Table of Contents
- Why Take the Lands End Hike?
- Is the Lands End Trail a Hike or a Walk?
- Why is This Location Called Lands End?
- Is Lands End a National Park, a City Park, or Coastal Trail?
- Trail Conditions, Time, and Distance
- Mile Rock Beach and Lands End Labyrinth
- Ways to Hike Lands End
- Stop by the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center
- Bits of Lands End History
- Lands End Parking and Public Transit Options
- Important Things to Know
Why Take the Lands End Hike?
- The Lands End Hike has spectacular views of the rugged Pacific Coastline, the Golden Gate Bridge, windswept cypress trees, beaches, and wildflowers.
- A short spur off the main Lands End Trail takes you to scenic Mile Rock Beach and the Lands End Labyrinth.
- It passes by the historic points of Sutro Baths, USS San Francisco Memorial, and, at very low tide, remnants of old shipwrecks
- You might see migrating whales.
- The beautiful views, fresh ocean air, and exercise are all free.
Is the Lands End Trail a Hike or a Walk?
It depends on how much and which part of the trail you take. The section between the Lands End Lookout Visitors Center and Mile Rock Overlook is an easy walk. It’s wide, smooth, mostly flat, and fully accessible. Many people walk this 0.5-mile (0.8 km) section and then walk back. It’s like a promenade. If you walk the entire main trail it’s definitely a hike — and even more so if you add the spur trail to Mile Rock Beach and the Labyrinth.
This is a very popular hike and, especially on weekends, can be quite busy. The trail is a favorite with people of all ages, families, people with dogs (leashed, of course), and small tour groups.
If you like easy walks with great views, you will also enjoy the Golden Gate Promenade. It’s a wide, flat, accessible trail along the Crissy Field waterfront with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and the city skyline. For even more great hikes with great views, see our post Hiking in San Francisco. It’s a bucket list of urban hikes, and more hikes will be added overtime.
Why is This Location Called Lands End?
The location of the trail is called Lands End because it was literally the end of the road. It was the westernmost end of the first cross-country highway. Lincoln Highway — completed in 1913 — went from New York’s Times Square to San Francisco and ended in the northwest part of the city where Lincoln Park is now.
Is Lands End a National Park, a City Park, or Coastal Trail?
Lands End is all of the above and more. It’s part of all of these:
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNR) is a very unique National Park. It’s unique because it’s a collection of scattered sites along the San Francisco Bay Area coast including Alcatraz, Muir Woods, and the Presidio. It’s also unique because — except for Alcatraz and Muir Woods — all of the GGNR sites are free to enter.
- California Coastal Trail is a network of trails following the state’s 1,200-mile Pacific Coast shoreline. Lands End Trail is the Coastal Trail section between the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center (by Cliff House and the Sutro Bath ruins) and where the Coastal Trail and El Camino Del Mar enter Lincoln Park (near 32ndAvenue).
- Lincoln Park is a 100-acre park located in the northwest part of San Francisco and is also home to the Palace of the Legion of Honor — a fine arts museum, a Holocaust Memorial, and an 18-hole public golf course. The Lands End Trail skirts around the outer perimeter of the park between the cliffs, the golf course, and Fort Miley.
- UNESCO Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve created by UNESCO to promote cooperation between various groups responsible for managing sensitive protected areas.
Trail Conditions, Time, and Distance
Lands End Trail Conditions
The first half-mile, between the Visitor Center and Mile Rock Overlook, follows an abandoned railroad bed and is wide, smooth, mostly flat, and ADA accessible. Most of the rest of the trail is mixed. Some sections are wide and smooth, some are so rutted, or rocky, or narrow you may wonder if you’re still on the right trail. Depending on the season, it can be muddy or dusty. The section of trail between Eagles Point and Painted Rock has rustic stairs going up and down a small hill. There are 255 stair steps, but they are low rise and easy to walk. The spur trail down to Mile Rock Beach and the Labyrinth is almost all stairs (250 steps — each way).
Parts of the trail skirt around the bluffs overlooking the ocean, rocky cliffs, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Other parts of the trail meander through wooded areas with a variety trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers.
Power Tip: Be careful! Parts of the trail (especially the unauthorized side trails) are along steep cliffs. The trails can be slippery; falls can be deadly.
Lands End Hike Time and Distance
- The main Lands End Trail is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) one-way and takes about 90 minutes with stops to enjoy the views and take photos.
- The spur Mile Rock Beach trail is 0.34 miles (0.5 km) round trip from the main trail (allow 30-45 minutes round trip). Add more time if you want to spend time at the Labyrinth or linger at the beach. On my most recent trip to the beach, I hiked down in 14 minutes and back up in 21 minutes, but I was counting stair steps, taking notes and photos, and catching my breath. So it’s likely twice the time most people need to hike down and back up the spur trail.
- The Lands End Trail in one direction plus the round trip spur to Mile Rock Beach is 1.7 miles (2.7 km).
Mile Rock Beach and Lands End Labyrinth
The short but steep spur trail to Mile Rock Beach takes you through one of the most rugged and scenic parts of Lands End, and from the small, rocky beach, there’s a short safer path to the Labyrinth.
