Sutro Heights Park is a delightful surprise sitting high above the Cliff House on the edge of San Francisco. The views of Ocean Beach and the coastline are spectacular, but not many people know it's there.
Sutro Heights Park was the location of an elaborate estate and gardens built in 1881 by Adolph Sutro, an immigrant from Prussia who bought and developed much of the land in this part of San Francisco.
There had been a cottage in this spot, but Sutro built a large house and had formal gardens laid out, along with an observatory, a stone parapet, and a glass conservatory filled with orchids and exotic plants.
He had about 200 statues placed around the grounds, replicas of European ones, of which only two remain: a stag, and the Goddess Diana. The lions guarding the entrance are reproductions of the originals.
In 1885 the gardens were opened to the public and the house remained occupied by the Sutro family until 1938, when Sutro's daughter Emma died and the land was donated to the city.
A couple of colorful postcards show the Sutro Heights gardens in their heyday.
The park had an elaborate entrance gate; all that's left of it are the stone lions, still guarding the entrance.
During the Depression, all of the buildings were torn down, with just the stone parapet remaining, along with the Well House, a small Victorian structure. In the grassy area, you can still see the tiles from the floor of the conservatory.
The park is a wonderful place to have a picnic, or just enjoy the peace of the garden, relaxing on the benches or strolling around the grounds.
The amazing views of the beach and ocean, as well as the western edge of San Francisco, are the best part of the Sutro Heights Park, IMO.
There is also a view of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and of course Seal Rock and the Cliff House below.
On a recent visit up there, I was lucky enough to see a migrating whale just off the beach; every so often he would rise and slap his tail on the water - really cool.
If you're feeling energetic or in need of exercise, there is a very pretty, very steep, rustic stairway climbing up to the park from the south side on Balboa Street, just off the Great Highway.
The park is on top of the cliff overlooking the Cliff House
By bus: the 38 Geary bus goes right there. You can catch the bus from Market and Third or First Streets, near the Montgomery BART station. The 38-Geary also runs past Union Square (on Geary Blvd).
Get off at the last stop, 48th Avenue and Point Lobos, and walk a little way towards the ocean on Point Lobos until you see a small parking lot on the left (south) side. Head down the path and you will see the stone lions guarding the entrance.
By car: There are two parking lots opposite the entrance to the park on either side of Point Lobos Drive, just below 48th Avenue. The little one on the south side of the street is often full, but the large one across the street by the Lands End Visitors Center is a good bet.
Parking Tip: If it's a beautiful, sunny day in the summer, even the big lot can fill up, but the park backs up on a quiet residential neighborhood and there is parking along the east side of the park along 48th Avenue.
San Francisco City Guides offers a guided tour of the park and the Sutro Baths. This organization run free tours on many subjects in San Francisco. The guides are volunteers and the tours I've been on have been very professional. No reservations necessary, just show up at the appointed time. See Sutro Heights tour.
COVID-19 Updates: as of midnight Monday, March 16, San Francisco has been under a "shelter-in-place order.
The city has released a reopening schedule (tentative) starting June 1, 2020, with successive changes at later dates.
All residents were ordered to stay home, except for necessary trips to grocery stores and essential medical visits, and solo outdoor activities like hiking.
Now, there is a gradual reopening of certain businesses and activities.
See COVID rules for current SF status.
Highlights of changes: everyone in SF is now required to wear a mask when they are outside and within 30 feet of other people.
Parking lots for SF beaches are now open (as well as the beaches).
Starting June 15 customers can enter retail businesses (with a mask), religious services can resume, and restaurants can offer outdoor dining.
Opening dates for indoor dining, hair salons and barbershops have been postponed until an unknown date.
Mid August: gyms, playgrounds, swimming pools and indoor museums can possibly open.
For info on what's open in other cities and counties of California, see California reopening schedules.
See coronavirus news in the SF Chronicle for details and updates.
Also see site and parking lot closures for the National Park Service (Alcatraz, Muir Woods, etc.)
Plus helpful info on which parks and hiking trails are open in the Bay Area.
Get the latest tips on visiting San Francisco.