The Coastal Trail at Lands End San Francisco is a gorgeous spot for walking, but most visitors to the city don't know it's there.
Lands End is easy to get to, easy to park, and much less crowded than the more well-known parks and beaches.
The northwest corner of San Francisco is a rugged stretch of Cypress forest, bordered by cliffs plunging 200 feet to the sea below.
Lands End guards the narrow ocean channel leading to the Golden Gate Bridge and the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The approach to the bay is treacherous and many ships have been dashed on the rocks off Lands End, trying to navigate the channel.
The Coastal Trail is walkway that starts just above the Cliff House, then winds in and out of the woods and along the edge of the bluffs, and ends in a ritzy residential area (Sea Cliff) near China Beach.
There is a short paved stretch near the beginning, but most of the trail is dirt and rocks, with a couple of steep stairways. Mostly mild, but moderately strenuous in a couple of places. The trail is about 1.5 miles long; a leisurely walk one-way takes about an hour.
Heavy rains caused a large chunk of the cliff to fall away; the soil is very sandy and can be unstable.
The scenery and terrain along the trail are so varied, I wanted to give visitors a feel for it:
Starting out (from the parking lot) the path is broad and paved.
After following the edge for a bit, the pathway dives into the woods and winds around.
The trail opens out onto the most gorgeous vistas: the bay and the bridge, and the steep cliffs of Lands End.
A steep climb up rustic stairs.
Down it goes towards the cliffs again.
Following the edge of the cliffs, with amazing views.
More beautiful views, approaching the eastern end of the trail.
Lands End Point
About half a mile along the Coastal Trail there is a turn-off (marked with a sign) towards the water. A very steep stairway leads down to a great spot, Lands End Point, with spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and bay entrance. This is a fun place for a picnic, with the grand vista and rocky cliffs spread out around you.
Walk the labyrinth at the entrance to San Francisco Bay.
Another branch of the same path will take you down to the mini-beach, Mile Rock Beach, at the foot of Lands End Point. The way down is quite steep, but there is a stairway to follow. A small, rocky beach, good for relaxing and watching the breaking waves, but too rough (and cold) for swimming.
San Francisco was originally inhabited by the Ohlone Indians. An archeological site at Lands End was dated at 150 A.D., but there is evidence that Indians had been living in San Francisco for around 3,000 years. They had seasonal camps where the Sutro Baths ruins are now, eating seafood and hunting seals; archeologists found their garbage dumps, more politely known as middens.
The first Europeans to see Lands End were possibly privateer Sir Francis Drake and his crew, when the Golden Hind sailed down the California coast past the entrance to the bay in 1579.
Two centuries later, the Spanish explorer Don Gaspar de Portola marched with his men up from Baja California and arrived at San Francisco Bay on October 31, 1769.
The coastal trail used to be a railway line. In 1888, German immigrant Adolph Sutro arranged to have a railway built from downtown SF out to the wilderness area where he had built the Cliff House and the Sutro Baths. San Franciscans could take the train out to the Cliff House until 1925, when a landslide closed the track.
Lands End was used as a military fort, Fort Miley, starting in the late 1800's. Gun batteries were installed in 1902 to guard the approach to San Francisco and were still being used for coastal defense until 1943. A veterans hospital was built on the grounds, and the Lincoln Park golf course now occupies a large section of the Lands End area.
Over 300 ships have gone down in the treacherous waters approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. There are many rocks hiding under the waves, the channel is narrow, and combined with the strong currents and fog, entering San Francisco Bay is quite dangerous. Nowadays the big container ships use GPS, sonar, foghorns and a tugboat escort to navigate the entrance to the bay.
Possibly the worst wreck was the steamship City of Rio de Janeiro in 1901. The passenger ship made it past the rocks at the entrance, but hit a submerged ledge near Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge. The ship sank in eight minutes and 128 out of 210 passengers were lost.
Three of the ships that were wrecked on these rocks can be seen at low tide.
