This quintessential hike on the northwestern shore of the city of San Francisco (Lands End) offers one of my favorite views of the Golden Gate Bridge, a meditation labyrinth on Lands End Point, a rocky beach break, Seacliff mansion gazing, a museum, the ruins of a once majestic bathhouse, the ominous roar of the ocean echoing in a dark cave and a drink stop at the end with views of the Pacific. It’s a whole lot of what I love about living in San Francisco packed into a mere 5-mile walk.
Being on the western shore of the city, the hike is often shrouded in fog, but don’t let that deter you unless visibility is truly nil. The view of the bridge whether completely clear or partially shrouded in fog is still memorable. Just be sure to wear layers. And if it does have that misty foggy chill, there’ll be a hot beverage for you at the end to warm up with. Another perk: The newly built visitor center at the start of the hike has a cafe where you can pick up a sandwich and drink to take with you and a stellar gift shop with some of the coolest SF tchotchkes around, making it a hike with all the amenities.
|Distance||5.2 miles|||||Time||2.5 hours|
|Elev. Gain||916 ft.|||||Elev. Loss||951 ft.|
At China Beach
At Cliff House
Coastal Trail » Mile Rock Beach » Mile Rock Lookout Trail » Coastal Trail » El Camino del Mar road » Seacliff road » China Beach » Seacliff road » El Camino del Mar road » El Camino del Mar Trail » USS San Francisco Memorial » Coastal Trail » Sutro Baths Upper Trail » Sutro Baths » Point Lobos Ave » Cliff House » Point Lobos Ave
The Route In Detail:
1. If you want, stop at the Lands End Visitor Center next to the parking lot to grab lunch or a morning coffee before you begin your hike.
2. On the northwest end of the Lands End Parking Lot, you’ll find the Coastal Trail trailhead where you’ll begin your hike. You’ll be following the Coastal Trail for most of the outward part of this loop with one turn off for the Mile Rock Beach and Lands End Point.
3. At the sign for Mile Rock Beach make a left and start the steep descent to the beach. This part of the hike has a lot of stairs, so be prepared for both the down and back up.
4. Part way down the stairs you’ll have a choice to go to the left and continue straight down to the beach via stairs or to the right which will take you around Lands End Point on your way to the beach. Since it’s a down and back up, I usually take the stairs on the left to the beach and then on the way back up follow the more gradual climb around the point.
5. At Lands End Point, you can find your inner peace by walking the labyrinth with the Golden Gate Bridge as a backdrop.
6. When you return to the Coastal Trail, continue in the direction you were going previously. You’ll have to tackle some more stairs before coming to Eagle’s Point Overlook, a somewhat dilapidated wooden deck with a view of the bridge, China Beach and Baker Beach as well as the Lincoln Park Municipal Golf Course. It also has some benches if you are looking for a spot to stop for lunch.
7. Continue past the lookout until the trail comes to an end at El Camino del Mar road, where there is a large Lands End sign. Take a left on the street following the signpost for China Beach. Keep following the road as it curves to the left past the gorgeous homes and mansions of the Seacliff neighborhood.
8. At the intersection with Seacliff road you’ll see a generic sign that says “Public Beach” with an arrow to the left. Make that left to head down to China Beach.
9. On your return, backtrack toward the Coastal Trail and the big Lands End sign. Instead of making a left here, you should continue straight on El Camino del Mar road. You can optionally follow some of the paved golf cart tracks through the Lincoln Park Municipal Golf Course that run alongside the road; they basically all go to the same place.
10. At the top of the hill you will see the majestic Palace of the Legion of Honor, a fine arts museum with both a permanent collection of ancient and European art as well as special traveling exhibits. Even if you don’t go inside, it’s worth meandering the grounds and checking out the Beaux-arts building.
11. Continue on El Camino del Mar as it descends through a parking lot next to the legion of honor. The road will deadend at your next trailhead, the El Camino del Mar Trail.
12. Follow this trail to the U.S.S. San Francisco Memorial. You’ll pass a couple intersections; just keep following the signs to the memorial.
13. After crossing yet another parking lot to take in the memorial, take the stairs off the parking lot toward the Coastal Trail to continue your loop on the trail you started on.
14. In about .2 miles, you’ll come to an intersection with the Upper Sutro Baths Trail, marked simply by a sign telling pointing to the right for Sutro Baths. Take the right and follow the trail all the way down to the ruins of the old Sutro bathhouse.
