My favorite place in San Francisco is Lands End.
Ok, that’s not quite true. It’s the Chocolate Heaven store at Pier 39 that has killer truffles for $4.95 apiece. It’s my reward — and a good excuse — to go hiking in an urban setting with one of the world’s most stunning skylines as the background.
Located on the northwest portion of The City, the aptly named area is part of the Golden Gate National Park. The stunning geological formation blanketed with Cyprus trees has arguably the most scenic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The 3.5-mile loop trail that flows over rocky cliffs that are often shrouded in fog or braving the winds takes in the ruins of the Sutro Baths and offers numerous wildflowers at various times of the year. When there is no fog it offers 30 mile views up and down the California coast on either side of the Golden Gate. If it weren’t for the heavy traffic the trail enjoys you’d almost forget you were in the state’s fourth largest city.
Going to San Francisco to hike might strike you as a bit odd, but after perhaps 100 or more trips to The City in my lifetime — including week-long stays with my aunt in the summer out in The Avenues north of the Sunset District when I was growing up — I never appreciated the place as much until I took in San Francisco’s truly wild side.
My preferred hike is along San Francisco’s Pacific Shore to the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge and includes Lands End. The entire route is eight miles round trip. It can easily be broken down into the Lands Segment or the 2.4-mile round trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and still provide plenty of sights to satisfy your senses. The part from Golden Gate Park past the Cliff House to Lands End is nice but not exactly a treat especially if you have stopped by — or driven by — Ocean Beach previously.
Starting the hike near Golden Gate Park addresses one big obstacle these days in San Francisco — parking, as well as parking that is free. The entire hiking route has a net gain elevation of 600 feet.
If you tackle the hike in smaller segments such as starting at the end of Geary Boulevard or near the Golden Gate toll plaza just be prepared to spend a lot of frustrating time hunting for a parking space.
After parking near Golden Gate Park, take the stairwell down to Ocean Beach and head north toward the Cliff House. The ruins of the saltwater Sutro Baths are just beyond the Cliff House.
Sutro Baths when it opened in 1896 covered three acres and was covered by 100,000 square feet of glass. There were six saltwater pools fed by the incoming tides and a freshwater pool. On opening day there were 20,000 bathing suits, 40,000 towels, a high dive, nine springboards, 30 swing rings, seven toboggan slides, and three trapezes along with 500 private dressing rooms. The baths could accommodate 1,600 people. Toss in three restaurants, art galleries, other exhibits, and a 5,300-seat amphitheater and the ultimate capacity of the complex was 15,000.
Heading uphill from the Sutro Baths you’ll see the entire Golden Gate Bridge framed by cypress trees. Make sure not to miss a small promontory point that gives you a view of the San Francisco coastline. As you make your way along the trail there are spurs that take you to China Beach and Baker Beach — two spots that will make you forget you are in a city of nearly 900,000 souls.
To reach the Golden Gate Bridge you will take the trails through the abandoned military battery and stay on the one marked Coastal Trail as it goes under the bridge and then veer to the right when the trail splits to walk up to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center.
If you opted to do just either the bridge hike (2.4 miles round trip) or Lands End or both and opted to try your luck in the handful of pay parking lots along Lincoln Boulevard veer right toward Merchant Road that will lead you to Cranston Road and the walkway and the narrow street that goes under Highway 101 and the toll plaza and brings you to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center.
There are restrooms and a café here as well.
Why walk the Golden Gate Bridge?
Besides the fact people from all over the world — 10 million last year — have it on their list of things to do when they are visiting San Francisco and the fact it has been declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the views are breathtaking without taking away your breath.
From the time it opened in 1937 until 1964 it was the world’s longest main span suspension bridge at 4,200 feet. The bridge road deck clears the water by 220 feet while the towers soar 746 feet above the water allowing it to be the world’s tallest suspension bridge until 1998. The two 36.5-inch wide cables that pass through the towers and hold up the road deck each consist of 27,572 strands of wire that would cover 80,000 miles if laid out end to end. There are 1.2 million rivets in the bridge. Thirty-eight painters are constantly painting the bridge. Eleven workers were killed building the bridge.
The bridge that the San Francisco Chronicle edition of Jan. 5, 1933 — the day the Golden Gate was opened to the public — dubbed the “$35 million steel harp” would cost $1.65 billion to replicate today.
Among the facts that might intrigue you when it comes to the Golden Gate Bridge are the following:
*The total length of Bridge including approaches from abutment to abutment is 1.7 miles.
*Length of suspension span including main span and side spans is 1.2 miles.
*Length of main span portion of suspended structure (distance between towers) is 4,200 feet.
*The bridge is 90 feet wide. That includes 10-foot wide sidewalks and a roadway that is 63 feet curb to curb.
*Clearance above higher high water is 220 feet.
*The total weight of each anchorage is 60,000 tons.
*Original combined weight of Bridge, anchorages, and approaches is 894,500 tons.
*At mid-span, the maximum downward deflection (or the distance the bridge was built to move downward) is 10.8 feet. The maximum upward deflection is 5.8 feet.
*The live load capacity per lineal foot is 4,000 pounds.
*As an example of how the bridge is built to move, during the winter storms in 1982, the main span bowed approximately 6 to 7 feet.
*The Golden Gate Bridge has two main towers that support the two main cables.
*The height of a tower above water is 746 feet.
*The height of a tower above roadway is 500 feet.
*The weight of both main towers is 44,000 tons.
*The south tower foundation depth below mean low water is 110 feet.
If you plan on walking the Golden Gate Bridge there are a few things to note.
During Daylight Savings Time, the east sidewalk is open from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. The automatically controlled gates close at 8 p.m. and reopen at 5 a.m. The Pacific Standard Time hours to walk are 5 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Bicyclists are allowed 24-7 on the sidewalks. This time of year they can use the west sidewalk from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and the east sidewalk from 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. From 6:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. they can use the east sidewalks but have to press buzzers at the closed security gate. Security then locates the cyclist with video cameras and opens the gate. The procedure is repeated on the other end.
The only animals allowed on bridge sidewalks are service animals. Roller blades, skateboards, and roller skates are not allowed.
Electric bikes or small scooters may not be ridden on the bridge sidewalks in the power-on mode. They can be pushed or ridden across in the power-off mode only.
And perhaps the best reason to do the hike is afterwards you have close to 2,000 restaurants to pick from to re-fuel.
Plus — at least in my case — you can convert a $20 bill into some of the best chocolate truffles around.