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Lands End: San Francisco's Oceanfront Gem

Discover a window into the past and amazing views of San Francisco at this oceanfront playground

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    While most people beeline to the Golden Gate Bridge for their Instagram shots of San Francisco, some of the most amazing views of the City by the Bay and its dramatic surroundings can be captured from San Francisco’s northwestern tip—a wild and windswept, ocean-wrapped spit known as Lands End. Located just five blocks north of the western part of Golden Gate Park and to the west of the Presidio, this less-traveled corner of the city is rich in history and historic sites and ruins (yes, ruins—read on). It’s also a great spot for stretching your legs on a network of uncrowded trails, with plenty of chances to spy seals, sea lions, pelicans, and even whales. Check out the National Park Services site for a map of the Lands End Trails.

    “I have the most exalted ideas regarding the future of California. I think we will grow in population, we will grow in commerce, we will grow in civilization and arts and sciences until we will rank first among our countries.” –Adolph Sutro (1830–1898)

    Start your visit at the Lands End Lookout, an excellent interpretive center with picture windows looking west to the blue Pacific. (December to March, keep your eyes peeled for migrating gray whales; in summer, you might spy humpbacks or even endangered blue whales.) Displays shed light on the region’s natural history and on Lands End’s fascinating place in San Francisco’s past. In the 1880s, Adolph Sutro, who made millions in silver mining and real estate, bought acreage here, dubbed it Sutro Heights, and set about transforming the land into an elaborate public garden, with forests, flower beds, and wide paths leading to vista points. He also snapped up and grandly refurbished the region’s signature oceanfront restaurant, Cliff House, and started building his dream project: an open-to-all waterfront wonderland, including a massive glass structure enclosing six swimming pools, each naturally recharged with seawater at high tide and heated to various temperatures.

    Over the decades, the Sutro family struggled to keep it all financed and functioning. After a fire in 1966, though, the baths were permanently shuttered. Development plans for the site fell through, and in 1976, the bathhouse complex—now no more than dramatic ruins—and surrounding acreage were designated as parkland, a federally protected part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

    The Sutro Baths could accommodate 10,000 people at one time, with 500 dressing rooms, and 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for rent.

    Today, paths wind down into the ruins and link to the Coastal Trail, with breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. In the last decade, Cliff House has undergone yet another face-lift, with various dining options (the fanciest choice, dress-up–worthy Sutro’s, has some of the city’s best window-seat views of the ocean at sunset). There’s also a nice gift shop and a wraparound walkway for more ocean views. From here, it’s an easy stroll south to Ocean Beach, a 3.5-mile-long ribbon of white sand that’s remarkably untrammeled and wild—an often-overlooked gem trimming the western side of San Francisco. When visiting, dress in layers; even in summer the weather can be quite cool.

    Insider tips: If visiting by car, it’s recommended to approach via the western end of the park, near Cliff House. Parking is much easier there than near the Lands End entrance at the east end. Also: Don’t leave without seeking out what remains of the Lands End Labyrinth, an earthbound installation created by artist Eduardo Aguilera in 2004.

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