Lands End Trail, San Francisco

Story by guest blogger Judy Clement Wall. Photos Copyright © Judy Clement Wall.

Along the San Francisco coast lies a stunning, unexpected bit of wildness called the Lands End Trail that stretches from Ocean Beach northeast to China Beach.

Walking the trail through windswept cypress groves and tumbling hills of ivy and wild flowers, it’s easy to forget where you are. When you find yourself suddenly standing on a jutting outcrop, stunned by the sight of waves crashing against rugged coastal cliffs, sandy beaches, and the Golden Gate Bridge, the crowded city and all its trappings seem a million miles away.

Magical trails that make you forget the nearby city hubbub

Magical trails make you forget the nearby city hubbub

The coastal trail begins at the concrete ruins of the Sutro Baths, just north of Ocean Beach. Built by former San Francisco mayor and entrepreneur Adolph Sutro and opened to the public in 1886, the Sutro Baths were awe inspiring: seven spring and ocean water swimming pools heated to various temperatures, slides, trapezes, springboards and a high dive.

The structure was enormous, part of a massive entertainment complex; it could accommodate 10,000 bathers at a time. What remains are the ruins. Perched precariously above thunderous waves, they are beautiful in a way that maybe only ruins can be—spectacular, devolving works of art.

The ruins of Sutro Baths

The ruins of Sutro Baths

In our current era of law suits and pre-emptive safety precautions, the Sutro Baths are quite disarming, at once accessible and wild. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, they are untended, treacherous and fierce. Signs warn you to be careful, to watch your step. The park brochure implores visitors to “please use caution.” A long staircase down the side of a hill is the only access, and once you reach the bottom, there are no railings, no carefully cleared paths, no sectioned off stretches. You can crawl and climb and traverse at will.

Steps to Mile Rock Beach

Steps to Mile Rock Beach

Emerging from the ruins, I set out on the Lands End Trail. Lush green coastal vegetation crowded the path and everywhere I looked wildflowers were in bloom. All along the trail were staircases; some are part of the main Coastal Trail, some are detours. The steep dirt staircase that leads to Mile Rock Beach is one of the latter. At the bottom, after more than 100 steps, the beach itself is small and very rocky, but the crashing waves at high tide are an awesome sight to see—as is the labyrinth, a meditative rock formation created by artist Eduardo Aguilera.

Just past Mile Rock beach, the trail reaches its logical end at Eagles Point with its beautiful, much photographed view of the Golden Gate bridge. I decided to keep going. I wanted to see how close to the bridge I could get. I passed Eagles Point without stopping and caught the far less obvious Coastal Trail, past China and Baker Beaches, up and over the Presidio Bluffs. I paused to take pictures of Crosby Battery, which may have been impressive at the turn of the century when it was built to protect underwater minefields but is now abandoned and sort of aggressively creepy. I didn’t stay long.

I hiked a small trail back down to the beach, about a mile short of the bridge. It was cold and getting late, the fog was rolling in. I felt like an adventurer—a picture at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge my prize. I got as close as I could, dodging the tide, maneuvering rocks and waves. With only a sweatshirt, I wasn’t really dressed for the increasing cold, but I was running by then, so I didn’t feel it.

I felt like an adventurer—a picture at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge my prize.

A picture at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge was my prize.

Here is my reward, my picture, looking through the rocky bluff I couldn’t get past, the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog. This is San Francisco—majestic, beautiful, aggressively urban and somehow still partly wild. Untamed.


Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy: Lands End

Judy peeks from a rock window along Lands End Trail

Judy peeks from a rock window along Lands End Trail


Judy Clement Wall is a freelance writer who lives, works and plays in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read and link to more of her work through her blog, Zebra Sounds.

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  1. I’ve been to this trail (long ago) and absolutely loved revisiting it through this blog! What an incredible place!

  2. Thank you, Julia. It is so beautiful. I never get tired of wandering it.

  3. Hi J,

    I visit Milli’s travel site and didn’t realize you wrote here as well.

    What a lush walk! I will do this when we drive from SF to Washington. (Want to visit Bodega Bay in honor of the great movie The Birds.) We did the LA to SF drive and had quite the walking adventure in SF. We decided to walk to the bridge from our hotel. It appeared rather close, but after walking and walking and walking and walking, we realized how far it actually was. Took us a good 4 or 5 hours. (I love to walk around cities and not use any transport but my feet.)

    We ended up making it! Then whimping out and taking a bus to the GG park up the road. (but we hoofed it back from there.) It looks like this path starts where we got on the bus.

    Looks fun! thanks, G.

    • Hi, G.

      Wow, I love that you guys did that. I live practically next door to SF, and I’ve never just walked around there. (I’m always heading somewhere.) The Boy have decided to look for Love Graffiti there next week, taking Bart out and then walking.

      Stay tuned!

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