“Where land ends,
and sea begins…”
If you had .30 cents to spend in San Francisco, what would you do?
If it were the late 1800’s, you could take a train ride along the coast, and hang out in one of San Francisco’s unique entertainment spots – The Sutro Baths! For just .30 cents!
Unfortunately for us, it is well past the 19th century and the Sutro Baths are no longer with us. On the other hand, the ruins are still here, and it doesn’t cost anything – not even .30 cents – to walk the edges of the pools, smell the salty ocean air, and hike the cliffs and trails that once was a bustling hotspot for tourists and all of San Francisco.
Join us as we walk you through some lesser known, but no less interesting, history of San Francisco!
First, let’s take a look at some of the history behind the Sutro Baths.
Where it all began…
It begins with a man named Adolph Sutro. Born in Germany, he came to America in the mid 1800’s, around the age of 20. He was a well educated man, and knew a lot about mining, engineering and business.
Sometime during the 1860’s, he designed a tunnel that would ventilate the silver mines in Nevada. The tunnels, which came to be known as, the Sutro Tunnels, changed mining significantly, by improving the working conditions for the miners. His design for the tunnels, helped to lay the foundation for the work he would later do in San Francisco.
Sutro had a wish to help bring a better way of living to the people of San Francisco. He wanted to build something that everyone could enjoy, regardless of how wealthy you were, or were not. He knew the land that was just on the edge of the city, offered breathtaking views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1881, he purchased 22 acres of that land. Here, he developed a large garden area that he would open to the public. He designed his garden by planting trees, flowers, erecting statues that he purchased and carving out “lookout points”.
In addition to the garden, he also purchased the Cliff House, which had been a restaurant that sat on the cliff overlooking both the land he purchased and the ocean. The Cliff House, which had been built in the 1860’s, had become very rundown. Sutro wished to make repairs to the building and bring it back to life as a family friendly business. His renovated Cliff House, burnt down about a decade later, but he built a second Cliff House, making it much more elaborate!
His main interest was in marine studies, and his plan was to come up with a way to create an experience that would incorporate the ocean into his recreational facility. His answer to this, was Sutro Baths, which he created around 1890. Sutro Baths were a combination of seven salt water pools of varying size and temperatures that were built into the tidal area of the beach. The idea, was for the ocean tides to fill the pools every time the tide came in. If the tide was too low, he had a turbine pump that would funnel in more ocean water if needed. This would be a place for the people of San Francisco to come and relax, swim and exercise, while enjoying the atmosphere of the ocean. Each of the pools were supplied with either slides, trampolines or diving platforms. In order to enter the pools, it was mandatory that you shower and rent your bathing suit from Sutro Baths. This was to help ensure the cleanliness of the facility.
He then developed a steam line, that would bring people from the city, to his recreational facility – this steam line ran on what is known today as the Lands End Trail, or, The Coastal Trail. People could ride his steam line for less than half the price of what it cost to ride the other rail lines. The train ride cost .05 cents and to swim was another .25 cents (this included your bathing suit and towel). They could have a full day of entertainment, for the low price of .30 cents!
Sutro served as city mayor for 1895 until 1897, before passing away in 1898. In 1966 Sutro Baths closed down. It became to expensive to maintain, and, as times changed, so did the entertainment scene. Less and less people were coming to Sutro Baths. Shortly after it closed down, it burned down. The cause was never really defined, and some say it was under suspicious circumstances. Today, all that is left of Sutro Baths, are the eerie ruins where they once stood, in one of the most scenic areas of San Francisco.
Our visit to Lands End Lookout and Sutro Baths…
Our adventure begins with a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge (I have always had a fascination with bridges, and this one has definitely captured my heart. Just seeing this bridge is an adventure for me every time!).
Just 6 miles from the bridge, is Lands End Lookout, which is part of Golden Gate National Park.
It is here that we parked our jeep, put our jackets on (because even though it was 100 degrees at the RV park, it was not even 60 degrees here!), and headed out toward the beach.
Our plan had been to just spend the day walking on the beach and collecting shells. We had no idea what a great adventure this day was about to turn into!
We stopped into the visitor center that is located right near the parking area. Here, we grabbed a map of the park and set off toward the beach.
A long, fairly steep trail led the way down to the Sutro Bath ruins, as well as the beach access.
We came to the Bath ruins first, so we walked around. The concrete walls dividing each of the pools are still standing.
With just a little bit of climbing, you are able to get up on the walls and walk the outlines of each pool. Some are pretty narrow, and some are beginning to fall away, so walk them at your own risk. Believe me when I say “you do NOT want to fall into the water that has filled the pools”!
The stairs leading down into the pools are still there. You can almost imagine the diving boards and glass walls that surrounded the pools.
Standing on the ruins, if you look up toward the garden area, you can see the tunnels and trails where the steam train ran, as well as the look outs that were cut into the garden.
In the other direction, you can see the Cliff House.
You can look out toward the ocean and see Seal Rocks.
To the north, you can see the site where the USS Ohioan wrecked and sank back in 1937. If the tide is low, you can actually see the wreckage.
