If you are interested in learning more about the local history of San Francisco, one site that is worth checking out is Sutro Baths.
Although it’s nothing more than the ruins of what was once an immense facility, the story behind the man who designed and developed the building and what it meant for SF is an important one that is worth finding out more about.
Here you'll learn more about the site's history and some tips and advice to get the best out of your visit. It's currently part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The world-famous Sutro Baths were the brainchild of the former mayor of San Francisco and entrepreneur Adolph Sutro. Found atop a cliff at the western edge of the city, the Baths offer some of the most sublime views you will ever see of the Pacific Ocean.
By the time Sutro built this unique and stunning landmark in 1894, he had already gained fame for designing and developing the 20-acre Sutro Heights, followed by the Cliff House.
As you stand at the entrance, imagine how guests used to step into an immense glass structure inspired by classic Grecian architecture.
Within this area, seven swimming pools (one freshwater and six saltwater pools) were naturally filled at different temperatures with ocean water based on the tides.
This engineering feat meant that, during high tide, all the swimming pools could fill with the needed 1.7-million gallons in less than an hour.
Sutro’s vision for the Baths was that it would become an inexpensive, recreational, and very healthy swimming facility that San Franciscans could visit for relaxation and fun.
Admission only cost 25 cents, including a towel and swimsuit rental! Thanks to its enormous and spacious design, the Baths could host as many as 10,000 people at full capacity.
At the height of its popularity, the Baths were visited daily by thousands who enjoyed taking a dip in the pool, relaxing and pondering the views, and having fun on the springboards and slides.
Sutro's vision to incorporate his passion for education was one distinguishing feature of these Baths. For example, at the front entrance, there were natural history exhibits and interesting and rare artifacts from across the globe that all patrons could admire.
For art lovers, there were galleries full of stunning hand-woven tapestries, exquisitely detailed paintings, and intricate sculptures. Live talent shows, concerts, and more hosted from the bathhouse and amusement rides were installed on top of the big tanks.
Eventually, the railroads added the bathhouse as a stop on their line, and even more people could access it.
After Sutro died in 1898, his family continued to run his properties, but as the country entered the Great Depression, Sutro Baths could no longer stay afloat.
Many couldn’t afford the necessities, let alone leisurely extras. Then the railroads stopped providing transportation to the Baths, and the introduction of updated public health codes ensured the business could not survive.
For a short time, the bathhouse was converted into an ice-skating rink, but the site never regained its popularity and instead took a massive downturn from being one of the must-visit attractions in the West to being closed down.
In 1964, the Sutro Baths site was bought by developers and slated to become high-rise oceanside condos. But in 1966, in the process of being demolished, the place suspiciously went up in flames, leaving only the concrete walls and passageways you see now.
The fire was said to be arson, and the developers collected the insurance money and abandoned the project. Nothing has been built there since.
In 1973, the ruins became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They remain a historical site where visitors can only imagine the grand San Francisco attraction it once was before it was destroyed.
Even though what is left of Sutro Baths is nothing compared to its former glory, many people love to explore the concrete ruins and take photos.
It's an Instagram-lover's dream, with striking views of the Pacific Ocean, the water that sits inside part of the ruins, the former Cliff House (which closed in 2021), and the graffiti on the concrete that is different each time I visit.
Once you arrive, you have several options to start your exploration.
You can take the stairs down into the Sutro Baths to see it up close or head northwest along the Lands End trail to photograph it from above.
Your walk down starts here. The trail of steps on the right side of the picture is the route you'll take to get down to the ruins.
This is another view from the top of the stairs.
As you get to the bottom of the stairs, you will see that the area is fairly small, with a few different parts to explore.
These are the concrete walls that are still standing. You are allowed to enter them. While they are fairly safe, just be careful as you walk around exploring them.
You could spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour here. There isn't much to do, but if you love photography, you may spend quite a while here.
Once you explore this area, you can head back up the steps. This will take you back to the Lands End Trail.
You can get views from above on the Sutro Baths Upper Trail. It's about a 5-minute walk away from the stairs that lead down to this Lands End attraction.
This is the type of photo you can get from here.
Here is another shot from this trail and its lookout point.
This photo looks the other way from the same vantage point. It's a cool shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.
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Unsurprisingly for a location with such amazing history and the dramatic backdrop of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Sutro Baths has been used as a filming location for various movies.
Two noteworthy titles are 'Harold and Maude' and 'The Lineup.'
While 'Harold and Maude' was produced in 1971, when the site had long been in ruins, 'The Lineup' was produced in 1958, when it still had an ice skating rink.
