We have owned our cabin for 20 years now. Ever since we bought our cabin we have been upgrading and maintaining various parts of the cabin each year. It is a constant and ongoing struggle to fight nature and the effects of harsh winters in our British Columbia rain forest. But it seems we never have had time to tackle the hill going down towards lower deck until this year. Finally, after a few days of work, spread out over the summer, we have a new hillside stepping stone path! It is not perfect, but it is much safer than the original sloped path that could get very slippery at times.
If you want to see more pictures of our cabin, see: Our Cabin in the Woods. Keep reading to see the detailed construction of our Hillside Stepping Stone Path.
We also saved a considerable amount of money doing it ourselves. To have a contractor build a similar stone path would be anywhere from $4000 – $10,000 depending on the style chosen.
Our Situation – A Steep and Rocky Path
Our hillside has a layer of soil and shrubbery such as shalal over rock. There is so much rock underneath, that any path we chose had rock underneath. We could see why the original owner cleared the path where he did, and over time there was a dirt path over the rock. However, the problem of how to install stepping stones on a rocky surface was challenging. And then there was always the problem of loose stones on a hillside, which would just slide down the path. So we needed to do something a bit different to get the path to be stable for the long term.
I spent a bit of time researching what would work best on a steep slope, with loose stones on a hillside. Also, I looked at how to use retaining wall bricks for a hilly path. There weren’t a lot of examples out there, but it seemed that the best way was a combination of retaining wall bricks, cement, with loose pea gravel beside or behind the stepping stones. As long as the surface area where you step is flat and the pea gravel behind it doesn’t move because its lower than the retaining wall brick, it should work!
For our project we used a combination of retaining wall bricks, pea gravel and concrete quick dry cement (just add water). Below I have included the before and after pictures with a video at the end. Product information follows that.
Caution: Slopes and Hills present a safety challenge and any attempts to build a retaining wall or path should be done with caution and the advice of qualified landscaping contractors. This post shows you what we did in our situation, but it may not result in the best outcome for you. Please consult the experts before building your own path to ensure a safe outcome.
Here is the path before we made any changes. We were working on the lower deck at the time this photo was taken.
Day 1 – Bottom section of Path
We have a lower deck at the bottom of the trail /path. A few years back we had poured 2 concrete round stepping stones and these have survived about 15 years now! So we knew this option was still there if we wanted to continue that style of stepping stones. However, I had been looking online to see what other inspirations I could find. It seemed quite possible to use retaining wall bricks and rock and I really wanted a winding path of some kind. I had this romantic vision of a stone path with winding stepping stones and rocks. We had some similar stepping stones on a nearby lookout point at our home. The municipality had also built wood steps nearby, which I wanted to avoid if possible, and hopefully create a lasting stairway path.
Luckily our daughter was able to help and work on a stone walkway of some kind. We weren’t sure how it would end up exactly, since the hill was so steep. We knew we couldn’t have loose gravel on the side of the hill, but had to make actually steps with the retaining bricks and cement. Then we could fill in with the pea gravel behind as long as it was level enough. If possible, you never want to have loose stones on a hillside or it could be quite slippery and dangerous.
She started on the lower path area and spent about a day, building up the area with soil, removing some of the narly vines from the salal bushes which were everywhere on the hillside. Then she used 2 of the retaining bricks for each step, to create a level area, and filled in behind with pea gravel. This worked okay for the lower area, where there was a fairly easy slope down to the lower deck.
For each step built with 2 of the retaining wall bricks, we had to make sure the place they were placed was level from front to back and that they would not tip. We either used more cement, rock and sometimes pegs in front of the bricks to stop them from tipping. Then filling in between (behind) with loose pea gravel is fine if its level. In front we used cement to secure them in an ensure that the gravel doesn’t move underfoot.
This section was pretty easy compared to the upper section and the slope is not nearly as steep. A bit of loose gravel around the stepping stones is okay as long as there is room for people to step on the stepping stones.
Day 2 – Upper section of Path
Then the tricky part, how to continue up the path with the retaining wall, when there was hard rock in the way. She actually had to use the pick axe and cut away the stone so that she could create a spot level enough for the retaining stones to sit. This is quite dangerous as the pickaxe can easily bounce back on you and hit you on the leg, etc. (Please don’t do this unless you are a trained landscaping contractor.) Fortunately our daughter had worked with a landscaping company. She was able to complete the upper path to a point where we could pour the first round stepping stone at the top of the path.
