How to Build Retaining Wall Stairs

Retaining walls serve an essential function in landscaping by providing support and preventing soil erosion in yards with varying levels. However, they can sometimes pose challenges for foot traffic and movement within the space.

To address this issue, incorporating stairs into the design of the retaining wall can be a practical and visually appealing solution. Retaining wall stairs seamlessly blend into the structure, offering convenient access and improving the overall aesthetics of both the wall and the yard. By integrating stairs into the retaining wall, you can enhance the functionality and accessibility of the space while adding a touch of elegance to your landscape design.

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Retaining Wall Stair Tread Options

When constructing retaining wall stairs, using the same blocks as the retaining wall itself allows for a seamless integration of the stairs into the overall structure. This cohesive design approach ensures that the stairs merge harmoniously with the wall. Additionally, retaining wall blocks with a height ranging from 6 to 8 inches are ideal for creating the risers of exterior stairs, providing a suitable and comfortable height for each step.

There are various common methods to build the treads of retaining wall stairs, including:

Open Treads

Open treads are a practical and cost-effective option for constructing retaining wall stairs. In this design, the stair treads are created using the retaining wall blocks and gravel backfill. As you traverse the stairs, you’ll notice a retaining wall block facing you, while gravel fills the space behind it. While this approach is the simplest and most economical, it does have a utilitarian appearance.

By utilizing open treads, you can achieve functional and accessible stairs without the need for additional materials or complex construction techniques. The retaining wall blocks serve as the stepping surface, providing a sturdy foundation, while the gravel backfill ensures stability and proper drainage.

It’s worth noting that while open treads offer practicality, they may not deliver the same level of visual appeal as other stair construction methods. If aesthetic considerations are important to you, alternative options such as incorporating stair tread caps or using natural stone or pavers can enhance the overall appearance of the stairs.

Ultimately, the choice of open treads depends on your specific requirements, budget, and desired aesthetic outcome. While they may have a utilitarian look, open treads present a straightforward and cost-effective solution for creating retaining wall stairs.


Capstones provide an excellent option for creating retaining wall stairs with a polished and refined appearance. These capstones, often featuring front edge treatments like a bullnose, form the entire stair tread. Depending on the size of the tread, you may need only one or two large capstones per step. It is important to build the treads precisely to fit the capstones.

By utilizing capstones, you can achieve a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing look for your retaining wall stairs. The front edge treatments, such as the bullnose, add a touch of elegance and sophistication to the overall design.

Capstones are particularly well-suited for steeper stairs with shorter treads. Their larger size and smooth finish contribute to a visually appealing and polished appearance. However, it is essential to ensure that the treads are carefully constructed to accommodate the specific size and shape of the capstones.

When designing your retaining wall stairs, consider incorporating capstones for a refined and finished look. They offer a great solution for creating visually appealing staircases, especially in situations where the stairs are steeper and have shorter treads. With capstones, you can elevate the aesthetic appeal of your retaining wall stairs while maintaining functionality and stability.

Pavers or Bricks

Another option for creating stair treads in retaining wall stairs is to use smaller pavers or bricks that match or complement the retaining wall blocks. This approach offers versatility in design while maintaining a cohesive look. Typically, the back row of pavers or bricks will require cutting to fit the available space. It is crucial to exercise caution and ensure that the front row is securely attached using landscape block adhesive to prevent any movement when walking on the stairs.

A visually appealing combination involves attaching capstones at the front of the tread, while using pavers or bricks to fill in the back. This arrangement allows for deeper treads, providing a comfortable and spacious walking surface.

By incorporating smaller pavers or bricks, you have the flexibility to create unique patterns and designs that complement the overall aesthetic of the retaining wall and the surrounding landscape. Additionally, this option allows for customization in terms of color, texture, and shape, enabling you to achieve a personalized look for your stair treads.

It is important to pay attention to detail during the construction process to ensure a secure and stable staircase. By selecting the right materials and utilizing proper adhesion techniques, you can create an attractive combination of capstones, pavers, or bricks that not only enhance the visual appeal but also provide a safe and functional set of stairs in your retaining wall project.

When to Build Retaining Wall Stairs

For a seamless integration and consistent appearance, it is advisable to construct the stairs concurrently with the retaining wall. This allows the courses of blocks to align and match between the stairs and the wall, resulting in a cohesive structure. Within this process, it is important to prioritize the construction of the stairs, ensuring they are built before proceeding with the rest of the retaining wall. Additionally, it is recommended to build stairs for a retaining wall only when the ground is dry. This helps to maintain stability during construction and minimizes the risk of shifting or settling after completion.

