My last post explored the area on the north western corner of San Francisco – from the Beach Chalet restaurant along Ocean Beach to the Cliff House and adjacent Sutro Baths.
If you need to return to the city at this point, you can either drive back via the avenues or take the 38 Geary Muni bus. But an infinitely more rewarding, if strenuous, route is along the Coastal Trail, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, that winds around the headland all the way to Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge. The walk begins at the parking lot behind the baths.
The Cliff House, with the huge picture windows of the bistro and Sutro’s beneath, presents its more fetching side when viewed from the ruins.
A few hundred yards along the trail, set in the wild, cypress-filled expanse of Lincoln Park, a short detour inland brings you to the stately Palace of the Legion of Honour, an exact replica of the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d,Honneur in Paris. Built in the nineteen twenties to promote French art in California and commemorate the state’s casualties in the Great War, it houses European art from the last eight centuries, including paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet and Degas, as well as exhibits from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Assyria.
It might be best known in the public imagination for providing the setting for scenes in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the gallery is more important for being the home to more than seventy sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Indeed, an original bronze casting of his Le Penseur (The Thinker), the production of which was overseen by the sculptor himself, greets visitors as they enter via the courtyard.
Returning to the trail, steep wooden steps transport the adventurous hiker onto Mile Rocks Beach, where, even on a calm day, the rugged terrain is lashed by the strong currents of the powerful Pacific.
From here, Mile Rocks Lighthouse sits half a mile off shore. Built originally as a bell buoy in 1889, with the lighthouse completed in 1906, it served to guide the way for seafarers until 1966 when the Coast Guard dismantled the lantern and converted it to a helicopter landing pad. Emasculated it may now be, but it is still a curiously imposing structure.
One of the chief pleasures of the walk is the “now you see me, now you don’t” tease played by the Golden Gate Bridge.
China Beach, so named as it was once home to an encampment of Chinese fishermen, is a small cove with facilities for residents hardy enough to swim in the icy waters. As the trail turns due north towards the bridge, the larger Baker Beach, the original site for the Burning Man art festival, is one of the most popular spots for sunbathing, walking and fishing, as well as being dog friendly. On sunny days, the northern end is notable for the absence of swimwear or any clothing for that matter.
And it affords a stunning view – of the bridge, not me.
It might be feel remote but you should not get lost on the trail.
At the end of Lincoln Park, the wooded, green terrain gives way to swanky Sea Cliff, one of San Francisco’s most affluent neighbourhoods with its pastel coloured mansions and their immaculately manicured gardens. Its exclusivity is reinforced on every corner by signs forbidding tourist buses, and its list of current and former residents includes Robin Williams, Sharon Stone, Paul Kantner and the founders of both Twitter and Gap. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands are unsurprisingly priceless.
The walk on this occasion ends here on the south west corner of the Presidio. That magnificent former US army base deserves a post of its own, and I will return to it at a later date.