Fort Miley, the Sutro Baths and Ocean Beach
The trail eventually completes its course around the point to Fort Miley above on the ridge. In Fort Miley the actual bridge from the U.S.S San Francisco which saw action in WWII is exhibited. The holes left by the shelling she endured are visible on the bulkhead. This ship was involved in a major battle in the Pacific Theater in WWII in which 107 sailors perished including its Commander, Admiral Frank Callahan. As the trail emerges from the point, Sutro Baths, the Cliff House and Ocean Beach come into view. Out here on the edge of the world has always been an attraction. Once a road was built from the City to this area (in 1864), it was only a matter of time before it was developed.
The Cliff House, built in 1863 and enlarged in 1868, was once quite the treasure for the City. A few years after it was built a railroad was constructed to bring the general public to this seaside attraction. Lamentably, on Christmas Day, 1894, the Cliff House was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt in 1896 and pictures from the late 19th century show a splendid multi-story structure towering over the beach below. This most resplendent of all the Cliff House incarnations was short lived. After surviving the 1906 fire-quake, it too was destroyed by fire the following year. After that, when the current structure was built in 1909 it was decided to ramp down the magnificence
Sutro Baths, below, was a marvel of its day. They could accommodate 25,000 visitors at a time. The building itself contained 600 tons of iron girders supporting its soaring glass roof. Ocean tides filled six baths, five of which were heated, the sixth kept at sea temperature. There was also a freshwater stream fed cold plunge tank. The baths now are in ruins. All that is left of those long ago days of fun is the shape of the baths down near the sea and the venerable Cliff House where they gathered for libations after their dips, to cool the insides after the outside as it were.
Seal Rock sits and bakes in the heat of the day just beyond the Cliff House. Seal Rock was long ago abandoned by the seals and taken over by sea birds. Prominent among them are the pelicans that swoop and soar fishing along the wave edges before returning to sunbathe on the rocks. The seals for their part moved 20 years ago to the slips of Pier 39 for unknown reasons. There they defecated and fornicated much to the dismay of the local merchants who were trying to keep the tourists around to buy gewgaws and eat greasy deep fired food. The merchants tried everything, including the use of fire hoses to get rid of them, until they realized that the tourist were gathering delightedly to watch the shitting and fornicating and thus, so inspired, they bought even more tourist crap. They now declare the seals a tourist attraction and even feed them, much to the chagrin of the wilderness bunch – but that’s another story.
(At the time of this writing the Cliff House is undergoing a face-lift. The project is retaining the original building and adding on what appears to be a viewing area that extends out from the north of the building. Since I have known of the Cliff House the viewing has always been directed to the south along the beach. Now it appears the viewing areas will take advantage of the dramatic view of the Marin Headlands to the north.)
Just across the street from the Cliff House is the cliff face below Sutro Heights. It looks as if the sandstone cliff was eroding away and someone had the idea to shore it up with bricks and concrete blocks. Poured over these, in what looks like an attempt at a natural look, some sort of concrete covering was poured and allowed to harden. Further along down towards the beach it appears that the pretense of the bricks was given up and only the ooze was poured down the cliff. In an attempt to camouflage the obvious charade, shelves were placed intermittently down the cliff where brush and other plant life took root. To give the lie to the whole fiasco, at the bottom of the road where Point Lobos ends and turns into the Great Highway, the cliff is left to nature devices and has indeed eroded away in graceful and quite beautiful ways. Combined with the furrows in the sandstone, various plant life, the ubiquitous ice plant among them, create a beautiful tableau. In defense of whoever designed this, given the slope of the street down to the beach and Sutro Heights above, without the reinforcement the cliff probably would have collapsed long ago.
Atop this cliff sits the remains of a grand home and grounds built by Adolph Sutro, a former mayor of San Francisco. The entrance to the grounds, which is across the street from the parking lot where the Land’s End Trail emerges, is framed by a stone gate with its lions frozen in mighty growls standing guard. The wide, unpaved roadway runs about a hundred yards into the grounds flanked by the remnants of the grand gardens that once graced this area. These renowned gardens are shown in photographs to have been quite ornate. Many species of hedges, brush, mosses and, of course, flowers were arranged in carpet beds of elaborate design. There was a large glass conservatory here designed for the protection of exotic plants and flowers Sutro had collected from around the world. This conservatory also acted as a nursery for the many plants and flowers used in the gardens.
