Spring in Steps

A late-morning mantle of fog is still hovering atop East Rock when I decide to climb the Giant Steps. The Gothic weather is fitting because there’s something fantastical about this staircase of stone, something not quite of this world. The first time I stumbled across them while wandering the south end of East Rock Park, I felt for a moment as if I’d stepped into a fairytale.

Part of what makes the Giant Steps otherworldly is that, for this age of carefully monitored activities, they’re downright wild. The rusty handrail wobbles and sometimes disappears. The stairs are irregular, a hodgepodge of boulders and slabs twisting up the face of East Rock’s cliff. You have to step with care. That’s a good excuse to pause and catch your breath. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could climb this escarpment without feeling winded, though legend has it the Yale track team used to run up the Giant Steps every day at the turn of the last century. Even before you arrive at the top of the 350-foot cliff, the view is panoramic and deep: the wooded mound of Indian Head sitting to the southeast; the city spreading southwest; the harbor lying directly south—that is, if it isn’t veiled by midday fog spilling over the bridge.

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Today the mood is more Raiders of the Lost Ark than Jack and the Beanstalk. Held back for too long, spring has suddenly exploded, and my hiking companion and I could be scaling a jungle route. Moss grips the shaded stone. A white flowering shrub we can’t identify clings tenaciously to the cliffside. The lowest steps are still wet from an overnight shower.

Adding to the intrigue of the Giant Steps is the fact that the historical record barely mentions them. Parks department reports dating back to the 19th century yield little information on when or how they were constructed. They don’t appear on an 1882 map of the park. According to a history of the park published in the New Haven Register in 1988, the steps were built by Italian stonemasons in the late 19th century.

It doesn’t take long to climb from English Drive—one segment of the winding road at the park’s base—to the summit. This is certainly the shortest route to the top of East Rock, though not the easiest. If we hadn’t stopped to take some photos and admire the view (and catch our breath), we probably would have reached the top in less than 15 minutes. But it’s more fun to take your time.

The East Rock Park page on the city website notes that the trail is blazed with “red triangle trail markers,” but these are nowhere in sight. Rather, yellow blazes are painted on the steps, and the park map labels the Giant Steps as being on the yellow trail. To reach them, park along English Drive at Rice Field and hike in on the east side, either by scrambling up an eroded hill onto the white-blazed trail, which leads to the yellow, or by walking in on the park driveway, which is blocked with a red metal gate.

To climb the Giant Steps, follow the white trail a short distance from English Drive, then take the left fork onto the yellow trail. This crosses the park road three times and includes a shorter series of more regular steps before initiating its vertical route up the face of East Rock.

When we reach the summit, the sun has finally burned the fog away. We skirt the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and opt for a different route down, following the park road to the lower summit parking area, where, at the north end, an unmarked trail steps down into the woods. We follow this trail to the right, and it leads us back to the lower park road.

There are plenty of routes to hike and walk in East Rock—about 7.5 miles on trails in addition to roadways. The most detailed and helpful map can be downloaded from the city’s website. The easy, white-blazed trail makes a 2.14-mile loop around East Rock, avoiding the summit. But there’s nothing quite like that heart-racing climb to an eagle’s view of New Haven, one step at a time.

Giant Steps Trail
East Rock Park (park along English Drive opposite Rice Field)
Online | Park Map

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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