I'm fascinated by the Baldwin Hills Stairs ... it may be because I read somewhere that they're big enough to be seen from space. I also love what they represent: an epic opportunity to get outdoors and work up a sweat right in the middle of our big, sprawling, concrete-bound metropolis -- totally free and accessible to everyone.
The straight-up-shot of 282 steps leading to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook is challenging to say the least: they're giant and uneven, and many steps are much taller than typical stairs. But the 360-degree views of Los Angeles at the top are quite stunning. And I find a great deal of satisfaction in taking the steep climb to get there instead of the alternative zig-zagging dirt path. However, if you have prematurely old lady knees like I do, you might want to take the trail back down to the bottom rather than make such a high-impact descent down those very steep stairs. This will also give you a chance to slow down and enjoy the sights and scents of native plants, critters, and insects without fear of being trampled by an overzealous climber.
Directly north of the stairway lies the Hayden Tract, one of my favorite pockets of Culver City. The formerly run-down industrial neighborhood underwent a transformation beginning in the 1980s, when developers Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith partnered with architect Eric Owen Moss to convert industrial warehouses into striking contemporary creative and office spaces. Their architecturally radical vision culminated in the Conjunctive Points complex at the corner of Hayden Avenue and National Boulevard, which is currently home to companies like Ogilvy and Anonymous Content. But notable structures line the rest of the street as well, including the trippy Moss-designed cactus garden suspended on a giant steel frame at 3585 Hayden.
Baldwin Hills Stairs and Hayden Tract Walking Tour: (Approximate Distance: 2 2/3 to 4 1/2 miles, depending on whether you take the stairs or the trail; Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous):
-Begin at the intersection of Hetzler Rd. and Jefferson Blvd. You can either park for free down here on the street, or take Hetzler to the top of the road and pay $6 to park in the lot (which means you'll start the walk by descending the stairs/trail and then climb back up at the end). Look for the big sign reading "Trailhead" and follow the dirt path up the hill until you reach the base of the stairs.
-Climb the 282 stairs to the reach the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. Wander around the viewing platform and trails at the top of the 511-foot peak to soak in the awesome panoramic views of the greater Los Angeles area.
-Take either the stairs or the trail back downhill to Jefferson Blvd.
-Turn right on Jefferson. This industrial stretch is not very pleasant or attractive ... and it's a little smelly, but there are some interesting plant and garden stores along the way. After just under a third of a mile, bear left at the split in the road to stay on Jefferson.
-Make a quick left onto Higuera St. (The street sign says Rodeo Rd. heading to the right.) You'll see a sign welcoming you to the Hayden Tract, and then you'll pass the LA School of Gymnastics on your left.
- Turn right on Hayden Ave. Here, the architectural style clearly shifts from industrial/commercial to industrial chic. The next three blocks are home to advertising and design firms, dance studios and other types of creative businesses. At 3585, home to Foundation Content, you'll want to leave the sidewalk to take a closer look at the elevated cactus garden designed by Eric Owen Moss.
- As you approach National Blvd., you'll come to the Conjunctive Points complex on your right. This offbeat and striking architectural landmark includes the intimidating angular black "Stealth" building, as well as the topsy-turvy Samitaur Tower at the corner of Hayden and National. If the parking lot security guard gives you the go-ahead, head deeper into the complex to catch sight of more innovative structures and designs.
- Turn right at the corner of Hayden and National and walk one block to Eastham Dr. Directly across National Blvd. in Syd Kronenthal Park is an entrance to the Ballona Creek Bike Path. The next exit point is a little over a mile down the path at Duquesne Ave., or one could take it all the way to the ocean -- something to keep in mind if you return on two wheels. But today you're walking, so turn right on Eastham.
- The buildings on Eastham reflect the converted industrial sensibility of their neighbors on Hayden. Continue back to Higuera and turn left.
- From here, you'll retrace your steps back to your starting point: Turn right on Jefferson and follow the road as it curves to the right and leads back to the corner of Hetzler Rd.