Just before the cliff’s edge the roadway ends at a roundabout where carriages would pull up and disgorge the guests of the esteemed Mayor Sutro. When Sutro purchased this land there was a small cottage which he remodeled into a small mansion with a parapet and tower behind. An expanse of luxuriant lawn (where the gardens once were) proceeds up a slope to what is left of the parapet, the house and tower now long gone. The view from this height includes the wide expanse of Ocean Beach extending far to the south past Golden Gate Park on the left and in the distance the hills of Fort Funston and Point San Pedro beyond sizzling dreamily in the haze.
Upon Adolph Sutro’s death, the picturesque mansion and surrounding gardens fell into disrepair until finally it was demolished in 1939 as part of the Work Progress Administration which provided make-work for the unemployed during the depression. There is a measure of sad irony to a scene of hapless, impoverished men razing a favored, affluent man’s dream of elegance, refinement and culture. All that is left of the great mansion, besides the parapet, is a small carriage house standing by the turn-off to the parapet, forever waiting for the horsemen that never come.
Across the street from the junction of Skyline Boulevard and John Muir Drive there is a hill that rises up to the old fort. This hill is pretty much as it has been since the white man arrived. It is little more than a very high sand dune covered with scrub brush and ice plant. Ice plant is a succulent, like a cactus but in a running ground cover form. Its leaves, fleshy, fluid filled and the size of a small finger, sprout from runners. It can be seen covering most median strips on the highways throughout the state as well as growing wild just about everywhere.
Curving up through the dunes there is a paved walkway but zigzagging throughout are sand pathways. Away to the south are the old post and various out buildings. Up at the crest of the ridge there are the ever-present bunkers (it was a fort after all). These are perched on the sandy cliff side and, along with some clumps of trees, they offer shade from the sometimes searing sun. This area is beloved by dog walkers, especially the professional kind. These folks trot along the trails with sometimes as many as a dozen dogs but more usually with 5 or 6. I can’t imagine that work. Yapping and barking dogs would be bad enough but with pockets full of plastic poop bags and rubber balls frothing with dog saliva, it must produce some serious nightmares with the unfortunate dreamer waking in a sweat, visions of piles of poop and dog spit dancing in their heads. Yikes.
From this height there is a view back to the City. To the east Sutro tower (not to be confused with Sutro Heights) rises on its hillside perch. This is a communication tower that provides the signals emanating from various radio and television broadcast outlets to the City and miles beyond. From what I have heard, there was a great hew and cry when it was built (destroys the view don’t you know) but now it is considered a City landmark. Time heals all I guess. Below the tower and the hill that supports it are the neighborhoods south of market. Market Street slices the City in two with the “haves” residing north of it and the “not so haves” to the south. Immediately south of Market are the Mission and Potrero Hill, neighborhoods that over the past fifteen years have become a blend of the old working class families and the younger, hip crowd. Further south are working class areas with names like Excelsior, Glen Park and Visitation Valley.
However, the jumble of two story homes covering the surrounding low rising hills in the foreground and tumbling down to meet Lake Merced, spread out below in all its reedy glory, are in better class neighborhoods with names like Merced Manor, St Francis Wood, Balboa Terrace and West Portal. South of Sutro Tower, Twin Peaks thrusts its bare hills at the sky. The Indian name for these natural landmarks is translated as “Breasts of the Maiden” and they look like nothing less. There is a road up to these closely juxtaposed mounds that leads to the northeastern flank of one of them. There is a parking lot and viewing area that provides one of the great views of downtown.
Looking southward, Point San Pedro rises, jutting out into the Pacific. Inland from this area is a low range of hills. It was from a vista in these hills that Gaspar de Portola, leading a scouting party, caught sight of San Francisco Bay in 1769, the first European to do so. After this ships continued to search for the entrance to this great bay but due to the often fog enshrouded entrance was not discovered until 1775 by the San Carlos, a Spanish vessel sailing from Mexico.
To the west, Ocean Beach stretches northward. In the distance, Golden Gate Park splits what are called the Avenues into the Sunset district to the south and the Richmond district to the north. These are neighborhoods that cover the once rolling sand dunes that ran from the hills of downtown out to the ocean. The park was first conceived as a way to break up the monotony of these wind-blasted areas. Every tree in Golden Gate Park was hand planted. The so-called Avenues begin several blocks after the eastern entrance of the park and run numerically on both sides of the park out to the beach.
There are many trails in Fort Funston that run out to the cliff but there are only two that access the beach. One loops around the dunes and finally leads down to the beach at the northern end of the fort. This way affords a nice walk through the dunes but bypasses the beach below the cliffs. The better way down is between the bunker area and the northern entrance. The sand trail leads to a yawning gap in the cliff and descends steeply to the beach. The dogs love barreling down this trail so heads up is in order. The smell of the ocean and just the plunging sands seems to drive them to distraction (which with most dogs doesn’t take much).
