facebook pixel

Paths with a purpose

A new path is added to the 140 walkways that meander around the Berkeley hills.

by on August 07, 2012

Members of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association construct the newest path, La Loma. Photo by Colleen Neff.
Members of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association construct the newest path, La Loma. Photo by Colleen Neff.

On Sunday, La Loma Path was added to the network of approximately 140 walkways that meander between houses and streets in the Berkeley hills.

The network of green passageways make a perfect outing when there’s no time to head to Tilden or Wildcat Canyon. The bramble of unruly plants are refreshingly wild compared to the pruned shrubbery and disciplined yard plants that typically characterize suburban topography. August is when blackberries reign supreme, a tasty treat for the pathway adventurer.

La Loma is the latest addition to the network, which was developed at the turn of the nineteenth century and has been slowly expanding since 1998 with the efforts of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association.

“We are really trying to encourage people to use them as green space,” says association president Keith Skinner.

A path revival
To do so, they have been creating new paths that were penciled into original city plans but never constructed, reviving some of the moribund paths, and, in their spare time, organizing hikes through the ivy-strewn corridors.

“We always think strategically when considering paths for development in terms of the benefit they deliver to walkers and the neighborhood,” Skinner said.

La Loma is the newest path to be added to the network. Photo by Alicia Freese.

The BPWA selected La Loma as its next project because it would link pedestrians from Selby Trail in Tilden Park to Glendale-La Loma Park.  La Loma consists of 161 wood tie steps, salvaged from a disassembled railroad, and connects Glendale Avenue to Campus Drive.  It is the 30th path built by the BPWA.

The blueprints for more than a dozen other plans will likely never been realized because of engineering challenges, as well as geological and man-made obstructions

The paths, which are public property, are clustered in Berkeley’s hillier neighborhoods; Northbrae and Thousand Oaks have the highest concentrations.  Nearly all of them are labeled with street signs, and some are paved for public safety. Their canopies of tangled overgrowth blot out sunlight and, momentarily, the aura of suburbia.

At one point, the BPWA experimented with planting native plants along the paths, but blackberries and ivy soon overtook them and since then, it’s let nature do its own landscape architecture.  As a result, the paths have a distinctly feral quality to them, though the feeling is sometimes interrupted by an occasional discarded garden implement or rogue lily plant, reminding you that civilization is just over the fence.

“It was serendipity that these paths developed into a park-like experience,” said Paul Grunland, a member of the Berkeley Historical Society who studies the paths.

Earthquake’s aftermath
The 1906 earthquake sparked an exodus of San Francisco residents to the East Bay, causing housing developments to encroach upon the hills.  Rather than follow the San Francisco model and stamp a grid system onto steep terrain, developers created streets parallel to the contours of hills.  This layout, though aesthetically pleasing, would have been cumbersome to navigate on foot.

To address this, one of the primary engineers, Charles Huggins, designed a series of pathways that allowed pedestrians to traverse the winding streets, creating a more direct route to the trains and streetcars that transported commuters into San Francisco. The advent of the automobile changed all that.

“Soon everyone had a car and the paths became obsolete,” Grunland said.

It’s possible the pathways would have remained derelict relics of a pre-automobile era had another natural catastrophe not revealed a different purpose for them.

The Wildcat Path. Photo by Colleen Neff.

In 1991, the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire ravaged 1,520 acres and claimed 25 lives and 3,200 residences.  It quickly became evident that the paths could serve as both escape routes for residents and as access points for firefighters, where downed power lines and other debris had obstructed many of the streets.
For instance, fire department records recount running 2,500 feet of hoselay along Eucalyptus Path, which runs behind the Claremont Hotel, linking Alvarado Place to Alvarado Road, to reach houses made inaccessible by obstructions in the street.

In many cases, though, the paths were too overgrown and derelict to be fully capitalized on, which prompted the city of Berkeley to commission a private company to outline the improvements necessary to make the pathways more functional as alternate routes in the event of another natural disaster.  The consultants proposed a plan for path renovation that called for a liberal quantity of concrete and came with a prohibitive price tag.

“The city didn’t buy it,” Skinner says.

A new vision
The Berkeley Path Wanderers Association put forth a different vision for renovation of the paths, one that could be carried within a more modest budget.  Using salvaged wood ties from railroads to build steps, they implemented a “rustic path” concept that made the paths walkable again but reduced the need for concrete.  They have also distributed paper copies of the pathways map to fire department officials and Skinner worked with a GIS analyst to incorporate the paths into a GIS model, making it possible for the city to map hypothetical pedestrian escape routes in the event of another natural disaster.

“People have found a higher purpose for the paths,” said Grunland.

If you’re interested in a guided walk through the paths, the BPWA hosts quite a number of events, including some unexpected themes, such as “Poetry on the Paths” and “Hula and Hike.”  Or check out the group’s list of self-guided hikes. And maps of the paths are also available.

Acacia Walk. Photo by Keith Skinner.

See more articles in: Recreation, Urban Nature

Most recent in Recreation

See all stories in Recreation


Charlie Bowen on August 7th, 2012 at 7:59 pm

One small point: the wood-ties used for the Berkeley paths are almost all milled from eucalyptus trees cut in urban areas or the nearby East Bay Regional Parks. Eucalyptus is quite rot-resistant, fortunately, so no chemical treatments are used on the steps.
The mill is Greenwaste Recycle Yard & Millworks, on Garden Tract Rd just off Richmond Parkway.

Steven on August 9th, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Despite the considerable and admirable work of the Pathwanderers on La Loma Path, I can’t
help but think that their efforts were wasted.

La Loma Path is entirely unnecessary. Nearby Glendale Avenue provides a sidewalk, much safer and less steep. La Loma Path does not link to other paths as the Pasthwanderers claim, since it requires a detour from Glendale Avenue on the trip up, or Glendale Path on the trip down. La Loma Path has been useable for months, but virtually no one does use it, preferring Glendale Avenue.

As recreation, La Loma Path may have been fun to build, but it suffers from a host of defects, many described and depicted by the Berkeley Path Network at berkeleypaths.net. For example, the upper stairs are already leaning and creaking, the wooden handrails at the top do not match, there are dozens of protruding tips from the metal tread supports, and the path is crossed in two places by a creek with nothing more than boards resting on mud in an attempt to guide the water across the path. There is a lot of work yet to be done to bring La Loma Path up to even minimal city standards.

There are many other Pathwanderer paths that do provide valuable access that require urgent attention. While the Pathwanderers’ commitment to developing La Loma Path may be commendable, their energies would be much better spent on the perhaps less glamorous upgrading and maintenance of existing paths.

Richard on August 9th, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Can’t wait for the first injury on the path! Or the first shyster who realizes that he can make a whole lot of dough when he realizes that the new paths are not handicapped accessible!

“Enjoyment for all” my rear!

Jay on August 11th, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Eagerly looking forward to the first lawsuit!

Will it be someone falling on the shoddily constructed paths, or will it be an ADA suit?

Wondering if they’re taking bets in Vegas!

Verena Scherer on February 15th, 2013 at 11:54 am

I’m a Brit new to the area. I come from a family history of Wanderers Association keeping paths open. Walked down to Berkeley Campus using phone ap. found the La Loma steps on the way back up YAY! Loved getting away from the cars, this will now be my regular route and I will introduce visitors.

Dan Rademacher on February 15th, 2013 at 2:57 pm

That’s great, Verena! Oakland has great urban paths too. Check out .

Leave a Comment





Bay Nature