Mile Rock Beach
The trail branching off to Mile Rock Beach is marked with a sign. The trail is steep with rustic stairs all the way down. The low-rise, wide-tread steps are dirt with timber edges. They are easy to walk, but there are lots of them (about 250 stair steps in all). The round trip from the main trail to the beach is 0.34 miles (0.5 km).
Lands End Labyrinth
About half way down the Mile Rock Beach Trail, there’s an unauthorized shortcut to the labyrinth. The shortcut is tempting, and lots of people take it (I have too), but a narrow and crumbly part of it is along a dangerous cliff. There’s a safer trail from the beach to the Labyrinth.
Local artist Eduardo Aguilera created the Labyrinth in 2004. It’s made of stones carried up from Mile Rock Beach, so building it is no easy task. At least twice, vandals have thrown the rocks off the cliff destroying the Labyrinth, and, each time Eduardo and dozens of volunteers have carried rocks back up and rebuilt it. It’s a not-so-secret San Francisco treasure.
Ways to Hike Lands End
There are lots of options for hiking the Lands End Trail: round trip, one-way, or just part of the trail. Here are three possibilities:
- Short and easy — Start at the southwestern end by the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center and walk the wide, smooth, mostly flat part of the trail to Mile Rock Lookout and then walk back. It’s 0.5 miles (0.8 km) each way, and it’s ADA accessible.
- One-way — Start at either end and walk the entire Lands End section of the Coastal Trail. It’s 1.5 miles (2.4 km). If you add the spur trail to Mile Rock Beach and the Labyrinth, add another 0.34 miles (0.5 km). The obvious complication with this one-way option is that you can’t easily drive and park. Taking public transit solves this issue.
- The whole loop — Start at either end, walk the entire trail, and walk back. Or, in one direction, take the shortcut through the golf course and the Legion of Honor. If you take the whole trail in both directions and add the Mile Rock Beach spur, the entire trek is 3.4 miles (5.5 km).
Stop by the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center
By all means stop by the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center. It, thankfully, has nice restrooms, but that’s not all. It has interpretive displays about the history and culture of Lands End. My favorite display is a set of old photo plates of shipwrecks, Sutro Baths, and Cliff House from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They’re encased in clear plastic frames, and, like really large slides, can be viewed by holding them up to the light.
The Visitor Center also sells a selection of books, brochures, sweatshirts, souvenirs, and more. The friendly staff will answer questions and offer a free and informative National Park Service map of the trail and area.
The café has drinks, snacks, and very good sandwiches. They pre-make sandwiches for the days rush and have them neatly wrapped in brown paper. I get the Turkey with Avocado on Ciabatta Bread and tuck it in my day trip backpack.
Bits of Lands End History
USS San Francisco Memorial
The heavy cruiser USS San Francisco had a major role in the November 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal where the ship suffered major damage and 107 crew members lost their lives. The Memorial is just above the Lands End Trail and is connected to the trail with a flight of stairs (55 steps). There are great views from the Memorial, free 4-hour parking in the adjacent Fort Miley parking lot, and two (lightly maintained) porta-potties.
Sutro Bath Ruins
Adolph Sutro was a man of many talents. He was a successful engineer, a land developer, and, from 1895 to 1897, was Mayor of San Francisco. He built the Sutro Baths between 1892 and 1896. The 3-acre complex included seven pools (cleverly filled by high tides), changing rooms, restaurants, a bandstand, and more. It was a recreational complex for San Franciscans and thousands flocked to it, but it was never a financial success and closed in 1964. The complex burned to the ground 1966, while being demolished. All that remains now are parts of the foundation.
Cliff House was originally built in 1858 and has been rebuilt four times. In 1896, Adolph Sutro built the third and most striking incarnation of Cliff House. It was a stunning seven-story Victorian Chateau, which survived the 1906 earthquake and burned to the ground in 1907. It was rebuilt twice more. Today, it’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which is a National Park. The very successful restaurant and bar complex is operated by a concessionaire for the National Park Service. It has very good food and service and great views overlooking Seal Rocks.
Steam Train to Sutro Baths and Cliff House
The Ferries & Cliff House Railroad ran small steam trains from downtown to the cliffs from 1888 to 1905. Adolf Sutro, who owned and developed the surrounding land, built the railroad to ferry people from downtown to the Sutro Baths, Cliff House, and Ocean Beach. The railroad was plagued with landslides, but the views on the 2-mile section, which ran along the cliffs, would have been spectacular. In 1905, the railroad replaced the steam trains with electric streetcars. They ran until 1925 when heavy rains washed sections of the track into the ocean. Parts of Lands End Trail are on the remaining railroad bed.
The entrance to the Golden Gate is stunning, but before modern navigation tools were invented the entrance was treacherous. Dense fog, swift currents, and rocks caused many shipwrecks. Over 300 vessels have sunk trying to enter or leave the Golden Gate.
