Lush, green and spectacularly beautiful, San Francisco's Lands End feels like it has been one of the world's most scenic spots forever.
But the truth is that this fascinating corner of the city, now part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the world's largest urban national park, was once barren and windswept. Where land meets sea, the Yelamu people, part of the Ohlone tribe, made the most of the desolate area, harvesting shellfish, making salt and hunting seabirds and marine mammals.
Then came the Spanish in the mid-1700s, followed by the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, and the natives were nowhere to be seen amid the changing landscape of Lands End, which became a playground of sorts for San Franciscans willing to brave the three miles of sand dunes between downtown and this craggy stretch of coastline.
To hike through Lands End today is a completely different experience than it was in the time of the Yelamu, different even than it was in the 1880s, when visitors climbed aboard Adolph Sutro's steam train that delivered passengers (for a fare of 5 cents) from downtown to his elaborate Cliff House restaurant and Sutro Baths.
Forests of Monterey cypress and pine trees now cling to the rocky cliffs, making for ideal hiking conditions and some of the best, most beautifully framed views of the Golden Gate Bridge you're likely to see.
Though the grandeur of Adolph Sutro's shops, restaurants, cafes and the seven pools of his baths are gone, we can still slip through the ghosts of the past while drinking in the natural grandeur of Lands End on the south side of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands on the north side of the bay.
There's no bad way to experience Lands End, with its warren of trails and endless scenic delights. But there is a way to approach this wonderland that encompasses food, history, beauty and bona fide culture. The following route takes you the long way – about 2 miles – from the Sutro Baths to the Palace of the Legion of Honor and then about a mile and a half back to the Lands End parking lot. Depending on how many detours you want to take or how long you want to spend at the Palace, the hike could take two to four hours.
Beginning of the End
Park in the newly refurbished and expanded Lands End parking lot at Point Lobos Avenue and El Camino del Mar.
Begin your journey not at the Cliff House (a tourist trap, pure and simple) but a little further uphill at Louis' diner, family-owned since 1937. Eat a hearty, no-frills diner breakfast or lunch – omelets and cheeseburgers are $8.25, fish and chips $14.75 – and drink in the million-dollar view of the Pacific.
Belly full, head down into the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Opened in 1896, the baths could house 10,000 people, not all of whom were enjoying the warm waters. Some were exploring Sutro's collection of tropical plants while others enjoyed the amphitheater shows, galleries and museum exhibits (including an Egyptian mummy).
All that's left of the splendor are some crumbling walls and remnants of the foundation. A fire destroyed the structure in 1966, and nature (and the crashing waves) have done the rest.
One spot to explore (especially with kids) is the cave that cuts right into Point Lobos. With the sound of the waves echoing through the darkness, the cave is a creepy delight, but you can't go all the way through it. The north entrance is roped off to keep visitors off the dangerous, wave-drenched rocks on that end.
Hiking the Coastal Trail
As you take the Sutro Baths Upper Trail (it's uphill about 760 feet) to the Coastal Trail, you'll likely hear the barking of the sea lions on Seal Rocks. They're hard to see out there, but they're loud.
The Coastal Trail is well maintained by the Park Service and squads of weekend volunteers. Nice and wide, the trail easily accommodates all the hikers, bicyclists, dog walkers and runners that enjoy this area daily.
As you head north on the trail, you'll pass under the USS San Francisco memorial, then you'll curve around and start heading east. This bend in the trail offers your first of many spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Even on a foggy morning, with the tops of the towers obscured by mist, the view is breathtaking.
Looking down into the bay, you'll see treacherous waters. It's not surprising to learn that since the mid-1800s, more than a dozen ships have wrecked close to Lands End.
The worst shipwreck was the City of Rio de Janeiro in 1901, with a loss of 128 lives. At low tide, keep your eye out for the ruins of the Frank H. Buck, an oil tanker that was struck by the luxury liner President Coolidge and sank in 1937.
As you progress along the Coastal Trail, you'll notice a little stump of a lighthouse, Mile Rock Lighthouse, which was built in 1906 and converted to a helicopter landing pad 60 years later.
The name comes from the rocky beach below you, which you can visit if you feel like navigating the steep (but well maintained) staircase trail.
Enter the labyrinth
At one point, the staircase splits in two. If you veer to the right, you'll end up on the cliff above the beach, where you'll find one of the most delightful surprises in Lands End: a labyrinth created from small stones, built in 2004 by Eduardo Aguilera, who says the walkable maze is a "shrine to peace, love and enlightenment."
Back up on the Coastal Trail, you'll hit a steep staircase that takes you up into a fragrant eucalyptus grove and winds through raspberry brambles that occasionally offer peeks of the bridge and of China Beach and Baker Beach below and to the east.
The trailhead leaves you on El Camino del Mar, in the middle of Lincoln Park Municipal Golf Course. Wend your way up the hill to the Palace of the Legion of Honor. If you're not interested in the current exhibition, a collection of prints by John Baldessari running through Nov. 8, you can still take in some beautiful art.
George Segal's "The Holocaust" (1984), on the hillside outside the museum, is a sobering sculptural tribute to lives lost in concentration camps. Mark di Suervo's "Pax Jerusalemme" (1999) is a giant steel sculpture, its red arms outstretched to the sky. And just inside the courtyard of the Palace, where it suddenly feels like you've landed in Paris, a version of Rodin's famous sculpture "The Thinker" is lost in reverie.
To get back on the Coastal Trail, walk to the north end of the museum and head downhill through a narrow parking lot. At the bottom of the lot, you'll see a sign guiding you back to the Coastal Trail via the El Camino del Mar Trail.
Underneath the canopy of trees, it feels like you're anywhere but San Francisco. And it's extraordinary to think that all these trees were planted in 1933 as part of a city of San Francisco and federal Civil Works Administration project to add a little a beauty to Lands End.
The Coastal Trail will take you right back to the parking lot to end your journey along the western edge of the continent and through San Francisco's wild and wonderful backyard.
For maps and information:
Visit the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy Web site:
www.parksconservancy.org (415) 561-3000.
Lands End special events:
Become a Lands End steward and help restore unique coastal habitat and enhance the trail systems at Lands End.
Lands End Stewardship, Thursdays and Saturdays, starting this Thursday; 1-4 p.m.
Audience: Adults, educators, elementary school students, families, groups, high school students, middle school students, seniors, volunteers.
Event type: Birds/wildlife, environment/science, volunteer
Volunteer type: Habitat restoration and monitoring
The Palace of the Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park near 34th Avenue and Clement Street
For information: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org/legion
Open: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Admission: $10 adults general, $7 seniors 65 and over, $6 youth 13-17, free for ages 12 and under
902 Point Lobos Ave., San Francisco
For information: (415) 387-6330