Once the largest indoor swimming establishment in the world, the Sutro Baths is now an eerie ruin, sitting in one of the most beautiful settings in San Francisco.
Adolph Sutro, a wealthy San Francisco resident and former mayor of the city, once owned most of the land in the western half of San Francisco.
One of his grandest projects was the construction of an amazing glass-roofed structure containing seven salt water swimming pools, fed by the powerful tides at the entrance to San Francisco Bay.
Vistors could also view the huge collection of odd specimens he had picked up in his travels, including Egyptian mummies, stuffed polar bears and apes, and totem poles. He even had a train track and train service created to bring residents out to his entertainment palace. The tracks are gone now, but they used to run along the Lands End trail.
The Sutro Baths opened in 1890, and was intended for the working people of San Francisco, who could take his train out to the ocean sand dunes and play in the pools, enjoying the day swimming, exploring his museum and eating in the restaurants. There were musical performances and dance competitions, and other amusements provided for his guests, who could make a whole day of it at the Baths.
Sutro kept the fees low so most city residents could afford to come: 5 cents for the train and 25 cents to swim (including a swimsuit and towel to use).
The SS Ohioan cargo ship crashed onto the rocks one dark and foggy night in 1936, quite close to the Baths. All members of the crew made it to safety.
The salt water pools ranged from really cold to a balmy 80 degrees, and were supplied with slides, swings, trampolines, trapezes, rings, and diving platforms. Swimmers had to wear swim suits supplied by the Baths up until the 1930's.
Sutro designed a series of concrete tunnels and tanks that used the force of the tides to fill the pools.
The Baths were extremely popular, but it was never profitable, and as the years went by, they became increasing expensive to maintain. Also, society changed, and fewer people were coming to spend their free time there.
The Sky Tram opened in 1955 and carried people from the Cliff House, past the Sutro Baths, to Point Lobos. With all the salt spray and wind, maintenance got to be too much, and it closed in 1965.
The Sutro Baths closed in 1966, and burned down in June of the same year, some say under suspicious circumstances.
The Baths were scheduled to be developed into housing and a shopping center, but were saved by public sentiment and purchased by the National Park Service in 1980.
The ruins aren't really old, but they are a romantic reminder of a vanished way of life.
The Baths are now a rough collection of pools of salt water, crumbling walls and rusting pieces of iron. The setting at the end of the Land's End cliffs, looking out over Seal Rock and the ocean, is gorgeous and worth a visit.
You can climb all over it; it isn't "maintained" and can be a bit treacherous, so watch your step. But that just adds to its mystique.
There is a cool tunnel through the cliff that leads to a little beach, scene of past shipwrecks.
San Francisco City Guides offers a guided tour of the Sutro Baths and the nearby Sutro Heights Park. City Guides is a non-profit that run free tours on many of the sights in San Francisco. I've been on several of these tours and the guides have been very interesting and professional. All of the guides are volunteers. No reservations are necessary; just show up at the scheduled time. See Sutro Baths tour.
The Sutro Baths are next to the Cliff House off Point Lobos Avenue, just below the parking lot for the Visitor's Center at Point Lobos and 48th Avenue.By Bus: The 38-Geary bus takes you right there; get off just before you reach the ocean, at Point Lobos Avenue and 48th Avenue.
You can catch the bus downtown, on Market Street at First or Third Streets, or right at Union Square on Geary Blvd.
By Car: there is a large parking lot at Point Lobos Avenue and 48th Avenue, just above the Baths.
Adolph Sutro built a mansion and elaborate gardens on the hill above the Baths and Cliff House. Cross the street from the parking lot to enter the gardens; one of the best views of Ocean Beach is up there. More on the Sutro Heights Park.
Land's End is a wild and beautiful area on the edge of the city, with hiking paths and amazing views of the entrance to San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. The trail begins at the parking lot above the Sutro Baths. More on Lands End.
San Francisco's largest beach is just around the corner from the Baths. More on Ocean Beach.
The Cliff House is just next to the Sutro Baths, at the northern end of Ocean Beach. A San Francisco restaurant that has existed in various forms since the 1890's, but is unfortunately closed at the moment. Scheduled to reopen late 2022, but running late, apparently. Great views from there. More on the Cliff House.
The San Francisco Zoo is at the other end of Ocean Beach from the Sutro Baths, down the Great Highway that runs along the beach. More on the SF Zoo.
San Francisco's biggest and best park is just a few blocks down the Great Highway from the Baths. Explore the museums, gardens, lakes and Tea House. More on Golden Gate Park.
Two interesting short films were created about the history of the Sutro Baths.