15. You can climb on the ruins if you want and wander the grounds. Be sure to head toward the Pacific Ocean along the hill you just walked down to enter the cave where you can here the ominous echoes of the ocean pounding against and under the very rock wall surrounding you.
16. From the baths, follow the path that leads up to the main road above the ruins. Take a right on this road, Point Lobos Ave., and continue to the Cliff House, a historic building that’s in its third rendition and now part of the national park system. Here you can learn more about the history as well as head down the stairs to the Sutro’s on the second floor to grab a drink. On a chilly, foggy day, I highly recommend the Nutty Irishman, a spiked coffee beverage topped with whipped cream.
17. From the Cliff House, it’s an easy walk back up Point Lobos Ave. past Sutro Baths to the Lands End parking lot.
Trail Notes & Tips
This hike takes you past monuments, museums, historic buildings and even historic ruins. The very parking lot where the hike begins sits in a spot that once was an amusement park of sorts, complete with a ferris wheel. There are numerous Web sites and books dedicated to the history of the area and the various sites along the way, with more details than I could possibly mention in a single blog post. Here’s a quick list of some of the my favorite nuggets with links to more information for each.
Some historic tidbits
- Back in 1895, the area that is now the Lands End parking lot was a short-lived amusement park known as Merrie Way, complete with a roller coaster, ferris wheel, mirror maze and “haunted” swings.
- The trees you see as you hike Lands End are not native. The area was originally nearly treeless sand dunes. The trees came along as part of a beautification project begun in 1933.
- Getting to Lands End, the Sutro Baths and Cliff House was not easy in the early days when you had to ride carriages or horseback over sand dunes to the shore. In the 1880s Adolf Sutro built the Cliff House Railroad to make it easier for people to make it to Lands End.
- Sutro Baths burned down in 1966; but before that it was a lavish bathhouse with six enclosed saltwater swimming pools that could accommodate 25,000 people. It had an ingenious system to flush the pools with the tides.
- From 1955-1966 there was a Sky Tram that ran from the Cliff House to the Sutro Baths. One of the tram stations served as a visitors center in 2000 when it was torn down.
- The Cliff House is in its third rendition after the first two burned down (despite surviving the highly devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake)
- The Palace of the Legion of Honor is a three-quarter-scale version of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris and was built to honor California soldiers who fought in World War I.
- Lands End brochure: PDF from the National Park Service includes information on the history and ecology of the area.
- Sutro Baths Tram video from 1960 on YouTube.
- Sky Tram history from OutsideLands.org
- The Cliff House through the years A photo timeline of the building’s storied past.
- The Legion of Honor History of the fine arts museum completed in 1924.
- Sutro Baths A full history of the baths with photos form SutroBaths.com
- “The San Francisco Cliff House” by Mary Germain Hountalas and Sharon Silva
- “San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach: The Early Years” by James R. Smith
- “San Francisciana Photographs of Sutro Baths” by Marilyn Blaisdell
- “Lost San Francisco” by Dennis Evanovsky and Eric J. Kos
- “San Francisco’s Richmond District” (Images of America) by Lorri Ungaretti
- “San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks” by James R. Smith
- “San Francisco’s Ocean Beach” (Images of America) by Kathleen Manning and Jim Dickson
Regardless of the weather where you may live or be staying in the Bay Area, you should plan for chilly winds and cool fog. This area of San Francisco is one of the foggiest and even on days when it’s sunny in The Haight or Downtown, it may be very chilly here. Or, you may start the hike in sunshine only to have the fog roll in on you part way through your day. Layers are your best bet so you can be ready if the fog shows up or the cold Pacific winds pick up.
Here is the Google Map to the trailhead parking
Since this is an urban hike, online mapping and GPS software are pretty solid for getting you to the parking lot. Just use the address 600 Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco, CA for your destination.
Depending on where you are coming from within San Francisco there are numerous bus lines that get you to or very close to the trailhead parking lot. To figure out the best route for you, use the Trip Planner at 511.org and plug in your starting address and the ending address of 600 Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco, CA.
There is a large parking lot at the trailhead and visitors center that is rarely full. There is additional street parking if you cannot find a spot in the lot. You can also take transit if you are car-free in San Francisco. See the directions above for me on transit options.