Lands End Coastal Trail
Lands End in San Francisco is a favorite destination for both tourists and locals. With postcard-perfect views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, access to a hidden labyrinth perched high on a cliff, and the famous Sutro Baths ruins the Lands End Coastal trail is one of my favorite hikes in San Francisco!
The trail begins at the parking lot near the Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center. Most people walk the trail out-and-back, but I prefer doing the hike as a loop. If you want to see all of the hidden spots included in my Lands End visitors guide all you need to do is to follow this route. To take advantage of all the amazing views and photo opportunities you’ll want to set aside two to three hours for this hike.
Lands End Hiking Map and Elevation Profile
This Lands End hike is a loop that starts and ends at the visitor center. You can download my GPS tracks from CalTopo, or use the Google map at the end of this guide.
About this Hike
I updated this hike in February 2020. While most of the hike is the same, I changed the route to include a tour of Sutro Baths at the end of the hike and I re-routed the trail through the Battery Chester ruins and around the Octagon House. I had formerly relied on using unofficial trails around this area, but these can be a bit difficult to follow depending on the season and how many people are exploring the area. The new route still explores these areas, but it sticks to developed trails and should be much easier to follow. If you want to check out the older routes you can access the Google maps at the following links: the hike with the alternate end through Fort Miley, or the route that skips Fort Miley and loops via the Battle of the Bulge Trail behind the VA hospital.
If you are short on time and want to do an abbreviated version of this hike I recommend following my Sutro Baths Ruins and Cave hike and then walking less than a quarter-mile on the Coastal Trail to the first viewpoint where you can see the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This much shorter walk should only take about 45-minutes and can be combined with a bike ride through Golden Gate Park or a visit to the Legion of Honor.
Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center
The hike begins at the parking lot near the Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is open from 9am to 5pm every day, except major holidays. There’s a small cafe and a gift shop at the Visitor Center and there are restrooms in the building next door. The Visitor Center also has a ton of historical photos from when this area was used as a swimming pool and resort. It is pretty cool to see photos of the trains that once ran along these same trails and photos of the area before it was built-up to its current state. You can also find information about the native plants and animals that still reside in the area.
It is definitely worth stopping here to check things out either before or after your hike.
Walking Directions for Lands End Hike and the Coastal Trail
Start your hike at the Lands End Lookout visitor center parking lot. Pickup the trail at the large semi-circle entrance with stairs at the far side of the lot. Follow signs for the Coastal Trail to Mile Rock Beach and the Overlook. The trail starts off wide and flat. Stay straight as the trail passes other entrance points and continue for 0.10 mile and pass through the Cypress grove until you reach the first viewpoint.
Quite Possibly the Best Views of the Golden Gate Bridge
This trail is all about the views. People flock here for the outstanding view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but I think the views of the Marin Headlands are just as beautiful. On a hazy day the headlands across the bay look like an impressionist painting.
Starting at Sutro Baths and heading to Mile Rock Beach, the first section of this trail might require a little patience. While the first part of the trail is flat and wide, it is often crowded with tourists, couples walking hand-in-hand, or families out for a slow stroll. Most people are only here for the view of the Golden Gate Bridge and won’t make it more than a half-mile in before turning around. Be patient and know that while the crowds may thin the views will continue to be incredible.
Shipwrecks in the San Francisco Bay
After taking in the views continue straight, following signs for Mile Rock Beach. Shortly after the first viewpoint you’ll see a sign board about some early ships that wrecked in the Bay. During low tide you can still see parts of these ships sticking out of the water.
After a particularly bad shipwreck in 1901 that killed 28 people the city decided that it needed a lighthouse in the bay. They decided to build Mile Rock lighthouse on a rock that only measures about 30 feet by 40 feet. It took several years to build the multi-story Mile Rock Lighthouse as workers had to fight against the waves and the changing tides. The lighthouse had a tall steel base and a concrete building which housed the fog signal and a home for the light keeper.
Now, most of the lighthouse has been demolished and it is just a squat white tower poking out of the water. Only the first story remains and it is now used as an emergency helicopter landing pad.
Mile Rock Beach
After passing the second viewpoint the trail begins to narrow and gets a little rocky. You’ll pass a few other trail junctions along this stretch, but keep straight on the Coastal trail. When you arrive at a large junction with the bike path stay left here and follow the stairs down to Mile Rock Beach. (If you happen to be on a bike you need to go right to exit the trail unless you want to carry your bike up and down lots of stairs!)
This junction is well signed, but if you look on the fence at the top of the stairs you’ll see a sign for Mile Rock Beach. Take the stairs down to the beach. When the first staircase ends, continue left to go down a second set of stairs and under a large tree. There are 259 stairs down to Mile Rock Beach, and you’ll need to climb most of them on the return trip. This may sound like a lot of effort, but I promise you it is worth it!