Once down on the beach the sands stretch for miles northward to the City and south to Point San Pedro. Turning back to where the trail meets the beach, the sand and clay cliffs rise nearly 100 feet. The sedimentary layers exposed by eons of erosion are colored in ochre, mustard yellow, burnt orange and clay red. Some darker stones protrude sparsely and even the ruins of old bunkers stick out here and there. One bunker has fallen down the cliff to the beach and its broken hulk sits on the beach buried in the sand like something out of Planet of the Apes.
The beach here is less used than Ocean Beach at the City’s edge. The sands are much cleaner and the beach is somewhat narrower so the surf is not as rough. The color of the water here also seems to be of a deeper blue. Perhaps the bottom drops off more precipitously here. For whatever reason, the sea here seems more of a deep royal blue as compared to the water off the City. There the sea seems darker with deep notes of green and brown.
In the spring and early summer small, purple-blue jellyfish begin to appear on the beach by the hundreds. These small creatures, whose Latin name is Velella, wash up one the beach at the first strong southerly or westerly winds and therefore are harbingers of the coming warmer weather. Folklore knows them as “by the wind sailors” and they do in fact “sail”. The membrane covering their cartilage-like skeleton is filled with gas pockets and has a vertical, triangular crest set diagonally across its top. This serves as a sail that picks up the wind and, combined with the angle at which it is set, the direction of the wind and the ocean currents, determines its course. Understandably, the southwesterly drive them on to the shore. During this time their dried out carcasses can be seen lining the beach for miles.
From Fort Funston the City is several miles away. In the far distance the Marin Headlands loom in the haze with the Cliff House just before on this side of the Golden Gate. It all seems much closer than it appears. When I first began taking this walk, I would really miscalculate how far I had progressed until I came upon landmarks I knew and would suddenly be jolted into reality as to how far I had to go.
Walking along this beach I sometimes get lost in a thousand different reveries. The cacophony of the pounding surf on my left, the screeching of the gulls and the dazzling cloudless blue of the sky above, and these enormous cliffs rising to the right has at times put me into an almost trance like state as I trudge along the sand. At the farthest north point of the fort, just before the other access trail meets the beach, there are what appear to be collapsed strata of rock. The layers of the eons lie at a 45-degree angle and look like time going sideways.
Here the wildness of Fort Funston ceases and there is a long stretch of piled up rocks and boulders looking so artificial after the brilliance of the natural terrain. Atop this manmade barrier is a parking lot. The contrast of the wild sea and the sterile lot is only somewhat relieved by the sands between. In summer, the lot teems with humanity. People slog down to the beach with their “stuff”: blankets, umbrellas, coolers, etc. Up on the asphalt lot some can’t even seem to get down to the sand and instead set up the grills, coolers and lawn chairs and commence the festivities. The really lazy ones don’t even bother getting out of the cars and just lie back with the car doors open upon the cool sea breeze. The smell of suntan lotion and burning charcoal wafts over the scene.
Down along the water fishermen dot the beach at various locations. The local fishermen have known most of these good fishing spots for years. They usually lie above the riptides and eddies that are so prevalent here. These fishermen are usually Pilipinos, Asians, Hawaiians and Mexicans among others. Even in the warmest conditions they stand out here, a pail filled with water at their sides (for the catch), their long poles stuck in the sand with long lines cast out into the pounding surf, wearing parkas or heavy jackets. It does get breezy out there of course, and these guys are from much warmer climes (and I’m not, at least originally) but it does seem awfully warm for this attire. Then again they are out there all year round so maybe it’s a routine.
Late one summer, as I took this walk, I noticed a crab washed up on the beach. I didn’t think much of it at first, as crab season is approaching, but then I saw another and then another. Soon they were coming in bunches. I saw one Hawaiian dancing in the shallow waves scooping them up amazed at his luck. Later that weekend I saw a news report about the unusual amount of crabs washing up on the beach. They had the Park Service down there on the look out for poachers (as it is not yet crab season). I sure hope the Hawaiian got home with his catch.
Treading along with my feet in the wash of the waves, watching the mollusk breathing holes spout under my footprints, I really soak in the beauty of this area. It is such a treat to have so much wild beauty left in an urban, metropolitan setting. San Francisco is blessed by natural geography (it’s on a peninsula that leaves three quarter of its borders flanked by water), its relative youth compared to the cities on the east coast, and the wisdom of the earlier city fathers who long ago preserved much of its area (and continues to uphold that tradition today).
