Distance (round-trip)

4.0 mi

Time

2.5 hrs

Elevation Gain

675 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

Weather

Lands End, the westernmost point in San Francisco, hosts one of the most scenic coastal hikes in San Francisco complete with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, wildflowers, wildlife, a rocky beach, labyrinth, and a surprisingly woodsy forest. On this hike, we will explore the Coastal Trail along the historic waterfront and descend wooden staircases to Sutro Baths, Mile Rock Beach, and Lands End Labyrinth.

Begin at Lands End Lookout, a recently built visitor center that opened on April 28, 2012, part of a major restoration of the Lands End Coastal Trail. Inside you will find free trail maps, cultural and natural history exhibits, and San Francisco mementos. The lion you see in front of the building is a replica of Adolph Sutro’s garden statues that once populated these grounds—his effort to bring European art to San Franciscans.

Head north from Lands End Lookout on the wide concrete walkway lined with benches. The Lands End Coastal Trail begins in 0.1 miles, at the break in the cypress trees to the north. Wind carries the salt spray in the brisk air, foghorns bellow, waves crash into the cliffs below, and across the Golden Gate Strait the west, middle, and east peaks stand prominently on Mount Tamalpais.

Take a left at a wooden staircase at the edge of the concrete walk to explore Sutro Baths. The Baths, visible below the cliffs from Lands End Lookout, are the concrete remains of an indoor swimming pool. Opened in 1894, the gargantuan structure covered over three acres and housed six saltwater swimming pools—each heated by steam to different temperatures! It was an engineering marvel in its time and Sutro poured himself into the project, building a three-tiered spectator viewing area, private dressing rooms, restaurants, and even a turbine pump that could funnel in more ocean water if the tide was too low to fill the pools.

Adolph Sutro was an engineer from Prussia who came to the United States in 1850 at the age of 20. He made his fortune creating a special ventilation tunnel in Nevada silver mines. After purchasing 22 acres at Lands End in 1881, he began reconstructing the area into an elaborate garden and recreational area. He envisioned the Baths as a place for average, working San Franciscans to be able to afford and take a recreational swim. It was a popular day trip in its time, but public attendance slowly declined over the years in part due to the Great Depression. A fire in 1966 burned Sutro Baths, and in 1973, the National Park Service purchased the land and it officially joined the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Descend 125 feet on the steep wooden stair steps to the ruins below. On your right is a tunnel underneath the cliff. An opening about halfway through gives you a peak at crashing waves that reverberate overhead like a bass. Heading back up towards the concrete walkway, explore a trail leading to an overlook above Sutro Baths, which gives you a nice view of the ruins from above, Cliff House, and the Marin Headlands. At low tide, you may also be able to see the ruins of the Ohioan, a vessel that wrecked here in 1937.

Sutro Baths was not without controversy. On July 4, 1897 and July 11, 1897, Sutro Baths denied entrance to John Harris, a black man, on the grounds it would hurt business. Harris sued, and won his case in court, citing the Dibble Civil Rights Act that had just been passed in the California legislature on March 13, 1897. The damages awarded were modest, $50 for each incident for a total of $100. It was still an important victory though because it meant the Dibble Act could be enforced. Ultimately, the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959 succeeded the Dibble Act.

When ready, retrace your steps back up the wooden steps to the concrete walkway, turning left to pick up the five-foot wide dirt trail past coyote brush and sea daisies. At the 0.6-mile mark, head north on the Coastal Trail towards Mile Rock Beach. The trail’s scenery, wide, easy path, and surprising verdure brings out almost everyone: you can expect to see joggers, parents with children, owners taking pups for a walk, girlfriends gabbing, couples out for a stroll, and tourists taking in the sights.

The flat trail is the former rail bed of the Cliffs House and Ferries Railroad, a steam rail line completed in 1888 that brought passengers from the present California Street in downtown San Francisco to Sutro Heights, the name of Adoph Sutro’s mega complex of parks, the Cliff House, gardens, and baths at Lands End. Built into the edge of a cliff, the rail line had troubles with landslides, and ultimately closed in 1925. As you hike the former rail bed, you can imagine how scenic it was taking the train along the Lands End Coastal Trail.

