Three ways to conquer a steep backyard
New Deck and Stairs Tame a Slope
Eric Millette
A deck with a view is the new destination near the top of the slope. Benches and a retaining wall wrap around the deck.

Hillside lots are a common challenge in the West. Flat outdoor areas for sitting, entertaining, and relaxing become precious commodities.

In my own sloping backyard, the only truly usable spot was a cramped rear patio below a dangerously steep flight of stairs and a 55-year-old concrete retaining wall. The only view was from the top of the slope.

To take advantage of the vista and allow for more usable outdoor living space, I devised a three-part plan: build a seat along the original retaining wall, construct a safer floating staircase up the hill, and add a generous deck at the top as a final destination.

The dramatic transformation gives the garden an appealing sense of discovery and maximizes its potential.

Eric Millette
With its broad lip and handsome stone veneer the sitting area below the stairway at the bottom of the hill is a natural gathering spot.

Seat wall

The old retaining wall seemed to loom over the house; it was too tall for the patio, and ugly too. I decided to add a seat wall along the bottom to fix the scale problem, and I covered the vertical surfaces with stone veneer for a more attractive look.

The base for the seat wall is made of 8-inch-square, 16-inch-wide concrete blocks secured to the retaining wall and patio by lengths of reinforcing bar drilled and epoxied in place. It’s covered with 2-inch-thick stone veneer, which is lightweight and easier to mortar in place than real stone. The veneer used here-a blend of Veneto Hillstone and Fieldledge styles-is by Eldorado Stone ( or 800/925-1491); cost per square foot runs about $5 for flat pieces and about $6.50 for corners.

Eric Millette
Floating steps. Side-winding in angular fashion up the hill, these simple wood platforms lead gracefully to the deck. The iron railing follows the entire stairway.

Floating stairs

To complement the new seat wall, the old staircase was rebuilt and resurfaced. Turning it sideways made for a much safer descent.

New steps, which are actually 2- by 3-foot mini platforms, work their way up the rest of the hill in an elongated S shape.

Each platform has a simple composite wood frame (to resist rotting) and a tread and riser made of Ipé, a sustainably harvested hardwood that’s also used on the deck.


Like the stair platforms, the rear half of the 15- by 24-foot deck notches into the hill.

A low retaining wall along its back edge holds the uphill section in place and is tall enough to double as another bench seat.

Unseen support posts, the retaining wall, and joists are all made of pressure-treated wood designed for earth contact.

The decking and front and side benches are made with Ipé; the 18-inch-high, 17-inch-wide benches are supported by posts set on footings that tie to the deck’s joists and perimeter beams.