It’s a shame when you watch these movies to see just how different the site is nowadays.
When is the best time to visit the Sutro Baths? That all depends on the type of experience, you want.
Sitting next to Ocean Beach, this place tends to be one of the foggiest areas in San Francisco. During the evenings, you'll find fog here most of the year.
I think the best time to visit is during the day in either September or October. This is when you have the best chance of clear to partly cloudy skies. This is when I took most of the photos above.
Summer in San Francisco offers foggy mornings and evenings with some sunshine in between. This is the second best time to visit, as you will likely find less fog in the late mornings to mid-afternoons here.
August is the foggiest, so that would be the least desirable month to head out here for photographs in the summer.
This is our rainy season. You'll most likely find this place a bit dreary this time of year, with rain and fog throughout the season.
This is another good time to visit. It will be more overcast than in the fall, but you will have better luck as we have less fog in April and May than in the summer and winter.
If you prefer fewer people (or no people) in your photos, then it's best to try to visit the Sutro Baths during the week.
It never gets extremely busy, except on certain holidays, but more people explore the area on the weekends.
If you are planning a casual visit and don't mind people in your photos, then either during the week or on the weekends is fine.
In addition to the fog I mentioned above, this part of San Francisco is often cool and windy throughout the year.
Make sure to bring along layers, so you can add and remove as needed.
It's often 10 to 15 degrees colder here than in other districts throughout San Francisco.
The warmest months will be September and October. The coolest months will be January and February.
If you are like me and LOVE to learn all about the history of our attractions, you might want to consider the walking tour offered by SFCityGuides. They offer a tour of the Sutro Baths most Saturday afternoons at 2 pm.
The tour runs about and hour and a half to two hours.
You'll learn about its history of the baths and Sutro Heights. You'll also learn more about the former Cliff House, Adolph Sutro's other projects, and more.
The tour is free, but they do ask for a donation at the end of the tour.
There are several ways to get out to Sutro Baths in San Francisco.
If you plan to use San Francisco's public transit system, you have a few options:
You can also take a ride service or taxi out to the Sutro Baths. It will cost roughly $20 to $25 from Union Square. I estimate it's probably about $5 to $10 more from Fisherman's Wharf. These estimates don't include tips.
Driving is a great way to get here if you have a car. It's one of the few places with easy parking and free lots. Most of the time, you'll have no issues finding parking.
There are a few places to park near the Sutro Baths. All of the parking lots in this area are free.
Lands End Lookout & Visitor Center Parking Lot: The closest lot to the ruins is at 600 Point Lobos Avenue. It's a decent-sized lot right next to the Visitors Center.
Lot at 846 Point Lobos: There is another small lot about a block down that is also great for exploring this area in San Francisco.
El Camino del Mar Parking Lot: You will find another lot right off the Coastal Trail at 2404 El Camino Del Mar. It's small but offers easy access to the Lands End trail. It's about a 10-minute walk over to the Sutro Baths from here.
I love the Sutro Baths since I can take the Lands End trail to or from it. It is a 3.5-mile loop that goes through some of the city's most gorgeous trees and forests.
In addition to Sutro Baths, you can also visit Mile Rock Beach, Point Lobos, and the Lands End Lookout. Some offshoots can add another mile or so to your walk. I suggest allowing about an hour or two to walk through it.
This wonderful restaurant is just down Highway 1 from the Sutro Baths and easily accessible. You'll see a few fantastic murals when you go in that you can check out before you eat.
You'll then head upstairs to the restaurant. The food here is delicious, and you will have some of the nicest views no matter where you sit.
Their sister restaurant, the Park Chalet, is another great option with outdoor seating. It's on the main level of this historic building.
This park spans over 1,000 acres and includes the California Academy of Sciences, Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum of Fine Art, and much more.
A little-known fact is that two windmills are on either side of the previously mentioned Beach Chalet. They are some of San Francisco's hidden gems that are fun to check out.
This museum is a replica of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris and is gorgeous both inside and outside. You will see a cast of Rodin’s The Thinker statue right before you enter.
Some of the artists whose works are on display here include Picasso, Monet, and Renoir. There is art from ancient empires, including Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It is a fantastic museum and worth the visit.
Although not as famous as some other districts, the Richmond is a great place to spend some time. In addition to the Sutro Baths, you will also find amazing restaurants, bars, and shops throughout the neighborhood.
It is located in the northwest corner of the city and is, therefore, a perfect way to spend some time before or after your time at Lands End.