker neighborhood.

We began atop the stone steps of the Dose Terrace staircase, which plunges straight down from the hilltop to the shores of Lake Washington in 138 stairs. The same trip by car would require a full one-mile detour. The route hooks into the Olmsted-designed Colman Park, where terraced timber stairs glide past gardens and tall trees. Jake and Cathy pause at the frog pond, which is really a drainage structure.

“One of the things about stairways is just the infrastructure. You would walk by and not even think about, 'Oh, that pond, what is it? Why is it there?'” Cathy said.

Roads and sidewalks, after all, often skirt and hide a city’s inner machinery. Stairways cut right into the workings.

We ascend to Bradner Gardens Park, where gardeners have reclaimed derelict land, and even the public bathroom—clad in vivid mosaic of broken tile and funky old plates—is a public-art gem.

From there, you sweep back down a wooded staircase, where leafy curtains occasionally pull back to reveal glimpses of Lake Washington. And that’s the inherent drama of the stairway, constantly hiding, then revealing just moments later.

“You can see, I don’t know, a couple hundred yards downs the street. But with stairways, you don’t have that length of view. So there’s a lot more mystery to walking on the stairs, and that makes it fun,” said Jake.

As a geologist might study a crack in the earth, probing its strata, stairways cut into the city to reveal layers of history, nature, design. A walk on the stairs is a trip into the guts of Seattle. All you have to do is walk and look.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.