At the 0.8-mile mark, reach the Lifesaving Station Overlook, a semicircle viewpoint where you can see the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day to the northwest. You are also likely to see people gathered at a promontory—the flat, table-top like cliff is where the Lands End Labyrinth is and where we’ll be heading. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins and whales, which can sometimes been seen from the overlooks.

Continue northeast on the Coastal Trail to Mile Rock Overlook at the 1.0-mile mark. Looking out at the Golden Gate Strait, you can imagine how treacherous it was for ships to navigate through the thick fog, narrow passageway, changing tides, and hazardous sea stacks along the shoreline. Over 300 vessels have wrecked trying to pass through, and two are actually visible at low tide from Mile Rock Overlook: the Frank H. Buck (1937) and Lyman Stewart (1922), which unfortunately both wrecked in the same spot.

Past Mile Rock Overlook, wind into the cypress forest passing thick bramble and happy faced nasturtium. A sign marks the end of the bike portion of this path. Stay straight and in 225 feet, at the 1.3-mile mark, turn left at the wooden staircase to explore Mile Rock Beach and the Lands End Labyrinth.

Mile Rock Beach is a small, partially sandy beach covered in bowling ball sized rocks. Driftwood makes great benches to watch the crashing waves next to sea stacks and serrated cliff lines. At an unsigned fork just above the beach, take the obvious trail north to the Lands End Labyrinth.

Eduardo Aguilera built the original Lands End Labyrinth in March 2004 with stones from the surrounding coastline. Over the years it has been vandalized twice but always rebuilt. It has become a popular destination for people to visit, meditate, grieve, or even become engaged. On a clear day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance beyond the labyrinth. To the northwest is the former Mile Rock Lighthouse, converted to a helipad in 1966. The lighthouse was built in 1904 after a devastating incident in 1901 when the City of Rio de Janeiro, a steam ship, became stranded, flooded, and sank at Fort Point, killing 128 passengers. NOAA states on their website, “The Rio is considered by historians as the ‘Titanic of the Golden Gate.'”

Let’s climb back up to the Coastal Trail and go see a beautiful eucalyptus grove, what do you say? Ascend the wooden staircase from Mile Rock Beach, then turn left, heading northeast towards Eagles’ Point Overlook. On your right you’ll see a large white-painted rock—this used to be a navigation aid to ships coming through the Golden Gate Strait. Maritime pilots knew they were in the clear—safely within the sea-lane—when the painted wall aligned with Mile Rock Lighthouse.

 

Just beyond the painted rock, at the 1.8-mile mark, take a Monterey pine-framed staircase up to through the eucalyptus grove I mentioned earlier—and more views of the coast and Golden Gate Bridge! After cresting the top, enjoy the international orange of the bridge along with views of China Beach, Baker Beach, and San Francisco landmarks like the Palace of Fine Arts further along the trail.

Passing shrubs of monkeyflower, arrive at Eagles’ Point Overlook at the 2.3-mile mark. The full coastline from Baker Beach to Marshall’s Beach stretches towards the Golden Gate Bridge. 0.1 miles beyond Eagles’ Point Overlook, the Coastal Trail continues along El Camino del Mar. After exploring the junction, turn around to hike the Coastal Trail back to your starting point at Lands End Lookout, where you can pick up a sandwich, coffee or keepsake and breathe in the salt air once more.

Notes:

  • Dogs are allowed on trails and beaches, and must be leashed in parking lots and picnic areas
  • There is no entrance fee or parking fee, and the Lands End Main Parking Lot is open from 7:00 a.m. – 1:00 a.m.
  • Break-ins are frequent so be sure to take your valuables with you and do not leave anything visible inside of your car.
  • Lands End Lookout (the visitor center) is open daily from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. with the exception of holidays. Check their website for up-to-date information or call (415) 426-5240.
  • Restrooms are located next to Lands End Lookout
  • Here’s a link to a trail map within a brochure. I personally like the free, large-print map you can get inside Lands End Lookout.
  • If you just hike the Coastal Trail and skip the detours to Sutro Baths, Mile Rock Beach, and Lands End Labyrith, it is a shorter and easier 3.2-mile round-trip hike starting from Lands End Lookout. You can also lengthen your day by taking the Coastal Trail north to the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge, or south to Cliff House and Ocean Beach.

West Coast hiker, writer, and photographer. Author of "Moon 75 Great Hikes Seattle."





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