One of the many places I wanted to be sure to check out while I was up north in San Francisco was the ruins of the Sutro Baths at Lands End Lookout. I had heard about and seen gorgeous pictures of the ruins over looking the ocean, large bird and seal covered rocks jetting out of the water, and a tunnel that leads to a rocky ridge where hikers are discouraged from going. I wanted an opportunity to see and explore it all for myself so late in the afternoon Katie and I headed to the far corner of San Francisco. Parking was extremely easy as there is a lot right across from the center. We took a moment to take in the view and then headed inside.
The Lands End has been around for many centuries. Native Americans, specifically the Yelamu Ohlone tribe, were the first to walk there as early as 10,000 years ago. They found everything they needed, fresh water, shelter, and food. They often traveled by foot to fish and hunt for otters, sea lions, and sea birds. Their children would run and play in the sand dunes and their families built fires on the bluffs to tell stories and sing songs around.
In 1769 the Spaniards began to explore the area for the main purpose of establishing permanent military and missionary compounds. With their arrival of settlements in 1776 the Yelamu Ohlone tribe’s traditional lifestyle was ended. Not only did the Europeans bring disease which took with it much of the Indian population, they also expected the Indians to convert to Christianity, cleared lands for agriculture, housing and irrigation and prohibited the tradition of long controlled burns that assured an abundance of wild food plants. By the time Spanish rule had waned a few decades later the damage was irreversible.
As time passed Americans came to Lands End to see sea lions at Seal Rock and race their horses at Ocean Beach. By the 1860’s several taverns had opened to accommodate their needs: Seal Rock House, Lakeside House, and Cliff House, which is still there today. In the 1880’s Adolph Sutro began buying property in San Francisco and actually ended up owning 1/12th of the city by the end. He especially loved Lands End and used his fortune to protect the area, purchasing Cliff House, the coastline and using his influence to make Seal Rock a marine sanctuary. He was no angel though, as he created his attractions he dynamited cliffs, tunneled through rock, damned coves, planted countless non-native trees and flowers and built acre-large buildings. He eventually opened his attractions gardens to view at Sutro Heights, a place to swim at Sutro Baths, a museum and a rebuilt Cliff House.
As time pasted and a new generation craved different seaside attractions such as arcade games and rides Playland at the Beach was formed in the 1950’s. With this new attraction, Sutro Baths was less popular and transformed into an ice skating rink. It was soon shut down in 1966 and later burned in a fire. Playland didn’t last very long either. It was closed in 1972. Realizing that this land needed to be preserved, National Parks Service acquired both Lands End and Ocean Beach area by 1980 allowing them to become a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as well.
As we left the center feeling full of information I couldn’t wait to get a closer look at the ruins. We could see them from the lookout and headed over to the stairs that led down to them. We slowly walked down the stairs trying to choose which path to take. There were several different paths each leading somewhere different and by the end of our exploration we had seen them all. We started with the main Sutro Bath area, climbing inside what might have been changing rooms, but now looked like closed brick and cement chambers without any doors. It was hard to tell what was what.
We continued to the tunnel, deciding to come back to the pool after. The tunnel looked about 1/8 of a mile long. It was dark and cool inside. Midway is a cool outlet to the ocean where you can watch the waves crash and light peek in. We made it to the other side which had a wire across it trying to stop people from continuing any further. As I watched others climb out onto the rocks, clinging for their lives as the scrabbled and inched there way around I remembered the warning sign stating that people have been swept off the rocks and died here. I was not about to try it, especially with the sneakers I was wearing that day.
We walked back through the tunnel and continued our exploration of the baths. There were cool things to see everywhere. A section of the wall crumbling down due to the weather, another little tunnel that was closed off, wide open water space with seagulls swimming, the beach with amazing rock formations coming out of it. I took picture after picture as we walked along the walls with the water on both sides of us careful not to drop my camera. The water itself was disgusting, but made for great pictures. Even the rock wall from when the baths were operational was still there.
The sun was slowly lowering and we headed toward the south where Cliff House is located. Not sure what we were exploring, we found a wall covered in sand carvings, more stairs, little rundown rooms, a steel pipe leading to nowhere, and beautiful flowers. We ended up back near the top overlooking the whole place and decided to continue exploring to the north, over the tunnel. We came to another overlook and even saw a mother caring for her baby seagull, a little grey fuzzball. From here the rocks out in the ocean looked like they had a heart inside them. We even found a shark spray painted on a piece of cement.
It was time to leave as the sun had set and there was only one route we had not taken yet, the one through the thick forest of trees. Just a few feet away from the oceans edge a canopy covered the sky from view. It greatly contrasted the wide open fields of grass and beach that we had been previously exploring. We followed the path which brought us back to the center and starting point of the lookout. We took some time taking in the view one last time and finally headed back to the car content with our experience and feeling as though we had completed all there was to do there.
Lands End is an absolutely beautiful place. If you are in San Francisco and are looking for something to do you will not be disappointed checking this place out. Save a few hours to experience it. I’m positive you won’t want to rush this one and I’m sure you will want the extra time to look in every nook and cranny this place has to offer.