The Coastal Trail at Lands End in 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.
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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.
Bathroom Alert! There aren't any along the entire trail. The closest public bathroom to the western end of the trail is at the information center in the parking lot above the Cliff House. Sometimes there's a Porta Potty at the Merrie Way parking lot.
There is no public bathroom near the eastern end of the trail; you would have to walk another 10 minutes to the bathrooms (just porta potties at the moment) at China Beach in the Sea Cliff neighborhood nearby. So the word is: plan ahead!
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.
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. It's a small, rocky beach, good for relaxing and watching the breaking waves, but too rough (and cold) for swimming.
Tip: there's one part of the main path down to the Lands End Point that is very narrow, and has a sheer drop down to rocks far below, and no fencing. Makes me a bit nervous to go through there! Fortunately, there's an alternate route out to the labyrinth and Lands End Point (see below).
I used to go down there, but don't feel comfortable doing it any more. Looks like it's getting narrower! It's very shifty sand at the edge, and a long way down to the rocks and ocean. I wouldn't take young children along it (or a dog off leash).
If you take the path down to Mile Rock Beach, there's a another path from the beach going up to the bluff with the labyrinth and the great view spots at Lands End Point. Roundabout, but safer.
San Francisco is on the migration route for a number of whale species, which gives us a great opportunity to get a look at them as they go by. The migration season is all year long because different species travel at different times.
In the summer of 2017, large numbers of humpback whales were frolicking off Lands End, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the entrance to the bay near the Cliff House and Sutro Baths.
You could see them easily from shore, breaching and spouting. This was pretty unusual; humpbacks tend to be solitary, appearing alone or just two. Quite a treat to see so many whales, so close to shore.
Even if they're not out in numbers this year, there's still a decent chance of seeing one or two out in the channel.
The humpbacks are one of the larger whale species, 30 to 50 feet long (12 to 14 meters). A wonderful sight!
Though they aren't usually in the bay, they do pass right by along the coast. I've seen them off of Ocean Beach and Fort Funston beach, but the best way is to go out on a boat to where they are traveling offshore. Point Reyes north of SF is also a good place to see them.
Whale (& Orca) Migration Schedule:
There are also whale-watching tours that go out into that area, past the Golden Gate. You can get closer to the whales that way, and get a good look at them. These are 2.5 hour tours, $49.50 per person. See Whale-Watching Tours for more info and booking. These whale cruises run from May through October.
In winter (November-March), there's a tour that goes in search of the gray whales, either up the coast or around SF Bay, depending on where they are (3 to 4 hours, $59). See gray whale tour for more info and booking. Runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Both tours leave from Pier 39.
The dangerous cliffs at Lands End claimed another life on December 4, 2019, when a man fell 200 feet to his death.
On June 22, 2017, a 17-year-old girl fell to her death from the cliff in an area fenced off to visitors. In just the first 6 months of 2017, in addition to the fatal fall, there were four cliff rescues just at Lands End.
It is so important to heed the warnings about not walking close to the edges and staying on the trails at Lands End. The soil is crumbly and unstable near the edges and there is a 200 foot drop to the rocks below.
The path leading to the scene of the 2017 tragedy has a fence (small one) and a sign warning not to go there, stating that people have fallen to their deaths here. But the trail is frequently used anyway, as evident from the well-worn pathway leading to the cliff.
In October of 2014, another woman fell to her death in the same spot.
Lands End is a wonderful place to hike, but please stay on the paths, and away from the cliff edges!
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 Portolamarched 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 Janeiroin 1901. The passenger ship made it past the rocks at the entrance, but hit a submerged ledge near Fort Point, now 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.
See an aerial photo of the wreck, with the Cliff House and Sutro Baths nearby.
In 1922, the oil tanker SS Lyman Stewart was leaving the bay when she ran into another cargo ship entering the bay, in a thick fog off Lands End. The captain got the crew off, then steered the ship to the shore, where she landed on the rocks.
In 1937, another oil tanker, the SS Frank H. Buck, crashed head-on into a luxurious cruise ship, the President Coolidge, again in the fog. The cruise ship didn't have any serious damage, but the Frank H. Buck sank. Luckily, the Coast Guard saved the entire crew (and the ship's dog).
Both these ships sank in about the same place; the remains (engine blocks) 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.
There's an interesting article in the SF Chronicle about the battle.
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, and the dogs can be off-leash, 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.
Quite a few dogs dogs have been attacked by coyotes recently in San Francisco parks (and in the residential neighborhoods), 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.
Some parts of the trail go through woodsy areas that feel pretty isolated.
Coyotes (and occasional mountain lions) have moved into the San Francisco parks, and even though no humans in the city have been attacked, I'd rather not run into one when I'm the only one out there, so I like to go on weekends or sunny afternoons when there are more people out there.
I've never heard of anything bad happening at Lands End, but I feel more relaxed when there are a few more people around.
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 #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 where the Visitor's Center is, just below, and pick up the beginning of the trail there (and check out the ruins of the Sutro Baths- very cool.)
Getting to Lands End from downtown SF or Union Square is easy. You can catch the 38-Geary bus on Market Street downtown (at 1st Street or 3rd Street), or right on Union Square on Geary Blvd.
COVID-19 notice: both parking lots at Lands End near the Cliff House (Merrie Way and Fort Miley lots) are now open, as well as the lot for Sutro Heights. The Visitors Center is still closed.
Important: We're having a serious problem with car break-ins in San Francisco at the moment and the parking areas near Lands End are some of the hardest hit, unfortunately. Please don't leave anything visible in your cars when you park here.
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. On the rare occasions when they fill up, there is street parking in the neighborhood.
There's a Visitors Center in the parking lot now, above the Cliff House. Nice gift shop with books and maps, plus restrooms.
Want to explore Lands End, the Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights Park and more with a guide? Check out the Lands End Walk. 4 hours, $55.
There's another four-hour walking tour that starts at the Golden Gate Bridge, and follows the edge of the coast through Lands End to the Sutro Baths, ending with a free drink at the Cliff House. $58. See Coastal walking tour for more info and booking.
There are four great places to explore right near the Merrie Way Lands End parking lot on Point Lobos Avenue.
The Cliff House
The Sutro Baths
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
Sutro Heights Park
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.