What’s Best: Miles of open beach, flanked by the city’s historic esplanade.
Parking: From the north on Hwy. 1, which is 19th Ave, go right on Geary Blvd. Veer right on Point Lobos Ave, which curves down to the Great Highway. Go south and park along the coast at the north end of the mile-long parking lot.
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Coming from the south, go north on Hwy. 280 and follow signs to Hwy. 1. Go west on Noriega Ave. And then north on the Great Highway to north end parking, across from Balboa Ave. Agency: Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Ocean Beach is where Golden Gate Park meets the sea, a broad swath of sand running about 4 miles, from below the Cliff House to Fort Funston. Beginning at the north end and extending south for about a mile is The Esplanade, a sidewalk off which wide stairs lead down to the beach through regular openings in a 15-foot high seawall. South of The Esplanade, the path continues, intermittently paved, for the last several miles, with openings through dunes. At the far south end of Ocean Beach, where the bluffs of Fort Funston slope upwards from sea level, is an improved parking area a good spot to begin walks along wilder sections of coast. You may wish to begin your Ocean Beach hike on the sand, go until you’re half-tired, and then loop back up to The Esplanade or path on the return leg. Be Aware: Ocean Beach is not safe for swimming.
Bike: Try a 10-mile ride from the Cliff House through Fort Funston. Begin by going down the coast along the Great Highway, part of Bike Route 95. At the south end of Ocean Beach, where the Great Highway veers away from the coast, is a bike path leading over the Fort Funston dunes. Take it to the parking area at Fort Funston, where you ride out to Skyline Boulevard and double back on Bike Route 95.
What’s Best: With a world-class museum, relics of San Francisco’s gilded years, and dramatic coastal bluffs and parks, this area scores near the top of everybody’s fun list.
Parking: From Hwy. 1, which is 19th Avenue, turn west on Geary Blvd. Near the coast, veer right on Point Lobos Ave. And, just past El Camino del Mar, turn right on your Merrie Way. Park in large lot. Agency: Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Hike: Sutro Heights Park (up to 1.5 ml. ); Sutro Bath ruins (up to 1 ml. ); Coastal Trail to Legion of Honor (1. 75 ml. ); Eagles Point viewing platform (.25 ml. )
Lands End features rugged cliffs that form the most westerly portion of the south side of the Golden Gate. Numerous shipwrecks have been logged in these treacherous currents, rocks, and high surf. When the freighter Ohioan ran aground in 1936, sparks from her steel hull were said to have illuminated the dark night. Lands End is part of GGNRA’s Sutro District, named in honor of Adolph Sutro, an engineer and later mayor of San Francisco, whose mansion and lavish Sutro Baths supplied a fantastical architectural accent to the area’s striking natural beauty. Sutro, an immigrant from Germany with little to his name, made his fortune in the 1860s by designing a tunnel through the base of a mountain which drained water from the silver and gold mines in the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada.
Sutro Heights Park is the former site of Sutro’s mansion, with views of Ocean Beach and Seal Rock. Cross Point Lobos Avenue to a parking lot and walk left to the end of the lot and up a short, fairly steep ramp to the park. At the top is a paved path that makes a large circle through a varied arboretum that includes cypress and Norfolk pines the grounds of the estate of a man who had his pick of all of San Francisco. The gardens were planted at the time as a marvel for the public, as Adolph was prone to parlaying his fortune to amuse others as well as himself. On the west end of the loop is the park’s hidden treasure, a path up to a viewing area. Sutro died in 1898 and his mansion was demolished in 1939.
To Sutro Bath ruins, take the steps down from the Merrie Way parking lot. The substantial remains of the bath’s foundation today form a pool for shorebirds. But when Sutro’s incredible site opened in 1896, the foundations supported seven large saltwater pools, enclosed by a two-acre glass roof and surrounded by curio shops with Egyptian artifacts, galleries with restaurants, and a tiered grandstand that seated 5,000 people. Some 500 private dressing rooms served up to 20, 000 swimmers each day. In the mid-1900s, the weather-bashed baths were converted to a skating rink, and in 1966 the remaining structure was destroyed by fire. You can roam around the concrete labyrinth to the right of which you’ll also find a 200-foot long tunnel leading to crashing waves. And don’t miss the higher paths up to the right that lead to walled-in coastal perches. Be aware: High surf is a hazard all along the shoreline.
The Coastal Trail to the Legion of Honor features a tree-filtered view of Lands End and the Golden Gate Bridge. Head out from the trailhead at the north end of the Merrie Way parking lot on a spur trail that soon joins the Coastal Trail. Go left on the Coastal Trail, and, when the Golden Gate Bridge comes into view, take a staircase with cable railing that goes up to the right. The stairs lead to the Fort Miley parking area, which is also accessible via El Camino del Mar. Proceed on a road out the northwest part of the parking area, to your right as you face the water. This old road, a former railroad bed for the Sutro line that serviced the Cliff House and baths, is the Camino del Mar Trail. The forested trail with ocean views leads to a series of steps jog right and then to a paved part of El Camino del Mar. As you walk up, the Legion of Honor is to your right and the golf course on the left. Explore the museum’s beautiful grounds, if you like, and then pick up the Coastal Trail, which is off the the large circular drive, where Legion of Honor Drive ends at El Camino del Mar. The Coastal Trail loops back to the Merrie Way parking lot. See below for more on the Legion of Honor.
For Eagles Point a spectacular viewing area of the Golden Gate Bridge you need to drive: From the Merrie Way parking lot, turn left and then make an immediate left toward Fort Miley. Then turn right on Clement, continue for a number of blocks, and turn left on Legion of Honor Drive. Drive past the Legion of Honor and go right on El Camino del Mar. Look for GGNRA’s Land End sign, just west of 32nd Avenue, and park along the golf course. The short trail, down railroad-tie stairs, leads to the John C. Scully bench and a surreal view of the Golden Gate.
Walk: Cliff House; Giant Camera; GGNRA Visitors Center; Legion of Honor.
To the Cliff House Restaurant, a San Francisco tradition since 1863, walk to the right down the broad sidewalk from the Merrie Way parking lot. The elegant structure has had many incarnations. The original modest place was sold to Sutro in 1881, who built a rail line to it, before it burned down in 1894. Sutro’s grand re-build, fashioned after a French chateau, survived the 1906 earthquake, but burned a year later. The third, and existing, Cliff House was built by Sutro’s daughter, Emma, in 1909. The National Park Service acquired the restaurant in 1977. Sunset views and fine food make it one of the most popular restaurants in the country.
Below the Cliff House via stairs that begin off the sidewalk about 200 feet down the hill is a GGNRA Visitors Center featuring an excellent gift shop and blogstore. Offshore from these attractions is a view of misnamed Seal Rock. Once a popular hangout for local sea lions, these guano-covered crags now feature an array of shore-birds. At the viewing area is Giant Camera, a “camera obscura” based on a 15th century design by Leonardo Da Vinci. The walk-in device produces a 360-degree live image of the Seal Rock area.
The Legion of Honor is one of SF’s world-class art museums. Drive east on Point Lobos Avenue until it becomes Geary Boulevard, then turn left on 34th Avenue. At Clement Street, 34th becomes Legion of Honor Drive, which you take a short distance up to the scenic parking area. Dedicated in an extravaganza on Armistice Day 1924, the museum is a slightly down-scale replica of the neoclassical Legion of Honor in Paris. Check out the view from the east end of the parking area. You can sit outside the museum doors with Rodin’s The Thinker. Inside are traveling exhibits, as well as ancient, medieval and European art from the 16th century forward to modern times.