SF Walks: Outer Richmond and Sutro Baths

BY COLLEEN MCHUGH
July 21, 2010

Colleen McHugh, native San Franciscan and resident SPUR photographer, will blog about a different walk through San Francisco each week of the summer, reflecting on what it means to live as a pedestrian in this city and some of the ways we can improve upon that experience. There are so many things a walk in San Francisco can be — from a protest to an errand to an active use of public space. This walk will serve as a kind of memory in motion. Find a map of Colleen's walk here.

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Above: Stairs descending to the Sutro Baths

I've arrived at my old favorite spot in San Francisco — a graffiti-covered concrete relic of the coast's military past, at the very edge of the city and the continent, with a view of the Pacific to the left and the Golden Gate to the right. Land's End. When I was in high school, this particular spot was hidden behind a foreboding "Warning: Dangerous Cliffs!" sign and a maze of bushes. Now the bushes have been cleared, replaced by a newly-paved lookout, and my old favorite view in this city is fully exposed — to the coin operated binoculars in the parking lot above and to the eroding cliffs below.

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Above: Views to the left and to the right of my former favorite spot in San Francisco

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Top: Paved lookout. Bottom: Coin-operated Binoculars from the parking lot.

At this point on a Monday evening after work, I've walking about ten blocks down the forgotten sidewalks at the end of Geary Blvd. And as I arrive to the pristinely-paved trail around Land's End, I am reminded of one of the many great things a walk in this city can be — a measure of change and a memory of the past. The last time I walked along this path — a favorite of runners and dog walkers — it was a mix of dirt and rocks. And the surrounding foliage was not carefully protected native species as it is now, but invasive ice plant. The linking maze of paths have since been closed off for eroding cliff stabilization. So much has changed. Originally, this trail was carved for train tracks — a reminder of the leisure destination this area was a century ago.

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Top: Pristine Land's End trail. Bottom: Untamed wide sidewalk at the end of Geary.

I continue down the hill to Sutro Baths, a marshland/concrete ruin below the Cliff House. As I walk through the grass, watching ducks congregate at sunset in the old baths, my shoes are muddied and my socks become wet. It's difficult to imagine the glory days of the former world's largest indoor swimming facility, and the tales of which my grandfather and father have told me over the years sound like fiction. Now part of the GGNRA, the Sutro Baths and Lands End trail are a destination for much more serene leisure activities, like this solitary walk I find myself on this particular evening.

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Up over the hill to the south, Ocean Beach and the Great Highway come into view, as do the unsightly condos on the site of the former Playland at the Beach (one of the few remaining memories of which is the carousel that now operates at Yerba Buena). I turn up Balboa as dusk sets in. A passing 31 bus marks the city's decision in the 1950s to forego the old B-line streetcar (Yes, there used to be streetcar lines A-I.) in favor of buses. In the distance, the familiar Balboa Theatre sign shines, even as many of the city's other old movie houses are shutting down. I pass a lively fencing class in a studio down the street, and finally return to Simple Pleasures — my favorite coffee shop, virtually unchanged over the six years I've been going there.
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Top: An unexpected fencing class. Bottom: An unchanged Simple Pleasures Café.

[Photo Credit: All photos by Colleen McHugh]