Mile Rock Beach is a small sandy cove. The section of beach nearest to the bluffs has a lot of rocks, and people usually balance these and create cool rock formations. If you visit the beach at low tide you can walk down the beach and there are some great tide pools filled with sea anemones and starfish. If you walk the sandy beach at low tide you’ll also get some more great views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Be sure to head back before the tide comes in because at high tide the sandy beach disappears.
Lands End Hidden Labyrinth
After exploring the beach head back toward the way you came. After climbing about 10 stairs, look to your left and find an unmarked trail that hugs the side of the cliff. Follow this trail up and around the bluff to discover a hidden rock labyrinth.
The labyrinth was created by artist Eduardo Aguilera in 2003 and it is tended by Eduardo and local residents. This labyrinth is a local treasure, please be respectful and do not reposition the stones.
After enjoying the labyrinth, you can take the narrow trails on either side of the bluff up and into the trees at the top of the cliff. Be careful on these paths as the trail is extremely narrow and has even started to crumble in some spots. When you reach the trees you may have to duck under some branches, but continue straight until you reach the stairs again. Head up the stairs and back to the main trail.
Stairs, and More Stairs!
Make a left on the Coastal Trail to continue your loop. Follow the trail up another long set of stairs, resting on the benches if you need to. This is the last of the large stairs that you’ll need to climb on this walk.
At the top of the stairs you’ll drop down into a Eucalyptus grove before the path flattens out and you’re surrounded by Cypress trees again. The views continue to be incredible on this stretch of the Coastal trail.
After walking through the Eucalyptus grove the trail flattens out again. You are now walking along a narrow path through a small valley. In the spring the path is lined with flowering berry bushes, calla lilies, and red-orange cobra lilies. From this point on you’ll start to get a new perspective of the bridge and the coastline, and views of the large homes in the Sea Cliff neighborhood. From this vantage point you can see the entire coastline including China Beach and Baker Beach.
Continue straight until you reach the road. Make a right and follow the sign for the bike path. You are now walking along El Camino del Mar, heading toward the Legion of Honor.
The Legion of Honor
As you walk Lincoln Park Golf Course will be on your right and the street on your left. Stay on this path until it dead-ends into the Legion of Honor parking lot. Even if you don’t plan to visit the Legion of Honor you should definitely take a moment to tour the outside of the building. But, if you want to visit, The Legion of Honor offers free general admission to Bay Area residents every Saturday.
While most folks just know this art museum as The Legion of Honor its full name is the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. This building is definitely a palace. It was built to be a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The stately building is one of San Francisco’s lesser known icons and it was featured heavily in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
But the art isn’t only inside the museum. As you approach the Legion of Honor you’ll pass the Peace Monument on your right. At the intersection with the Legion of Honor you’ll see the Holocaust Memorial on your left and further down the road on the right is a memorial to the Japanese naval ship, Kanrin Maru.
Continue to walk straight, past the museum. When the sidewalk ends and the road splits head to the left and follow signs for the Terrace Level Entrance. Follow the sidewalk slightly uphill. The sidewalk ends at the disabled parking area at the side entrance to the museum, but you should keep going straight and head towards the public restrooms at the end of the street. Pick up the sidewalk again at the restrooms and make a left to follow the dirt path around the restroom outbuildings. When the trail splits, stay right and follow signs for the VA Medical Center.
Go over a small bridge and pass through a small picnic area. Just past the picnic area you’ll come to the old Fort Miley (white building with green trim).
Fort Miley was a large military base. The buildings here were part of the U.S. Army’s seacoast defense of San Francisco harbor in the early phase of World War II. This small green and white building is the only building left over from the old military days, everything else was demolished when the VA hospital was built. This building now serves as offices for the Lands End trail maintenance division.
Continue straight and use a small paved path and turn right onto Clement Street. Cross the driveway for the VA Hospital and use the stairs on the right to head into the VA Center. This is the less scenic part of the hike. Walk along the “grassy” sidewalk in the VA hospitals parking lot. There will be a retaining wall on your left and the VA buildings on your right. Continue walking through the parking lost for about 0.2o miles until you come to an intersection with a large parking garage and a stop sign. Take the road to the left and head into the abandoned batteries.
Battery Chester and the San Francisco Hidden Skate Park
I don’t know why I love exploring these abandoned batteries so much. I think that it is amazing that these places are hidden in plain sight. You could be standing on the roof of the building, or just on the other side of the hill and you wouldn’t know it was there. Plus, the combo of the rusted iron doors and crumbling walls covered in graffiti gives it an element of danger- you don’t know what to expect around the corner!
This battery dates back to World War I and at the time it was a key part of defending the bay against submarines. It had a large range-finder and a rifled gun. Now, if you visit on the weekend it is packed with skateboarders using the battery as an urban skatepark. There are also family members picnicking on the lawn while taking in the sweeping views of the beach.