Safety Considerations

Most communities have specific regulations regarding the height of masonry retaining walls. These regulations are in place to ensure consistency and safety within the community. If the height of your retaining wall falls below a certain threshold, you may be exempt from obtaining a permit. However, it’s important to note that these height limits are generally set at a relatively low level.

To ensure compliance with local requirements, it is advisable to consult with your local permitting office. They will provide you with the necessary guidance and instructions for building both the retaining wall and the accompanying stairs. Keep in mind that depending on the specifications and local regulations, you may also be required to install railings for added safety.

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What You’ll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Tape measure
  • Bubble level
  • Two-by-four
  • Shovel
  • Tamping tool or plate compacting machine
  • Broom


  • 8-inch retaining wall blocks
  • Gravel
  • Tread covers (optional)
  • Landscape block adhesive
  • Drain pipe (if needed)


Determine the Total Stair Rise:

  • Place a two-by-four with a bubble level on top of it, ensuring one end is on top of the slope.
  • Adjust the two-by-four until it is level and measure the distance from the bottom of the two-by-four to the ground. This measurement is the total stair rise.

Determine the Number of Stairs:

  • Divide the total stair rise by the height of each block (e.g., 8 inches) to determine the number of stairs needed.
  • Aim for an 8-inch rise and a 12-inch tread per stair when cutting into steep slopes with a retaining wall. For gentle slopes, an 8-inch rise can be combined with a longer tread.

Excavate the Location:

  • Use a shovel to dig stair steps into the slope, following the intended shape of the retaining wall stairs.
  • Dig out more of the slope than anticipated to allow for a sufficient base material under and behind the stairs.

Prepare the Base Trench:

  • Create a gravel-filled base trench under the retaining wall, which will also serve as the base for the first step.
  • The base trench should be at least 24 inches wide and 6 or more inches deep, extending the length of the wall.
  • Dig a trench at least 6 inches deep for the first step and fill it with a minimum of 6 inches of landscape gravel.
  • Adjust the depth of the gravel using a retaining wall block as a guide to match the height of the first course.

Install the Drain Pipe (Optional):

If required by soil conditions or local regulations, embed a drain pipe at the bottom of the base trench.

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Level and Compact the Base Trench:

  • Use a bubble level to ensure the base trench gravel is level and make adjustments as needed.
  • Compact the gravel using a tamping tool or plate compacting machine.

Install the First Course:

  • Place the first course of retaining wall blocks on the trench gravel, with the raised lip facing upward and at the front.
  • Check the level between the blocks from side to side and use twine or mason’s string for alignment if necessary.

Add Soil and Backfill the First Course:

  • Scoop soil from elsewhere in the yard and deposit it in front of the first course to help hold the blocks in place.
  • Tamp down the soil and add gravel behind the first course, including filling any hollow cores of the blocks if applicable.
  • Compact the backfill.

Level and Screed the First Step:

  • Sweep off the first course and level it from front to back.
  • Use a scrap two-by-four to screed the gravel smooth.

Install the Second Step:

  • Lay the second set of stair steps behind the first set, including a six-inch deep base behind the first step.
  • Measure back from the first set using the predetermined tread depth and ensure the second set remains parallel to the first set.

Backfill the Second Course:

  • Shovel gravel behind the second set of blocks, filling hollow cores if necessary.
  • Compact the backfill.

Continue to the Top:

Repeat the previous steps until reaching the top of the slope.

Add the Tread Covers:

  • Choose whether to leave the treads open-faced or cover them with capstones, pavers, bricks, or a combination.
  • Clean the treads thoroughly and apply landscape block adhesive to the tops of the retaining wall blocks.
  • Install the selected tread covers securely.

Build Out the Retaining Wall:

  • Once the retaining wall stairs are complete, continue building the retaining wall on both sides of the stairs.
  • Use the established courses from the stairs as guidelines for the wall’s courses.

When to Call a Professional

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Are you struggling to seamlessly incorporate retaining wall stairs into your existing structure? Look no further than Mile High Lifescape. Our team of landscaping experts specializes in tackling the challenges posed by curved stairs, landings, switchbacks, sidewalls, planters, and other unique features. Building retaining wall stairs can be a complex process, but our experienced professionals are well-equipped to handle these advanced procedures. By choosing Mile High Lifescape, you can expect exceptional craftsmanship and attention to detail, ensuring that your retaining wall stairs blend seamlessly with your existing retaining wall. Don’t hesitate to contact us for expert assistance with your project.

Address: 1427 S Federal Blvd, Denver, CO 80219

Hotline: +(303) 877-9091

Email: [email protected]

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