SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Irrational, I know, but it bummed me out, in a breaking-the-spell sort of way, when two tour buses pulled up at the recently remodeled Lands End Lookout visitors center and dumped off a gaggle of slumping, weary tourists.
Hello? You’ve got to expect, like, people at a visitors center, even one as seemingly at the edge of the San Francisco tourist map as this outcropping in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s not as if this is some secret, off-the-grid spot known only to locals.
Lands End is, in its way, as chock full of history as the Coit Tower, Alcatraz or sourdough bread. But it’s a subtler and understated attraction, thankfully absent of kitsch, glitz and touristic pandering.
What you get at Lands End is what you see: a panorama that could launch a thousand postcards, a ruins site that once was the delightfully quirky Sutro Baths, an urban trail that fools you into thinking it’s far from the maddening crowd.
And since last spring, when the National Park Service, in partnership with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, opened a 4,100-square-foot visitors center called the Lookout, the crowds have been maddening to those who seek quiet contemplation amid the jutting cliffs, sweeping cypresses and surging tides below.
“I’d never heard of this place,” said Neil Bolton, a tourist from Vancouver, British Columbia. “We came here meaning to get to the Pacific Ocean and just came across this place by accident.
“It’s fascinating. This is our first time in San Francisco, and I’m surprised to see evidence of the openness of the ocean here. You always think it’s all city and this and that. To walk through the park and see the crashing waves and surf and whatnot, that’s quite surprising. Pleasantly surprising.”
Well, don’t tell anyone, for cripe’s sake, Neil. It’ll just bring more people to Lands End, and we can’t have that, can we?
The good news is that the Lookout center is so architecturally stunning, inside and out, as well as loaded with entertaining multimedia history, that perhaps tourists won’t want to leave the structure. (And, with a cafe and bakery on-site, they very well could hole up here for the long haul.)
So the steps leading down to the concrete ruins of what once was a complex of seven glass-roofed swimming pools, amphitheater and ice skating rink might have a chance to remain relatively crowd-free.
Then again, knowing the story behind Lands End and the Sutro Baths makes you want to explore all the more.
A brief tutorial: Industrialist Adolph Sutro launched his baths in 1896 as something of a vanity project – a backyard project gone wild, spanning 3 acres. Sutro rigged it so that sea water would fill the baths on incoming tide at a clip of 1.7 million gallons. It would be heated for the bathing courtesy of aquatic loving San Franciscans. Soon, he expanded to an ice rink and other family attractions, such as a fish tank.
By the late 1950s, though, the Sutro Baths had changed hands and were in disrepair. It closed in 1966 and later burned to the ground, leaving concrete skeletal remains as the only evidence of the once wildly popular hangout.
Looking at the scores of sepia-toned photos and home movies of the Sutro Baths and Lands End cliff back in the day should make induce melancholia for what is lost.
But, at least for me, it has the opposite effect. For one thing, the absence of the looming bath structure definitely improves the view. For another, it is fascinating to take the spiral stairs down to the remaining pillars, overtaken by murky water and waterfowl.
You cannot help but come away thinking that, in the end, nature prevails. Always does. It has reclaimed the lagoon as its own, and that seems fitting.
Perhaps I’d think differently had I visited the baths during its heyday.
Michael Wisdom, a longtime San Francisco resident, turned wistful when I approached him at the visitors center. He had been staring for several minutes out the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean.
“I used to come out here as a kid, and it was just sort of the end of the world,” he said. “I used to go to the baths and the ice skating rink next to it. My friend was a very good ice skater. I get a little sad when I see the scars down there from years before. But this really kind of brings it back to life.”
“This” meaning the Lookout. Wisdom and others reveled in thumbing through the old photos of shipwrecks off the coasts, drawing of horse races on the beach, photos of the Cliff House burning in 1907. He seemed particularly drawn to outtakes from the “The Lineup,” a 1958 noir thriller starring Eli Wallach that was partially filmed at Sutro.
“When I heard they were going to put up a building here, I thought they’d build a bird perch you can stand at and look out. Now, it’s got a place and a name. I’m really pleased with the job.”
To get away from the tour buses, I took off for the shore below, found a tunnel burrowing through the jagged rock, and a steep (760-foot climb) single-track trail that connects with the Coastal Trail, which runs clear to the Golden Gate Bridge.
I did a quick U-turn there. You want to really get besieged by tourists? Continue on to that big orange bridge. Compared with that, Lands End remains an oasis of calm.
Distributed by MCT Information Services