I have been visiting San Francisco to explore and play a few times a year, every year, for almost my entire life, and I had never been to Sutro Heights Park.
In fact, on our recent family weekend getaway to San Francisco, we almost missed the park again! Jerry Day was on a Sunday, and we were making a long weekend out of it, so we had all day Friday and Saturday to go exploring — and we wanted to do things we had never done before.
After some digging, I decided that we would:
- Spend Friday exploring the Lands End area, including the Camera Obscura, Sutro Bath ruins, Mile Rock Beach, the Lands End Labyrinth, and the Lands End Coastal Trail.
- Spend Saturday in Golden Gate Park, visiting the Dutch Widmill, the Murphy Windmill, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Spreckels Temple of Music in the Music Concourse, Huntington Falls and Strawberry Hill, and of course, the Koret Children’s Quarter.
It was a fun, but busy two days, which we didn’t mind, because we could just relax while we listed to the bands play at Jerry Day on Sunday.
After exploring the entire Lands End area and enjoying a tailgate picnic, we stopped in the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center and Store, and as we were walking back toward the car, we saw a trail up the side of the hill across the street. It looked like it left from the small parking lot, and all we could think about was how great the views would be at the top.
The kids were exhausted at this point, but we plied them with cups of Goldfish Crackers, and headed up the trail. At the top we discovered Sutro Heights Park, which stands tall above Ocean Beach and looks out over the Cliff House, and provides expansive views of the city. Even in the fog, the views were awesome.
We walked around the park, stopped for photos at the old Well House, and climbed the stone steps to the Observation Plaza. Apparently not many people know this park exists, because it was practically empty on a Saturday afternoon and we had the entire place to ourselves.
The park is a beautiful setting for a picnic — next time we’re in this area, we’ll be skipping the tailgate picnic, and instead, enjoying our lunch with an incredible view.
The 22 acres on the coast of San Francisco purchased by Adolf Sutro in 1881 included a promontory overlooking the Pacific that would soon become the site of his home estate. The estate, named Sutro Heights, consisted of a turreted mansion, a carriage house, and outbuildings set in expansive gardens. He spent in excess of a million dollars to recreate an Italian style garden. It was filled with fountains, planted urns, and statues, Victorian flower beds, hedge mazes, parterres, forests of trees, a glass plant conservatory, and other garden structures, including more than 200 concrete replicas of Greek and Roman statuary from Belgium.
Two years later, the Sutro Heights Gardens, including the Observation Plaza vista point, were opened to the public. The entrance fee was a dime and the donation helped pay the 17 gardeners, machinists, and drivers that maintained the estate’s gardens and grounds.
After his tenure as Mayor of San Francisco, Adolf Sutro died in 1898. While he still owned quite a bit of land, he had very little money. His daughter Emma Sutro Merritt moved to the Sutro Heights estate, but as she aged, she was unable to maintain the grounds. Upon her death in 1938, the Sutro Family donated the estate to the City of San Francisco. In 1939, the residence was demolished, the remaining statues were removed, with the exception of The Lions and a statue of Diana the Huntress (Artemis), and the gardens became a city park.
Sutro Heights Park
Today, Sutro Heights Park is an 18 acre, historic public park in the Lands End area of the Outer Richmond District of San Francisco, California. It is located above the Cliff House on the site of the former Sutro Heights estate of Adolph Sutro, within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Sutro Historic District.
The park has beautiful views of Seal Rock, Ocean Beach, the Pacific Ocean, the Marin Headlands, Mount Tamalpais, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sutro Historic District
In 1881, Adolph Sutro, a Comstock Lode silver baron, land developer, and former mayor of San Francisco, purchased a large stretch of undeveloped land along the coast of San Francisco, south of Point Lobos and north of Ocean Beach. Over time, he built an estate mansion named Sutro Heights, the second Victorian-style Cliff House, and the Sutro Baths — a 25,000 person swimming facility and museum with six saltwater swimming tanks, 517 private dressing rooms, restaurants, and arcades, all enclosed by 100,000 square feet of glass.
To make it easy for visitors to reach Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights Gardens, and the Sutro Pleasure Grounds, he also built a passenger steam train from downtown San Francisco to the Lands End Area.
In 1938, ownership of Sutro Heights was transferred to the City of San Francisco under the condition that it be “forever held and maintained as a free public resort or park under the name of Sutro Heights.” In the 1970s, the National Park Service acquired ownership of the Sutro Baths site and the third Cliff House built in 1909, and the City of San Francisco transferred ownership of Sutro Heights Park to the National Park Service.
Today the Sutro Historic District encompasses Sutro Heights Park, the Sutro Bath ruins, and the historic Cliff House.
Know Before You Go
- Sutro Heights Park is located on the westernmost side of San Francisco’s Lands End area.
- There are two parking lots flanking Point Lobos Drive near the entrance of the park. While the small lot on the south side of the street fill up fast, the Lands End Lookout parking area is larger and has more spots available. Both lots fill up fast on the weekends though, so it’s best to arrive early in the day. Alternately, on the Balboa street side of the park, there is a steep stairway to the park.
- For more detailed historic information, download The History and Significance of the Adolph Sutro Historic District PDF.
- If the sun is shining and it is a clear day, Sutro Heights Park has beautiful views of Seal Rocks, Ocean Beach, the Pacific Ocean, the Marin Headlands, Mount Tamalpais, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
- The Lions, two giant lion statues that flanked the Sutro Heights Gardens entrance, are all that is left of the park’s elaborate entrance gates.
- All of the Sutro Heights estate buildings have been torn down, but the Well House and the stone Observation Plaza vista point still remain. Also, if you look closely in the grass, you can still see floor tiles from the conservatory.
- While visiting Sutro Height Park, be sure you leave time to visit the Sutro Bath ruins, the historic Cliff House, and the Giant Camera Obscura. You may also want to walk the Lands End Coastal Trail along the old railroad bed to Mile Rock Beach and the Lands End Labyrinth.