After exploring the battery, use the paved path between the picnic area and the battery to head down the hill and into the trees. If you want to do a little more exploring you can stop to check out the Fort Miley ropes course on your left, or the abandoned octagon house on your right (you’ll need to pass the white iron gate and walk a short paved path to get there). Or, if you’re ready to explore some ruins with better views continue to stay straight and head down the road.
Cross through the parking lot and stop by the USS SF Memorial. At the memorial make a right and take the stairs down to the viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is the same viewpoint that you passed on the start of your walk earlier. Make a left at the viewpoint to retrace your steps back toward the parking area. The path will split a few times, stay to the right and in about 0.20 miles make a right and follow the Sutro Baths Upper Trail. Go down the stairs and follow the path as it winds to the Point Lobos viewpoint.
Sutro Baths Point Lobos Viewpoint
Point Lobos has great views of the Marin headlands and gives a birds-eye view of Sutro Baths. It is also a great place to watch the waves. If you look down onto the rocks from the western-most point of the viewing area you just might be able to catch the sea spurting. The waves have carved a hole into one of the rocks and as the waves crash against the rock the water spurts out of the hole.
Follow the trail as it wraps around the bluffs and down into Sutro Baths. Explore Sutro Baths and if you want to learn more about the area check out my trail guide for the Sutro Ruins and Cave. When you’re done exploring walk up the stairs to return to the parking lot and the starting point for this hike.
Getting to Lands End: Parking and Public Transportation
Lands End is at the far western side of San Francisco, just north of Golden Gate Park. There is a large parking lot next to the Visitors Center on Point Lobos Avenue and a second lot at the end of El Camino del Mar. Parking is free, but it can be difficult to find a spot on the weekends because the lot fills up early. There is also a problem with car break-ins. Do not leave anything in sight in your vehicle. Move all jackets, bags, and electronics into the trunk before entering the parking lot.
The 38-Geary bus takes you to Lands End from downtown or Union Square. The bus arrives every 10-15 minutes and it picks up and drops off at the corner of 48th Avenue and Point Lobos Avenue. Even though Lands End has a parking lot, it can be difficult to find a spot. Taking public transportation is definitely the way to go!
Hiking Lands End with Dogs
Lands End and this section of the Coastal Trail is dog-friendly. Dogs are allowed to be walked off-leash in this section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. If dogs are off-leash they must be within sight of the owner and under voice control at all times.
Lands End is a popular spot and there are often a lot of people and dogs out enjoying the trails. Coyotes also live in this park and are often seen in the area. Coyotes can be aggressive to other dogs during pupping season (February to April). The park will display signs alerting dog owners to areas where coyotes have been seen. If you have a small dog it is best to keep them on least while walking in this area during pupping season.
Located next to the parking lot and Lands End Visitor Center at 680 Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco, the trailhead begins on the path above Sutro Baths.
This loop follows the Lands End Coastal Trail and then wraps past the Legion of Honor, through Fort Miley, and past the USS SF Memorial before meeting the Coastal Trail again.
Take the Coastal Trail for .6 mile until you reach the Mile Rock Beach trail junction. Follow the stairs down to Mile Rock Beach and then take an unmarked path to the labyrinth. After enjoying the views take another unmarked trail back to the stairs and return to the Coastal Trail. (See details above for more details on the unmarked paths.)
Stay on the Coastal Trail until you reach El Camino Del Mar. Make a right on El Camino Del Mar and follow the sidewalk past the Legion of Honor. Use an unmarked path to walk behind the Legion of Honor and toward the VA Medical Center. Follow signs for the VA Medical Center and after passing a picnic area on your left, stay straight to pass the old Fort Miley building and use the small sidewalk to connect with Clement Street. Make a right onto Clement, cross the driveway for the VA hospital and take the stairs on your right up to the VA center.
When you've reached the VA Medical Center make a left and follow the street through the parking lot until you reach a four-way stop and a large multi-story parking structure. Make a left and explore Battery Chester. Continue on the paved fire road through Battery Chester, past the ropes course and into the Lands End upper parking lot. Cross the parking lot and check out the USS SF Memorial before following the sidewalk to the right and taking the stairs down to the viewpoint. Make a left onto the Coastal Trail and retrace your steps back towards the beginning of the hike, staying to the right every time the path splits. Make a right on the Sutro Baths Upper Trail and follow it as it winds down to the Point Lobos viewpoint and eventually down into the Sutro ruins. After exploring the ruins take the stairs back to the Visitor Center parking lot.
- Parking: Parking lot and street parking
- Fee: No fee
- Restroom: Public restrooms are available at the Lands End Lookout Visitor Center and near the Legion of Honor.
- Dogs are allowed on the trails, but know that coyotes live here too.
Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.
Being prepared means arriving at the trailhead with water and some basic provisions. Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.
Stay safe, enjoy the trail, and soak up the magic of nature!
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