If you’re seeking respite from the summer heat, the romance of ruins, invigorating sea fresh air, panoramic views, and maybe even a touch of tango, look no further than a Sunday afternoon’s stroll through the Sutro District of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (GGNRA).
The District is located at the westernmost point of Land’s End in the Richmond District and encompasses Sutro Heights Park, the Sutro Bath ruins, and the historic Cliff House.
On any given day, the Richmond District is almost certainly cooler than the rest of the Bay Area and even the rest of San Francisco. You can be driving through the city on a sunny day, and as soon as you enter some part of the District, you stand an excellent chance of being engulfed by cloud cover and fog.
Walk the crumbling ruins of the Sutro Baths, hair whipping in the breeze and the Pacific Ocean churning nearby as you gaze out to the horizon. You may suddenly feel transported either to a romance novel or to a post-apocalyptic fiction novel, like Jack London’s Scarlet Plague, which was set in the area.
History of the Sutro Baths
Or perhaps you’ll imagine a three-acre glass bathhouse rising from the ruins. Adolph Sutro, the self-made millionaire who designed the Sutro Heights public park and later the second Cliff House restaurant, developed the astonishing Sutro Baths in 1894.
With his interest in natural history and marine biology, he constructed an ocean pool aquarium among the rocks north of the Cliff House. He then built a massive three-acre bathhouse with impressive engineering and artistic details.
Sutro dreamed of providing a healthy, recreational, and inexpensive swimming facility for San Franciscans. A classic Greek portal opened to a massive glass enclosure with seven swimming pools at different temperatures.
Slides, trapezes, springboards, and a high dive beckoned visitors. The Pacific Ocean at high tide filled the 1.7 million gallons of water required for all the pools in just one hour. The Baths accommodated 10,000 people and offered 517 private dressing rooms and 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for rent.
The Baths also offered educational opportunities. The front entrance contained natural history exhibits, sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and artifacts from Mexico, China, Asia, and the Middle East, including Egyptian mummies. In addition to swimming, the Sutro Baths offered visitors band concerts, talent shows, and restaurants.
With several railroads providing transportation to the area by the late 1890s, the Baths topped off a perfect all-day excursion to the shore with stops at Sutro Heights Park, the Cliff House, and Ocean Beach.
The End of an Era
For all their glamour and excitement, the Baths were not commercially successful over the long term. Adolph Sutro died in 1898; afterward, the Baths became less popular over time, especially during the Great Depression and as public transportation to the area diminished. In 1966, a fire destroyed what was left of the Baths. The remaining ruins became part of the GGNRA in 1973.
What To Know Before You Go
Start your exploration at the Lands End Lookout Visitors Center at 680 Point Lobos Avenue. The Center offers a parking lot, restrooms, gift shop, maps, and park guides ready to answer any questions you have about the area. They are open Friday through Monday from 9 am to 5 pm. Do bring a jacket to contend with the breezes and fog.
From there, you can explore the ruins of the Sutro Baths below, walk down the street to enjoy the view from the Cliff House balconies, or cross the street to explore Sutro Heights Park.
Above the Baths are walking paths that lead to more panoramic coastal views, the USS San Francisco Memorial, and eventually to the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum. On a Sunday afternoon, you may find tango dancers with a boom box by the USS San Francisco Memorial
In sum, the Sutro District, with its cooling breezes, panoramic beauty, and fascinating history, offers a perfect summer bucket list walk.
- National Park Service, Sutro Historic District
- Sutro Baths History Parks Conservancy, Sutro Historic District
- USS San Francisco Memorial, Wikipedia
- Sutro Baths, Wikipedia
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