Landscape Walks & Steps – How They Relate To One Another

It’s not unusual that a pathway is needed over ground that is sloped.  You might ask yourself just how steep of a pitch can I make the walk.  You might also be considering steps as part of your solution.

Let me first suggest tell you that you need to measure the elevations (vertical heights) in the area your designing your walk and/or steps.  Grades & pitch can be very deceptive.  Even after 30 years experience I will not “go by eye” on this one. It’s suggested that the maximum slope for walks be 10%.  Or, in other words, 12″ of rise over 10′ of walk.

In my opinion, walks should not exceed a 5% slope (or 12″ of rise over 20′ of walk).  Often it comes down to personal preference.  So if you’re building this walk for someone, make sure they understand what you’re proposing.  More on how to show them your idea(s) in a bit.

Sloped landscape walkwaySloped landscape stone landing

In the first picture the walkway seems to be pitched around 12″ over 10′ of walk (or 10%).  The entrance to this walkway (2nd picture) appears to be even steeper.

Now here I am telling you to always measure elevations and I can’t give you the specifics on this walk.  That’s because it’s not my project and I didn’t want to get arrested for trespassing. (I’m losing my sense of adventure.)

With exact elevation measurements you can calculate your different design concepts and compare them to one another.

You can always first consider some “creative” re-grading, but often “steps” are the best way to mitigate a steep walkway.

Seeing Is Believing

Most people have a hard time visualizing things.  I use mock-ups of all kinds to help others and myself really see what’s planned and possible.

I’ll sometimes illustrate an idea for a walkway and/or steps using stakes and a string line.  When set up exactly at the proposed heights, they show the profile of the walk’s surface (pitch) and the risers & treads of the steps.  This let’s the homeowner (and myself) see how it will potentially look.  I find that this simple mock-up always clears up any uncertainty and prevents any design regrets after construction.

Stone steps in a landscape walkwayThings To Consider When Building Landscape Steps

  • Do not compromise on the base for the steps.  If they are masonry steps you should have a concrete footing according to local code.  If they are dry-set steps (stone, cast concrete or timber) you should have a well-compacted aggregate base.  Nothing is worse than steps that “move” over time because of poor base and footing work.
  • For landscape steps the riser should be greater than 4″, but no more than 6 ½”.  There are always going to be exceptions, but try to stay within these parameters.
  • Here’s a simple formula for calculating the riser height and tread length:  2 (riser) + tread = 26″.   For example, if the riser is going to be 6″, then : 2 (6) + 14 = 26″.   So the tread should be 14″.  Again, use this as a “guideline”.
  • Where steps return into the surrounding sloped grade, make sure the step has “finished” sides that are nice to look at.  On the same note, make sure the sloped sides of earth are stabilized to support & conceal the base work for the steps.  Groundcover, grass and even decorative boulders can help with this.

Landscape steps by sloped groundPlanning landscape steps and walks really supports the idea that form should follow function.  And yet personal preference always plays a part in the final solution.  What say you?  Feel free to comment.

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    4 Responses to “Landscape Walks & Steps – How They Relate To One Another”

    1. Ruth Says:

      I love the walk and steps in the last picture. Can you tell me what stone that is?

    2. Roger Says:

      I generally refer to this stone as flagstone, and more specifically bluestone. Although it is called bluestone, and quite often it is blue in color, it does come in other hues and colors. We call this a “variegated” type of bluestone. In our area of NJ, NY, CT and PA it is very common. Here’s a link on Wikipedia that describes it nicely:
      Take care,

    3. Galen Says:

      I am relandscaping my small front yard into a sustainable, drought tolerant garden. I will be planting California native plants. No lawn. I want to put flagstone stepping stones for the walkway. The walkway will be 10′ long and there is a slight slope. Should I prepare the ground for the plantings first and then put in the gravel and flagstone? The ground needs topsoil and to be leveled.

      When I was going to have concrete steps poured I was told to have the steps done before the ground work done.

      Thank you for your help. This is a wonderful website!

    4. Roger Says:

      It sounds like a nice project you’re undertaking.

      Typically we install all the hardscaping (i.e. walks, steps, walls, etc.) before the plantings. This is because the hardscaping usually involves more equipment — and the work, in general, is rough. Also, the hardscaping features are then there to grade and re-work the soil up to.

      Now, of course we’ve installed many hardscape features within existing plantings. It’s just a bit more challenging, and you need to be that much more careful working in and around the plants.

      You mentioned you’re adding soil to prepare the ground for planting. This could mean the grade and soil heights will change, and that could affect the finished height you set the flagstone path at. Your idea to prepare the ground first and then install the flagstone path makes perfect sense. This way your soil grades and flagstone path “work together,” then you can arrange and install your plants.

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