Paths Less Taken: The Hidden Footpaths of Berkeley

In Berkeley, CA, hundreds of secret paths wind through the residential neighborhoods of Berkeley Hills. Left: Wooden blocks form a rural staircase on one of the city’s hidden paths. Center: Trees form a natural arch over Vine Street Path, which cuts through a residential neighborhood. Right: Man-made stone stairs allow easy pedestrian access on the Tamalpais Trail, kept in place by iron rods drilled 3 feet into the ground (Rachel Lin)

here’s a secret at the corner of The Alameda and Solano Avenue in Berkeley, California.

To the naked eye, it’s just like any other street corner; there’s a Middle Eastern organic kitchen, a taqueria, a video rental store — even a Chase Bank. You might never guess that if you walk three blocks east, up the length of a concrete path between two unassuming houses, you’d eventually end up in a vast, open space adorned by the natural forestry of Berkeley’s Indian Rock Park.

Stairs engraved on Indian Rock allow for pedestrians to easily climb to the top of the 50 foot boulder, giving them a view of the San Francisco skyline. (Rachel Lin)

Berkeley’s Indian Rock Path is one of over a hundred public pathways which connect urban or residential areas to more remote natural locations. The collection of footpaths which intertwine around the developed and undeveloped areas of Berkeley are known collectively as the Berkeley paths.

The Berkeley paths consist of a network of 136 public access walkways which stretch across the city limits of Berkeley and into some parts of Oakland. Some paths weave throughout condensed residential areas, while others unfurl into remote nature trails. The Berkeley paths are maintained almost entirely on a volunteer basis, the primary upkeep being facilitated by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. The paths, which were originally conceived as an alternative to vehicular transportation, are used these days by Berkeley residents as pedestrian shortcuts and recreational footpaths.

According to the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, the extensive network of pathways was gradually brought about by land development in the Berkeley Hills during the early 20th century. At a time when public infrastructure in Berkeley was still relatively primitive, early land developers struggled with the matter of making hill residences accessible to those without personal transportation such as horses or cars. When confronted with the labyrinthine network of streets produced by the hillside terrain, the City of Berkeley introduced the pathways as a pedestrian shortcut for residents, providing a direct channel from their homes to streetcar and rail lines.

As personal transportation grew more sophisticated and residents began buying their own vehicles, the paths came to be used in a more recreational context. Of course, the paths still serve as a precautionary measure — they provide a quick pedestrian evacuation route in case of a natural disaster or emergency, as proved crucial during the Oakland firestorm of 1991. For the most part, however, most residents explore the paths as a means of taking in leisure and exercise among nature, far from hectic city streets.

Right: Iron sign in front of the entrance to Vine Street Path. Whereas most paths do not feature a sign, Vine Street Path makes itself very explicit. Center: Michael Finn climbs the backside of Indian Rock without rope. The 50 ft rock is featured on Indian Rock Path and attracts climbers and pedestrians alike. Right: A secluded bench located on Tamalpais Path offers a quiet place for pedestrians to sit and take in the forest scenery. (Rachel Lin)
Left: El Mirador Path hidden between two houses. The path blends into the houses. Center: A bus stops in front of Redwood Path. Buses offer pedestrians who don’t have cars a way to access paths. There is a bus stop located on many of the Berkeley Paths. Right: The steps of El Mirador are maintained and allow for easy access up through the hills into an adjacent neighborhood. (Rachel Lin)
Redwood Path offers no sign or indication that a path exists. Although, the paved road seems to be a residential driveway, the road is a part of the Berkeley Paths. (Rachel Lin)

The Berkeley paths attract hikers, runners, and families alike. The 136 paths vary from short passageways between residential homes to steep climbs in near-wilderness.

“I come out on Tamalpais [Path] at least once a week,” said Berkeley resident Roger Lansbury, 68. “The hills generally can be kind of steep, so it’s a great way to get outdoors and get your blood pumping. Sometimes, some weekends I’ll bring my grandkids out here because they love going down the cement slide in the park.”

The Berkeley paths are primarily maintained by a volunteer organization called the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, which works closely with the City of Berkeley to ensure that the pathways are clean and accessible. The group is largely composed of residents of the Berkeley Hills, many of whom are retirees well into their sixties and seventies. Although they are sometimes assisted by fraternities from UC Berkeley, Girl Scout or Boy Scout troops, or other volunteer organizations, the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association often works independently.

On a typical path clean-up, volunteers wield their garden shears against overgrown brush or foliage, clearing ivy, blackberry bushes, and other greenery from the walkway. More intensive repair days call for the construction or restoration of concrete steps or handrails, which are both physically and financially taxing.

“When you’re adding to the city, you’re not just cleaning up a mess.”

Left: Greg, 69 along with other path members, clear away wild brush that obscures pedestrian access to the paths. Center: Paul, 65 carries a bag made out of recycled cardboard carrying plant debris to the street corner. The bag will be picked up by the city and taken to compost. Right: Elsa, 63, carries more plant debris out of the pathway after trimming the overgrown brush. (Rachel Lin)

Even more difficult than maintaining the existing paths is constructing new pathways. There are approximately 22 paths left to be constructed in Berkeley, and each one requires discussion with neighbors and the completion of surveys by the city.

“Private” sign posted on a gate entrance to a path. Some locals who live adjacent to the paths try to deter public access by posting misleading signs. Despite the misconception, the paths are public property. (Rachel Lin)

As if clearing wilderness and constructing concrete staircases weren’t enough of a challenge, neighbors often encroach on paths, sparking legal contentions over the boundaries of city property. The process of building a new path can take months, but the work is supposedly rewarding.

“What I love about it is… actually doing something in the City of Berkeley. When you’re adding to the city, you’re not just cleaning up a mess,” said Berkeley Path Wanderers Association president Colleen Neff. “You’re not picking up trash, you’re not doing something that you’re never going to actually see the positive impact of — you’re building things. And they’re going to be there for years.”

The paths that are built and maintained by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association are city property, which means that they are necessarily public access. Although neighbors occasionally encroach on city property by overextending private fences or garages, it remains a priority both to the city and to the BPWA that the paths be open to all.

Path entrance to Moss Wood Lane is hidden behind houses and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge as it meanders through the neighborhood. (Rachel Lin)

“…you walk up onto a path and all of a sudden, it’s leafy and it’s green and it’s quiet, and the noisy street is behind you.”

“It’s so important in a community to have neighbors reaching out to other neighbors, and to have everyone in the city have access to different neighborhoods,” said Neff. “It’s so much nicer than walking on a sidewalk, to be able to walk and go, ‘oh, here’s a path’, and you walk up onto a path and all of a sudden, it’s leafy and it’s green and it’s quiet, and the noisy street is behind you. You’re walking up into the woods and into nature and there’s birds, there’s gardens.”

For those who know of them, the Berkeley paths provide an escape route from the stresses of tumultuous city life. Climbing into the wilderness, the hum of traffic and sirens fades away, and as the winds blow through the leaves, explorers might remark to themselves that while some treasures are found off the beaten path, the path itself might not be such a raw deal after all.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Bridge atop the peak of Indian Rock. The rock is about 50ft in size and attracts a diverse group of people. From rock climbers, to tourists, to locals alike, many come to this path to hang out on the giant rock. (Rachel Lin)

Amanda Ramirez (Video)
Rachel Lin (Photography)
Xun Jiang (Infographic)
Anya Mansoor (Writing)