Three shipwrecks still have parts visible at Lands End during extreme low tides: the Lyman A. Stewart, the Ohioan, and the Frank H. Buck. All three ships met their end during heavy fog:
- The oil tanker Lyman A. Stewart sank in 1922 after departing the Golden Gate with a full load of oil. In the dense fog, the Stewart collided with another ship. Badly damaged and taking on water, the captain had the crew abandon ship and he stirred it toward Lands End. It crashed on the rocks near Mile Rock Beach.
- The cargo ship Ohioan sank in 1936 when, lost in dense fog, the captain mistakenly stirred the ship between Seal Rocks and Sutro Baths and crashed on the rocks next to Point Lobos. All that’s visible today is the ship’s boilers.
- The Frank H. Buck was also an oil tanker and was the sister ship of the Stewart. It sank in 1937 following a collision with a passenger ship unseen in the fog. The crew managed to ground the ship off Lands End where it came to rest across the stern of its sister ship, the Stewart, which sank in 1922. The engine blocks are all that remain of the two ships.
Lands End Parking and Public Transit Options
If you prefer to drive, parking at Lands End is free, but the available lots can fill up early, especially on weekends.
I prefer public transit because I like walking the trail one-way starting at the northeast end and ending at the southwest end. Then, I can stop at Cliff House for a pint of Anchor Steam and their Artisanal Cheese Plate and watch the waves crash on Seal Rocks (it’s a tough assignment). And, with public transit, I don’t have to backtrack to my car or drive home.
- At the southwest end (Lands End Lookout Visitor Center) there are three lots: a big lot at the Visitor Center, a smaller lot on Point Lobos Avenue directly across from the Visitor Center, and the Fort Miley lot at the USS San Francisco Memorial (on El Camino Del Mar). All three lots are free, and they all limit parking to 4-hours between 7a and 6p. They all fill up early on the weekends, especially if the weather is nice.
- At the northeast end of the trail (El Camino Del Mar near 32ndAvenue) there is no parking lot. It’s okay to park on the neighborhood streets, if you can find a space. Parking is not restricted (no meters, hour limits, or permit requirements), but it’s scarce.
Here are the public transit options. For details about fares and ways to pay, visit our related post: San Francisco Excursions Using Public Transit, and see the bus stop locations pinned on the Google map below.
- Southwest Trailhead: To get to or from the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center (the southwest end of the Lands End Trail, take the 38R Geary bus. It goes from the SF (downtown) Transit Center, travels along Market Street and Geary Boulevard to 48thand Point Lobos Avenues.
Power Tip: The R in 38R stands for Rapid. This bus makes limited stops along Geary. You can also take the regular 38 Geary bus, but not all 38 Geary buses go all the way to 48th Avenue
- Northeast Trailhead: To get to or from the northeast end of the trail (where El Camino Del Mar enters Lincoln Park), take a 1 California bus from downtown to 32nd Avenue at California. Walk north on 32nd Avenue to El Camino Del Mar and turn left. The trail sign is directly ahead. Alternatively, walk one block west on California, where it dead-ends into the beautiful tiled Lincoln Park Stairs. Take the stairs and turn right onto the dirt path. The path ends where El Camino Del Mar enters Lincoln Park. The path follows the edge of the 18th Fairway on Lincoln Park Golf Course, so if you hear someone yell “fore,” duck and cover your head.
- Shortcut through golf course (see pin on the Google map below): If you wish to take the golf course shortcut to or from the main trail, you can take the 18-46th Avenue bus to/from the Legion of Honor. The 18-46th Avenue bus begins and ends at the Legion of Honor and en route crosses both Geary Boulevard and Clement Street on 33rd Avenue, so you can hop on or off the 18 bus and connect to either a 1 California or 38R Geary.
Important Things to Know
- NO BATHROOMS or food, or water along the trail. The only bathrooms are at the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center at the trail’s southwestern end. The restrooms are open from 9a-5:30p on Monday through Friday and 9a-7:30p on Saturday and Sunday.
- Stay on the marked trails. Side trails along the cliffs are dangerous.
- Bring a sweatshirt or jacket. If the fog rolls in, it’s gets really chilly, really fast.
- ADA Accessible: The trail section between the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center and the Mile Rock Overlook is ADA accessible. This trail section follows the roadbed built for the long gone Ferries & Cliff House Railroad, so it’s wide, smooth, and mostly flat.
- Bikes are not allowed on the section between the Mile Rock Beach spur trail and Eagles Point. The trail is not well suited for them, because it’s really narrow in places and there are lots of stairs.
- Watch out for poison oak. Learn to recognize it with this Golden Gate National Parks Four-Season Field Guide to Poison Oak.
- Watch out for coyotes.
San Francisco is very compact and densely populated, so having lots of parks, gardens, and trails are an essential ingredient in making the city more livable. Fortunately there are a lot of them and more are being added. The Lands End hike is my favorite; I hope you take it and enjoy it too.
For more things to see and do in San Francisco, check out our San Francisco Itinerary post, which has 1, 2, and 3-Day suggested itineraries and bonus lists of sights to help you create your own custom itinerary.
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