The cargo ship SS Ohioan got too close to shore when it started to enter the channel on a foggy night in 1936. It hit the rocks at Point Lobos, setting off sparks that lit up the night, according to observers. Pieces of it can be seen at low tide from the observation area next to the Sutro Baths.
In 1922, the SS Lyman Stewart ran into another cargo ship in a thick fog off Lands End and ended up on the rocks.
In 1937, the oil tanker SS Frank H. Buck crashed head-on into a luxurious cruise ship.
Both these ships sank in about the same place; remains of these two wrecks are scattered below the bluffs between the Fort Miley lookout and Mile Rock Beach, and are visible at low tide. They are so encrusted they look more like rocks now, but with unnatural shapes.
Just to the left of the Fort Miley parking lot is a memorial to the men who died on the battleship USS San Francisco, during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Part of the ship's bridge is incorporated into the monument, with large holes torn in it from the shrapnel.
Bikes are allowed on the western half of the Coastal Trail, between the Merrie Way parking lot and the turn-off for Mile Rock Beach. Just before that turn-off, another path branches off, which is part of the El Camino Del Mar Trail, leading to the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum and eventually to the eastern end of Lands End.
The upper trail starts off the right side of the Fort Miley parking lot and is OK for bikes all the way to the end. It basically parallels the Coastal Trail on a higher level. About half way, it drops down to join it the Coastal Trail for a short bit, then splits off again on the way to the Legion of Honor.
Lots of people bring their dogs here for a walk, but they must be under voice control. This issue is a political hot potato in SF, so the rules change periodically. Check www.nps.gov for the latest from the National Park Service on park areas requiring leashes for dogs.
Several dogs have been attacked by coyotes recently in San Francisco parks, though not in Lands End that I'm aware of. Something to be keep in mind, especially with small dogs. Lands End is a pretty wild area for being in a city.
In my opinion, sunny days are the best time to walk out at Lands End, because the views are so much better. Most people show up here on the weekends, especially if it's warm and sunny.
When not to go: after a heavy rain. Large puddles form in a number of places along the trail and the path can be very muddy and slippery.
I like hiking here when there are more people around and here's why: even at its busiest, the visitors are spread out enough that it doesn't feel crowded, and I don't feel comfortable when I'm the only one on the trail.
Some parts of the trail go through woodsy areas that feel pretty isolated. I've never heard of anything bad happening at Lands End, but I just don't feel relaxed when I'm out there with only a few other folks.
Also, coyotes have moved into the San Francisco parks, and even though no humans in the City has been attacked that I know of, I'd rather not run into one when I'm the only one out there!
There are two parking lots at the start of the trail. The one above the Sutro Baths is the Merrie Way lot and the other one is the Fort Miley lot.
Western End. Head to 48th Avenue and Clement Street/Point Lobos Ave, just up the hill from the Cliff House.
Eastern End.Or drive to 32nd Avenue and El Camino del Mar, and park in the neighborhood near the entrance to Lands End. Parking is tough in that area; I suggest going to the western end of Lands End near the Cliff House.
Take the #18 or the #38 Geary bus all the way to the ocean. Get off at 48th Avenue. Head north on 48th into the park (Fort Miley) until you get to the parking lot. Or walk down to the Merrie Way parking lot just below and pick up the beginning of the trail there (and check out the ruins of the Sutro Baths- very cool.)
There are two parking lots at the western end of the Lands End Coastal Trail. Even on sunny weekend days, there's plenty of parking here. And it's free.
There's now a Visitors Center in the parking lot above the Cliff House. Nice gift shop with books and maps, plus restrooms.
There are four great places to explore right near the Merrie Way Lands End parking lot on Point Lobos Avenue.
Historic restaurant in a gorgeous setting at the entrance to SF Bay. See the Cliff House.
Right below the parking lot are the strange ruins of the Sutro Baths, once one of the world's largest indoor swimming establishments. See Sutro Baths
Adolf Sutro's former estate, just across the street from the parking lot, which has an amazing view of the coast and all of Ocean Beach. See Sutro Heights.
Ocean Beach, San Francisco's largest beach, starts just around the corner from the Lands End parking lot. See Ocean Beach.