Land’s End: A Great Hike In NW San Francisco

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

San Francisco is a city of many charms, one being the accessibility of nature.  Most people rave about Muir Woods or Mt. Tamalpais, but in fact, you don’t need to cross a bridge to have a fantastic hike.  With lofty bluffs, wind-blown cypresses and hidden beaches, Land’s End can provide hours and hours of (almost) wilderness experience right here in The City.

Start your journey from Point Lobos Avenue. Up the road from the storied Cliff House restaurant, you’ll find the new Land’s End Visitors’ Center, just completed in 2012.  It claims to be green in some respect, but it is mostly a gray affair, built in the cement and bare timber postmodern-woodsy style. 

Like most visitors’ centers, it is recommended that you do not enter unless you need to use the bathroom, and instead proceed directly to grand outdoor world beyond. 

On your left, follow the stairs down to explore the ruins of the old Sutro Baths.  No, you don’t have to go to Anatolia to explore the ruins of ancient baths! 

Built in 1896 by the Prussian immigrant turned one-time mayor of San Francisco and inveterate civic booster Adolf Sutro, the baths evoke a bygone era of leisure and public grandeur.  In the 19th century, one could ride a trolley from downtown San Francisco to the still-wild coastal locale for 5 cents.  The baths served the San Francisco public until they burned down in 1966.

Just beyond the baths, stop by Point Lobos, named for the lobos marinos — sealions — that once resided there.  Now that original colony has moved around to the north side of the city, where it is still a tourist favorite at Pier 39. 

Here is the westernmost point in The City, the reason for the name “Land’s End,” which is an echo of the more famous Land’s End in Cornwall, England.  That Land’s End is also a westernmost point, with craggy bluffs, but instead of lovely nature hikes, it is privately owned, and has been developed into a theme park of sorts. This comparison serves to re-emphasize the wisdom of our leaving the British Commonwealth. 

Continuing north, regain the bluff and the wide path through a recently restored native plant meadow.  The trail here follows the old railroad bed of a long abandoned trolley line.  Soon the greatest treasure of Land’s End will be yours:  the illusion that you are miles and miles away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. 

Look out across the rolling waves crashing below, look north to the unspoiled Marin coastline, look south and see only crags and rocks awash in sea spray.  Linger here in the middle section of the Land’s End trail; bask in the magic of the scene.

As you approach Mile Rock, the crowd will thin out, and the trail will become more rugged.  A side path leads down worn steps to a rocky cove.  Here, bonfires seem to be burning all day, and big boulders provide the adventuresome with ample opportunity for insecure scrambles above a cold watery fate, if one step proves to be more slippery than calculated. 

These same rocks extend seaward, forming treacherous reefs that have been the site of numerous shipwrecks, to which an informational plaque attests.  Gaze long and ponder the Conradesque dramas that unfolded here on some tragic foggy morn, and be thankful that your slippery rock episode will leave you only with wet shoes. 

Return to the Coastal Trail, which presently wraps around to the north, offering views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  As you approach the end of the 3.4 mile (5.5-kilometer) walk, you’ll again start to notice signs of civilization — more people, more cameras clicking and the occasional errant golf ball from the adjacent golf course, golf being the most civilized of all pastimes. 

Retrace your steps back to Point Lobos Avenue, or return via the (actually quite beautiful) golf course and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, a lovely hilltop museum that may contain paintings of coastal bluffs almost as beautiful as the majestic Land’s End coastal bluffs just beyond its manicured lawns.