Whenever we have out of town visitors to use for an excuse, I take them to one of my favorite parts of San Francisco. That is the northwest corner of the city, which features the Cliff House restaurant, the ruins of the old Sutro Baths, and the trails of Lands End. The entire area is now administered by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which is part of the National Park Service. Once a hodge-podge of souvenir stands and hot dog carts, the area has been opened up to exploit the scenic views and provide accessibility wherever possible.
If you come from south of the city, the best approach to the area is straight up the Great Highway. From other parts of San Francisco, the most straightforward route is due west on the Geary Boulevard until it turns into Point Lobos Avenue. There is on-street parking, as well as an older lot on the south side of Point Lobos Avenue, but the most convenient is the new lot GGNRA has built at the trail head for Lands End.
From the lot, you can either take the wheelchair-accessible sidewalk down to the Cliff House or take the stairs down to stroll around the ruins of the old Sutro Baths.
All that’s left of the once grand Sutro Baths are concrete walls and pools. Let your imagination take you back to the turn of the 20th century when Adolph Sutro’s creation was at its prime. There were seven swimming pools of various temperatures, all housed within a neoclassical glass enclosure. With 1.7 million gallons of water and 20,000 woolen swimsuits for rent, 10,000 visitors could be accommodated at a time. Later on, when interest waned in the swimming pools, they were turned into an ice-skating rink that remained open through the 1950s.
The structure was closed to the public and torn down for development of the site in the early 1960s. Fortunately, the development never happened, and GGNRA acquired the site in 1973. Now you can wander around the ruins and enjoy the views of Seal Rocks and ships entering the Golden Gate. If you’re especially lucky and visit during an extreme low tide, you can actually get down on the beach and walk around the base of the cliffs to Ocean Beach.
Once you’ve had a wander around the ruins, climb to the viewing terraces that surround the Cliff House. If it’s open, don’t pass up the chance to visit the Camera Obscura.
There have been three different Cliff House structures since 1863, each with a unique story. Over the years, the most recent Cliff House structure (1909) has been modified and remodeled into the structure that exists today.
Walk around the terraces and enjoy the views. You’ll find the Camera Obscura on the furthest southwest corner of the terrace. If you have time and money, come back at the end of your day out to have dinner in the restaurant. Or just stop in for a drink and snack at the bar.
On the terrace, down behind the Cliff House restaurant complex, is an odd and slightly dilapidated looking little building. Shaped like an old-fashioned camera abandoned by some giant, it is the home of San Francisco’s camera obscura — one of only a handful left around the world. The exhibit also features some unusual old-style holographic images built into the inside walls.
This camera obscura dates from the 1940s, although the building that houses it is somewhat newer. After a close call with destruction a few years ago, the camera was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it is still open to visitors.
The camera obscura is essentially a pinhole camera. That is, a small aperture projects a live image onto a large horizontal viewing dish located in a darkened room. As the reflecting mirror slowly pans around the horizon, viewers are treated to a 360 degree view of Ocean Beach, Seal Rock, and environs of the Cliff House.
While the exhibit is theoretically open every day, it tends to close in poor weather conditions. Because it depends on natural light to function, a visit would be wasted on a dark day. Calling before you go can save disappointment: (415) 750-0415. There is an entrance fee.
When you’re ready for lunch, head back up the road towards the parking lot, and stop in at Louis’ Restaurant.
Louis’ is my recommendation for a casual lunch on your day out. Family owned and operated since 1937, Louis’ is a San Francisco landmark. I’d describe their fare as “California diner,” which you can take out or eat in while you enjoy the spectacular views of the Sutro Baths, Seal Rocks, and the entrance to the Golden Gate.
As of this writing, the restaurant is closed for renovations as part of their new contract with GGNRA. Re-opening is anticipated for April 2011. I believe there will be some changes to the menu as well, as GGNRA wanted some lighter fare available. You should go ahead and have the burger and fries you really want, because afterwards you’re going to walk it off.
Head back through the parking lot, to the where the forested area begins. GGNRA has created a well-paved trail and viewpoint, to give visitors easy access to views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond the paved area, you can walk or bike on unpaved trails as far as your time and energy will take you. You can stop and climb down to China Beach or Baker Beach. You can walk all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond to Fort Point and Crissy Field, with breathtaking views all along the way. More realistically, you’ll need to time your half-way point and probably turn around before you get as far as the bridge. You’ll just have to come back on many other days to finish your walk and explore some more!
Nps.gov, “Golden Gate National Recreational Area Map.”
Nps.gov, “Cliff House and Sutro Baths.”
Ingrid Taylor, About.com, “Camera Obscura – San Francisco”
Louis’ Restaurant, Facebook.