A San Francisco landmark, the Sutro Baths were once the largest public indoor swimming pool complex on the planet. Today its ruins remain as a reminder of the city's unique and fascinating history.
When wealthy local businessman and the city's 24th mayor, Adolph Sutro, opened San Francisco's Sutro Baths in 1896, they were bigger than any public indoor swimming pool facility the word had ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people made their way to to SF's 'Outerlands' for decades to experience this impressive 3-acre complex — one that Sutro modeled on the bathhouses of Europe where guests would go to relax and rejuvenate. Perched on the edge of the Pacific below the city's well-known Cliff House, this 100,000-square-foot glass and concrete complex (it actually began as an aquarium) consisted of six tide-fed, saltwater pools and another freshwater pool in a range of sizes and temperatures, and included fun features like trapezes, slides, and a hive dive. When not swimming or soaking, bathers could explore an onsite natural history museum — one filled with taxidermy, European artworks, exotic plants, and other artifacts that Sutro gathered both on his travels and from Woodward's Gardens, a former amusement park in the Mission. The baths also housed a 2,700-seat amphitheater, observation bleachers, and hundreds of dressing rooms. Bathing suits and towels were available to rent, making the baths in many ways a one-stop day-long attraction.
The Sutro Baths were initially a huge success, but the cost of operating and maintaining them eventually took a toll. When The Depression hit attendance at the baths dropped significantly, so Sutro's family (Sutro passed away in 1898) added an ice skating rink in the hope of increasing profits. Unfortunately, their risk never quite panned out. The Sutro family ended up closing the baths in the 1950s, though they continued operating the ice skating rink into the early '60s — eventually selling the property to developers. They were in the process of demolishing the complex to make way for a high-rise apartments when a suspicious fire (later deemed arson) struck in June 1966, leaving nothing but ruins.
The National Park Service acquired the ownership of the Sutro Baths site 1976, and it's now a part of the 82,027-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). While the various historically and ecologically significant landscapes that make up GGNRA aren't physically connected, together they equate to one of the world's largest urban parks. Other GGNR attractions include the Cliff House, Marin County's Muir Woods, San Francisco's Presidio and Fort Mason in the Marina, the notorious Alcatraz Island, and even the Marin Headlands Youth Hostel on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
What to See & Do
Although the baths have been closed and (mostly) gone for decades, their grandeur and mystique live on in San Francisco lore (and in movies like the 1971 black comedy "Harold and Maude"). You can still walk along the baths' sea wall and several concrete remains, as well as through a tunnel that Sutro once used for pumping in seawater. Use extreme caution, as the ruins are often slippery and rouge waves are possible.
On the clifftop just south of the ruins stands SF's iconic Cliff House — or really, the fifth incarnation of it, though one with the same panoramic views that have been attracting gawkers since the restaurant first opened in 1858. Today's neoclassical version of the landmark eatery made its debut in 2005, and includes both the casual Bistro and the upscale Sutro's, as well as a Terrace Room that serves up a Sunday champagne brunch, complete with poached salmon and prawns, pasta carbonara, endless bubbly, and a live harp musician. Browse the onsite gift shop, watch surfers take to the waves along Ocean Beach, and don't miss the Camera Obscura: a giant walk-in camera that's been entertaining visitors with 360-degree live images of the coastline since 1946.
Just up the hill from the Cliff House along Point Lobos Avenue, Sutro Heights Park is also part of the GGNRA and well worth a stroll. This was where Adolph Sutro himself once lived, in a turreted mansion with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by expansive gardens brimming with Victorian flower beds. There was a glass conservatory on the grounds, and more than 200 imported sculptures that were replicas of Greek and Roman works. Back in the day, Sutro charged visitors a dime to tour the property though today it's absolutely free — although a lot of the estate's original features are gone, save for the two lion statues at the entrance gate (copies of the 'Landseer Lions' in London's Trafalgar Square) and a replica of "Diana of Versailles."
The area above the baths, Land's End, is a great spot for day hikes. This wild and rocky corner of the city is also part of the GGNRA and features several trails, including a nearly two-mile stretch of the California Coastal Trail — winding for 1,200 miles along the CA coastline. There are numerous overlooks, historic war batteries, and a walkable labyrinth, not to mention windswept stands of cypress and eucalyptus trees, and superb views around seemingly every turn. Trailheads are located at the Merrie Way parking lot, which is also home to the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center. Stop here to learn more about the baths and surrounding GGNRA.
For an affordable bite to eat with spectacular views, consider Louis' — a family-owned restaurant above the Sutro Baths that's been around since 1937. Today Louis' is a concessioner of the National Park Service and serves up omelettes, benedicts, burgers, and sandwiches in a diner-style setting. The restaurant is cash only, so plan accordingly.
The best way to reach the Sutro Baths if you're not traveling by car is via Muni. The 38 Geary bus line ends at 48th Avenue. Disembark here, and then it's just a short walk downhill. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes — the land around the baths can be slippery and uneven, and dirt trails are par for the course.