There is an eerie feeling surrounding the Sutro Baths. Perhaps it is because it is so easy to imagine all of the people that would have gathered there to enjoy themselves, well over a century ago. You can’t help but wonder “what will be left another century from now?”. As it is today, people have painted graffiti all over the ruins, and trash floats in the water that fills the pools. Sometimes it seems, if nature doesn’t destroy something, we will…
We made our way down onto the beach, and it was a great day for beach walking! The fog that, believe it or not, has a name…Karl, engulfed the coast just enough that you could still make out a few sail boats and the rocks known as Seal Rocks.
Due to the many years of weathering, one of the rocks had a large fracture split into it. It was large enough that I could almost stand all the way in it. You could hear the waves through the rock, as they crashed into the other side of it. The sound was both unexpected and eerie.
We did a little shell searching on the beach, but the beach here really did not have much for shells….a few mussels and some Dungeness shells were all we found.
From the beach, we hiked up to one of the tunnels.
The hike to the tunnel is steep, but it also gives you a good view of the bath area.
The tunnel here is said to be haunted. They claim that the “ghosts of the Sutro Baths roam the tunnel and ruins”. They say that if you visit at night, and light a candle at the end of the tunnel, someone will take the candle and throw it into the water. I guess as long as the candle is the only thing they throw in the water, I’m not too scared…
Rumor has it, that the tunnels were also the site of human sacrifices – linked to a Church of Satan, not far from the Sutro Baths. (I actually looked this up – the part about the church of Satan. Turns out, that there really was a house known as the Black House on California St. This was the home of the founder of that church. The house is no longer there, but I was able to find quite a bit of information on it still…stories for another time maybe.).
Keep going on the trail, and it brings you to one of the lookout points. From here, you can get a good view of Seal Rocks, as well as the site where the USS Ohioan sank. The stairways leading down to the beach and Sutro Baths are still visible, though off limits.
From here, you can take the stairway up to continue on the Coastal Trail. This is a 4 mile trail that takes you along the waterfront cliffs to areas such as the Sutro Baths, a woodsy forest, Mile Rock Beach, USS San Francisco Memorial, the Labyrinth and Dead Man’s Point (this is where we turned around). All along the trail, you can get different views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
At the top of the stairway, you will walk through a woodsy forest.
This is known as the Ohlone Site. It is the site of what used to be the seasonal home for the Yelamu Tribe. The plants and wildlife that were abundant here at the time the Yelamu made this their home, are different than what is seen here now. However, some areas are being restored to the way it was back when the Ohlone were here.
The trail that you are hiking, is the site of the steam line that ran from downtown San Francisco, to the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. Because of landslides, the steam line closed in 1925. Today you will see people walking, jogging or strolling with their dogs (this is a very dog friendly trail!). They even hold the Coastal Trail Marathon here.
At the Life-Saving Station Overlook, you get your first good look at the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is also the stairway to the USS San Francisco Memorial. We went up the staircase to the memorial. The memorial is formed from a section of the bridge that is perforated from the Battle of Guadalcanal. The USS San Francisco took 45 direct hits and sustained heavy damage in 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal. One hundred sailors and seven marines were killed in the attack, with 131 others injured. The USS San Francisco made it back to port, despite the damage and casualties. The memorial lists the names of those lost in the battle that night. You can also read about the battle on an adjacent sign. The USS San Francisco was decommissioned in 1947.
Continue back down the stairway and follow the Coastal Trail to the Mile Rock Overlook.
Here, another very steep trail brings you to an overlook where you can view both the Golden Gate bridge and the Golden Gate Strait.
This was the site of over 300 shipwrecks due to the hazardous rocks, thick fog and changing tides. At low tide, several of these wrecks are visible from the lookout.
Mile Rock Lighthouse is off of this overview. The lighthouse was built in 1904 as a result of a shipwreck in 1901. A steamship became stranded, flooded and then sank, killing 128 people on board. In 1966, the lighthouse was converted to a helipad.
We climbed back up from Mile High Lookout, back onto the Coastal Trail. We hiked a little further, until we came to Dead Man’s Point.
Unfortunately, Dead Man’s Point was closed off. Due to the amount of hikers injured (some fatally) at this point, they have roped it off. The ground here is unstable, and there is a 200 foot (sheer) drop off from the cliffs. Despite the fact that it is roped off and clearly marked, people still hike out to the edge for the awe-inspiring Instagram photo. We chose not to (sorry/not sorry, Instagram).
It was at this point that we turned back. The trail does continue on, but we spent so much time checking out the sites that we went to, that we had spent the better part of the day here already. It was time to head back.
Lands End is open year round, to hikers, bikers (bicycles), and joggers. It is child and dog friendly, but keep your dogs leashed and keep your kids close! While it is a well marked trail, there are a lot of opportunities for accidents to happen if you are careless.
This is a free adventure, even though it is part of a National Park. There is plenty of parking, a visitor center where you can use the bathroom (we did not see any bathrooms along the trail) and purchase water or souvenirs.
The best time to visit would be on a sunny day, though Karl, the San Francisco fog, always seems to be hanging around. It wouldn’t be San Francisco without Karl though!! (I do not have a Twitter page, but if you do, they say Karl the Fog also has a page – check it out)!
And if you are ever in the San Francisco area, be sure to check out Lands End Lookout – it is definitely worth a spot on your Bucket List!