Meet Our Paths: Above the Claremont Hotel, Challenges and Charms

By Sandy Friedland

Warning: Four of the paths on this walk are steep and have steps, and all have some tricky footing. Fallen leaves also can pose hazards.

Path wandering above the landmark Claremont Hotel is an aerobic challenge with rich rewards: panoramic views, notable architecture, and yard-art eye candy.

The five paths behind the hotel share a common history. The Short Cut, Eucalyptus Path, and Willow Walk first appear on a 1906 map of the Claremont Hotel Tract. A 1909 map shows the as-yet-unnamed Sunset Path; Evergreen Path was added soon afterward. (All of Willow Walk and most of Sunset Path remained in Berkeley.)

Developers of this hilly neighborhood built convenient paths so new residents could walk to and from shops, schools, and public transportation. Until 1958, the E train, the northeastern-most line of the old Key System, terminated just steps from the entrance to the hotel; in fact, the train was originally supposed to end in the hotel’s lobby.

This juxtaposition was no coincidence. Two of the original owners of the hotel property, Francis Marion “Borax” Smith and Frank C. Havens, also owned the predecessor of the Key System that ran buses and streetcars in the East Bay and commuter trains and buses to San Francisco.

 A One-Mile, Five-Path Walk

Begin this route in the southeast corner of the Claremont’s upper parking lot, just beyond the Tunnel Road entrance. Follow the uphill edge of the parking area to a short run of stairs leading to a long ramp. The official name of this unmarked path explains it purpose: The Short Cut. Unfortunately, it is in very poor condition, so watch your step!

(The City of Oakland plans to repair The Short Cut and add handrails. However, whether the improvements will preserve some of the historic elements of the path is an issue pending in Alameda County Superior Court.)

The Short Cut was landscaped as an extension of the original 14-acre, park-like grounds of the Claremont Hotel. San Juan Island palm trees, matching those bordering the front of the hotel, were planted along the lower two-thirds of the path.

As you ascend the ramp, the old palms still stand on your left. Look closely on the right to spot some tenacious survivors, struggling for light among the live oaks, pittosporum, and shrubs.

Near the end of the ramp, listen for the year-round Claremont (aka Harwood) Creek running in a culvert beneath your feet.

Historic Stone Steps and Bench

The steps and walls at the top of the path were fashioned from the same stone as the lower front façade of the hotel and the public hardscape in the Claremont-Uplands neighborhood.

Catch your breath on the bench to the left of the landing, which probably offered a nice view before trees below it grew.

From The Short Cut, bear left onto Alvarado Road, and go left again at the fork onto Alvarado Place. At the end of the cul-de-sac, continue onto the walkway, an unsigned lower portion of Evergreen Path, to reach the stairs.

On your way up, note the two halves of an old plow, posing as yard art on your left. They were a gift to the previous owners of property, whose last name was Plough.

The weather-beaten, original wooden path and street signs will be on the right as you near Evergreen Lane. Once you’re on the street, look between #1 and #9 for an unusual vantage on the cupola crowning the Claremont.

Follow Evergreen Lane to its intersection with Slater Lane, pausing to meet the critters marching atop the fence and gate of #57 Evergreen Lane, creations of metal artist Mark Bulwinkle.  

Turn right onto Slater, noting the succulent garden at #29, then veer right onto Alvarado Road. Look through the fence of #697 Alvarado for a nice glimpse of the Bay, and don’t miss the botanical-themed address numbers and gate hardware at #681.

 139 Steep Steps

Walk past the top of Eucalyptus Path to see a brood of ceramic and metal chickens and a lone metal goat grazing in front of #665. Return to the path, which is long and steep but lined with handrails and punctuated with ramps.

The 139 steps of Eucalyptus Path provide the only access to the nine houses along it, built between 1909 and 2000. Some of the older ones originally were summer and vacation homes for San Franciscans. 

On October 20, 1991, this path was a key evacuation route for residents fleeing the Berkeley-Oakland Hills fire. In addition, firefighters and volunteers hauled water hoses from hydrants at each end to reach the flames.  

Although the houses on Alvarado Road at the top of the path were lost, those on Eucalyptus Path and nearby Sunset Trail were saved. Only the deck of #36 Sunset Trail burned.

(This walk includes only the top portion of Eucalyptus Path, but if you want to add an aerobic challenge, descend all the way to the bottom, climb back up to the top, and resume the directions below.)

As you head down the path, notice the eclectic houses and gates. Numbers 43 and 51 are tucked along an interesting brick and concrete walk. At #44, the newest house on the path, marvel at the elaborately carved doors, gate, and pillars salvaged from a former mosque in Pakistan.

A Rare East-West Path

Turn left after #44 onto Sunset Trail, one of the few East-West paths in the Berkeley-Oakland hills and the only one that does not link two streets.

Wander along this level path, catching some glimpses of the Bay beyond the lower fences, until you reach Willow Walk.

Turn right to descend the lower section of this path, perhaps the prettiest in the neighborhood with stone steps, a seasonal creek along one side, and some tree stumps at the bottom that make a perfect picnic area for small children.

Turn right onto Alvarado Road, and follow it back to the top of The Short Cut and your starting point. Along the way, you’ll pass some of the grand old houses of the neighborhood.

These houses and the hotel survived the 1991 fire because the high winds that had fanned the fire subsided. Had they persisted, official accounts say, the conflagration, fueled by the Claremont Hotel, could have raced west through much of Berkeley.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in Claremont Living magazine.]