We felt completely out of place. After a long BART ride from San Francisco to Fremont, two friends and I carried our bikes off the train into the unfamiliar city. Following our handy iPhone maps, we biked for a few miles until we reached Old Canyon Road.
But to get there, we had to weave along several residential streets, and we could feel suspicious eyes upon us. Somehow, we looked out of place, and we were giving off a vibe that we were out looking for trouble. After all, we were.
I'd had many conversations about the illegal party scene on the Secret Sidewalk, but somehow I had never managed to get concrete directions on how to locate it. "Drive to the dead end of Old Canyon Road, jump the fence with the 'No Trespassing' sign, hike down the railroad track into the canyon, follow it for a bit until you reach a large, steep hill on your right — climb it and you will reach the Secret Sidewalk." These were the directions I kept repeating over and over in my head.
My friends were relying on me — and they weren't confident. So when we reached Old Canyon Road, we arrived at a sign that said "You are now entering private property." Since it didn't seem like we had yet reached the dead end, I kept up my false confidence and continued biking along. Suddenly, we realized we were actually in someone's backyard.
We turned around and backtracked, and my two friends looked at me as if I was supposed to know what to do. I saw a sign that said "SFWD: No trespassing," and another that said, "Do not park here: The last person who parked here is still missing." Maybe this was the dead end that every trespasser had talked about. But before I had time to dwell on it further, an older, gray-haired man with a dog came out of his door and yelled to us: "Don't go back there. You will be arrested."
I considered saying that I was a journalist writing a story about the Secret Sidewalk, but it didn't really seem like he wanted to chat. "The police are watching," he said. "They have video surveillance. Do not trespass."
So we biked away in the other direction, red-faced and defeated. The immediate unfriendliness of the man made me fairly certain that we were heading away from the exact spot that every expert had directed me to. I felt momentarily hopeless.
We paused in the middle of the street, looking all the more suspicious and directionless. I knew we needed help. When I saw two teenage boys bike by us, I had a feeling that they might have good advice. Once they stopped to chat with each other a block away, I biked after them, and asked them, awkwardly and abruptly, "Hey, do you think you guys could help us? We are trying to find the Secret Sidewalk."
"Ah, yes, the Secret Sidewalk," said one of the boys, who was named Ben. He said he had gone once or twice, but added that his girlfriend lived very close to it and goes more frequently. We were actually several streets away from the fence he had jumped to get there the first time he went. Ben, racking his brain to remember the route, led us up a very steep hill to a gate that blocked off the tall grassy hills of the canyon. He told us to jump the gate, climb through the barbed wire, and bear to the left until we reached the sidewalk. He also said that we were on our own from that point forward.
We locked our bikes together and threw them into a nearby bush. We crawled through the first gate, then under a convenient hole in the barbed wire fence beyond it. We hiked for a bit in the tall grass under the hot sun. Finally, we saw a water pipe in the distance — a sign that we were maybe getting close to an abandoned aqueduct. We crossed over the pipe — and another barbed wire fence — and then I saw it in the distance.
"There it is," I screamed with delight, followed by a huge sigh of relief. I soon realized that we were very close to someone's backyard, and I did not want to be spotted by another neighbor sick of trespassing teens. So we quietly climbed on to the aqueduct, which looked just like it did in all of the pictures I had seen online: a rough, concrete casing covered in graffiti.
To our left, the sidewalk continued, just below a nearby house on a steep hill, which at the top had a sign that read: "Smile, you're on camera." In the other direction was the infamous and somewhat frightening "bridge" portion of the sidewalk. It was covered in graffiti and overlooked a huge drop with no railings on either side. In favor of avoiding getting caught, we crossed the bridge.
From there on, it was a peaceful hike. Highlights included thirty- to forty-year-old graffiti, the clay factory in the distance, an actual hole in the aqueduct that we could enter, and a few abandoned homeless encampments just off the trail. And except for three seemingly harmless travelers passing us by in the opposite direction, we didn't see anyone else. This trail really was a secret.