Day 3 – 1st Round Step at Top
The cement form we used for the top round stepping stones was the same one we had used 15 years before. Our neighbor at the cabin had used these kinds of cement forms for all their stepping stones in various sizes. We ended up using one size for consistency.
For this first stepping stone, we were concerned about it being stable. Even though the area was sloped, we were able to partially pound in some spikes into the ground inside the round cement form. The cement would surround and cover the spikes to make the step more stable. This way the bottom round step would have more support and not slide off the hill.
For each round stepping stone we used 1-2 25 pound bags of quick dry cement, depending on the depth needed. We also propped up the sides of the cement form with retaining wall blocks temporarily so that the form wouldn’t move as we were pouring in the cement.
In this picture below, we actually redid one set of double steps to separate them out further. That way there was more room for your foot to step on the bricks. Then we secured them with cement and pegs in front of the bricks. If the ground was completely rock then we cemented them in.
This worked really well! We filled the cement form to the level we wanted about 6-8 inches from the stepping area below it. Then we levelled it off and sprinkled the pea gravel on the top and smoothed that down.
We covered the newly poured stepping stone with tarp overnight and let it dry for a couple days.
The photo above shows cement with pea gravel sprinkled over to give the same look. We wanted to avoid any loose stone/gravel on the top steps.
Day 4-5 – 2nd Last Top Step
The next time we went out to the cabin we poured the next step as well as adding some cement around the previous steps. We also changed one double step and split them apart as it seemed there was enough room after all to do that. We still weren’t sure if adding the second top step would get us to the top. But at least this time, the step had a lower step to rest on. You can see the angle of the cement form is quite step. This just means that the concrete will fill half the cement form on an angle, but the step itself will still be level. We used a piece of wood to flatten the surface and then checked it with the level to ensure it was level after all.
Following the same procedure we poured the 2nd top step and sprinkled it with pea gravel. Then let it dry for a few days.
Day 6 – Top Step and Side Hedge
Now we were close, but we still needed one more step to get us to a level top step that would feel safe when coming down the steps.
Again, we created one more stepping stone with the quick dry cement and sprinkled it with pea gravel. This one was a bit trickier as the top could have been a bit higher, but we didn’t want the distance from the step below to be too out of norm 6 to 8 inches.
Also, since we were curving to the one side of the path, we had to make sure the other side was blocked off at the top so that someone didn’t accidently walk down that side and slip on the exposed rock.
So we put a mini garden with 3 small hedging planters surrounded by fairly large rocks. This prevents anyone hopefully from going down that side of the path, and also going up as the top is blocked off.
The Final Reveal of our Hillside Stepping Stone Path
Here is a video showing the resulting path and stepping stone walkway. We love it, and for us it serves the purpose. I no longer feel like I am going to fall down or slip on the moss covered rocky path. Also the big benefit is that this stepping stone path will not decompose over time like wood steps.
Reminder: For safety reasons, please consult a qualified contractor before beginning such a project, as the ideas shown here may not work in your particular situation.
As promised, here is the info on the products we used for this project.
Retaining Bricks – Oldcastle Beltis Tumbled Wall in Shadow Blend
These are about $6 CAD each.
This is a quick setting cement. Each bag costs about $25 CAD. Follow the instructions for mixing with water. Preferably use a wheelbarrow or something like that to mix in with a shovel.
We probably used 4 cups of pea gravel per stepping stone. This allowed us to create a stone surface look on top of the stepping stone. We also used a few buckets of pea gravel for fill. Between the stepping stones we backfilled above the step if the area was flat. We also filled in at the sides of the steps.
Next Steps – Next Year
We definitely can still improve our hillside stepping stone path by adding more cement to fill in spots. Also, we will check and further secure the retaining wall bricks and level out a couple of the steps, if needed. The addition of some solar lights will improve safety and add appeal. Also, I would like to add a few more plants/shrubs along the borders, and possible some wildflowers. We will probably add more pebbles at the sides and may still need to change out the last double step. Stay tuned for changes next summer!
If you want to see more info on our cabin, you can view more photos and setup info here: Our Cabin in the Woods.
I hope you enjoyed this post on solving our slippery and sloped path with a new hillside stepping stone path.