Further on up the beach, at the end of the lot, a dune arises on the right. There are houses in The Sunset behind this dune but they are unseen from the beach and the illusion of being in the wild returns. The dune grass waves in the warm wind and the sea pounds ceaselessly on the shore. It could be now or hundreds of years ago. The dune rises higher and here and there in the tall grasses people sit alone or in couples enjoying the ocean breeze.
After a time, the dune breaks again and there is another lot. This is where the beach meets San Francisco Zoo. Again the crowds mill and civilization presses but this interruption is thankfully short lived as another tall dune berm rises. Looking north though one can sense the proximity of urbanization. Once the end of Fort Funston is reached, the sound of the traffic just over the dunes remains audible. The roar of the ocean partially drowns this out though and the illusion of wilderness is sustained. Now though, the beach itself begins to change. The sand darkens with the leavings of past spills or sewage. At points, the tides have pushed most of this up against the dunes leaving black patches of muddy residue. Surprisingly this doesn’t seem to bother some people as they set up their beach towels and umbrellas right smack dab in the middle of this blight. Hey, don’t want to have to walk too far from the car.
For all that, there is still the ocean. How blue is the sea? How deep is the sea? (When I was shipping I sailed with an older mate who used to walk the decks mumbling those phrases over and over.) Out in the distance, far from the shore, freighters ply the shipping lanes. The sun to the south warms my back and as it falls past its apex, slowly dipping to the horizon, it burns over my left shoulder. The waves roll in from across the ocean; their energy built up by the pull of the tides and the wind over the countless leagues, only to swell suddenly in the increasingly shallow depths, finally breaking in an of blue-green water and white foam upon the sand.
Out above the waves, pelicans ride in steady lines, sometimes in groups of six or seven, just above the crashing waves. They seem so synchronized, matching the rise and fall of the seemingly unpredictable surf. On the shore, tiny terns play tag with the receding wash of the waves fishing for their tiny invisible (to us) prey. Watching them skitter along in large groups, I’m always fascinated by the way they move in concert very similar to the way they move in flight. They, and the pelicans, seem to have some instinctive common intellect that all members can access. In the skies above, screeching gulls ride the towers of rising hot air searching for signs of fish in the surf or, more commonly, being city birds after all, garbage on the sands below. They are ubiquitous all along the miles of beach but here closer to the City they are in competition with urban pigeons. When it comes to any kind of carrion, though, the bigger, stronger gulls usually win out in the end.
Finally the long dune berm ends and the windmills in the park loom on the right. The beach now widens out right up to the Great Highway and now it is the true urban beach scene. Packs of people crowd the waters edge, getting in touch with their deep, long dormant, ties to the sea. On the warmer days, it’s a game of dodge ‘em with sand hurling kids running about pell-mell oblivious to the stream of humanity around them. Parents keep a wary (or not so wary unfortunately) eye on these future leaders of the free (or not so free) world. This always brings back images and memories of my youth and my mom trying to corral the eight of us, sometimes screaming and crying, but in the end all having a hell of a time. The Beach. Yeah.
Out on the waves here at the northern end of Ocean Beach there is a “break” that is favored by the local surf community. Just south of Seal Rock and within easy viewing distance of the Cliff House crowd, surfers line up daily at this break waiting for the right curl to come along. They dot the surface just beyond the crash of the waves jockeying for position. There is some kind of surfer etiquette involved in who’s lined up where for what wave but to the uninitiated it might as well be trigonometry. There is also a strict class situation going on involving local surfers and the many interlopers. If you happen to be some neophyte unaware of the strict social order you might find yourself on the receiving end of some very bad mojo.
Up past the sea wall, people who may not want to deal with the sand stroll along the sidewalk or cruise the long stretch of parking spaces adjacent to the Great Highway. Further south, at the end of the parking area, there is a paved pathway called the Esplanade that stretches down to the dunes and beyond. At night people congregate along the beach and sometimes build bonfires. The police patrol but allow the fires, which is something not seen at most urban beaches. At the end of the beach, the Cliff House stands high on its promontory. Once this was the refuge of the carriage class, out from the city to take in the water and the sea air, and afterwards, lounge above the waves taking in the views of the sea. Now it’s a cheap tourist trap selling assorted gewgaws with San Francisco printed on the face and Made in China printed on the base. And the beat goes on.
© Stephen Alexander 2008
Final installment in my SF series