Sutro Baths Ruins and Cave Trail to Point Lobos

Once a gigantic saltwater swimming pool complex, the Sutro Baths ruins and cave are now a series of crumbling sea walls in the most picturesque part of San Francisco. Visitors can walk along the unmaintained walls tracing the outline of what once was the largest swimming pool complex fed by the powerful ocean tides.

This short walk begins at Louis’ Restaurant on Point Lobos Avenue and meanders down into Naiad Cove and around the Sutro Ruins. Hikers can explore the sea cave bored into Parallel Point before checking out the upper viewpoint to get a great view of the baths and bluffs on the other side of the bay that stretch north from Marin to Point Reyes. After taking in the sights climb a series of stairs to the Point Lobos bluff and pass through a grove of Cypress trees.

Looking down on the Sutro Baths ruins from a viewpoint at golden hour

History of the Sutro Bath Ruins

The baths were built by Adolph Sutro, a self-made millionaire and former mayor of San Francisco.

The baths began in 1887 as a project Sutro called “The Aquarium.” Sutro built a giant artificial tide pool and concrete catch basin in the cove north of the Cliff House. The idea behind The Aquarium was that at high tide the ocean water would crash into the catch basin and bring with it a variety of sea creatures. Visitors could then come and explore the wonders of the aquarium from the safety of the shore. This idea never took off, but Sutro used the technology and the walls as the base for Sutro Baths.

Two people walk the walls of the Sutro Baths ruins.

When Sutro Baths opened to the public in 1896 they were an immediate hit. The glass structure that housed the baths featured six saltwater pools and one freshwater pool, all set at various temperatures. There were slides, trapezes, springboards, and a high dive for bathers to launch themselves into the water. Inside the complex was a 2700 seat amphitheater often used for concerts and near the entrance to the baths there was a natural history museum and a sculpture garden.

Sutro Baths was absolutely massive. The baths could accommodate up to 10,000 people at a time, and there were 517 private dressing rooms to help accommodate the visitors. Sutro also stocked 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for visitors to rent. When the baths first opened all visitors were issued a one-piece wool bathing suit to wear, and bathers weren’t allowed to bring their own suits until the 1930s.

This video from the Library of Congress shows just how crowded Sutro Baths could get.

Families would flock to Sutro Baths for a day of entertainment. The Ferries and Cliff House railroad began at California Street and ran along the cliffs of Lands End. If that wasn’t convenient, visitors could also ride the electric trolley cars of the Sutro Railroad from downtown or Golden Gate Park.

Unfortunately, the baths were extremely expensive to maintain and during the Great Depression the Sutro family turned the baths into an ice-skating rink. In 1964 the complex was sold to private developers who wanted to build a high-rise apartment complex. During demolition the building caught on fire and the developers abandoned the site.

Looking at the Cliff House Restaurant from Sutro Baths.

The Cave at Sutro Baths

There are many hidden caves at Parallel Point, the rocky bluffs next to the Sutro ruins. Due to erosion and the placement of the caves, many of them can no longer be seen today. But, there is one cave that is still open for hikers to explore.

The “Large Tunnel” was dug out when Sutro built The Aquarium. The cave stretches from the northwest corner of Sutro Baths all the way through to the other side of Parallel Point. The bits of rock and debris from the excavation of the cave were used to build the cement walls.

The cave can get very dark. There is some fencing at the end of the cave and in the middle of the cave to help protect visitors from the pounding waves. During high tide the ocean waves can flood the cave. Even during low tide, there are usually large puddles of water on the sandy bottom that you need to carefully navigate around, or prepare to have wet feet.

Walking through the cave at Sutro Baths. Standing in the center of the cave you are surrounded by darkness.

Walking Directions for the Sutro Baths Ruins and Cave Trail to Point Lobos

Begin your hike at Louis’ Restaurant at 902 Point Lobos Avenue. Use the entrance at the white picket fence and follow the paved trail down towards the ruins. You’ll pass a few small dirt trails branching off to your left, but stay on the paved trail.

As you get closer to the baths the views get better. Pass a set of stairs on your right and when you reach a fork in the trail stay to the left to head downhill. The trail ends at the baths. The Sutro baths ruins will be on your left and the cave will be on your right.

Exploring the Sutro Ruins

The park service doesn’t maintain the ruins and visitors are allowed to explore the walls. People walk along the narrow cement paths and photographers love to photograph the reflections in the large pool.

Since the walls aren’t maintained the crumbling walls have uneven surfaces and are often wet and slippery. People do fall into the water from time to time and there have been instances of people being swept out to sea by large waves at high tide or during winter storms. Pay attention to your surroundings and be careful if you walk along the walls.

Sutro Baths is one of the best places in San Francisco to watch the sunset.

Exploring the Sutro Cave

After you’ve explored the ruins take a peek into the cave. If you are brave enough it is worth it to walk to the end of the cave.

The middle of the cave has started to erode and there is a gate where the waves have bored a hole into the side of the cave. If you continue to the end of the cave it drops off at the other side of the bluffs and has great views of the jagged cliffs. This is the site of many shipwrecks and it is said that you may see the remains of the unlucky ships during low tide.

The Point Lobos viewpoint above Sutro Baths is a great place for whale watching

The View from Point Lobos

After you’ve explored the cave retrace your steps back up the hill. When you reach the fork in the path, make a sharp left to follow the trail up to the Point Lobos viewpoint. As you walk the cliffs will be on your right and the Sutro Baths will be on your left and below you.

Point Lobos is the westernmost point on the bluffs. The Spanish named this area for the “lobos marinos” for sea lions that would haul up on the rocks just offshore. I haven’t seen any sea lions on the rocks, but it is common to see the spouts of migrating whales as they skirt the mouth of the bay.

The Point Lobos lookout is one of my favorite places to watch the sunset. I like to watch the sunset while watching the waves crash on the rocks and then just after the sun dips below the horizon I move to the back side of the lookout and watch the sky change colors until I can see the flashing light of the Point Bonita Lighthouse on the other side of the channel.

People gather around the viewpoint at Point Lobos in San Francisco

The Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center

After you’ve taken in the view from Point Lobos climb the stairs to follow the Sutro Baths Upper Trail to the Coastal Trail. As you climb you’ll continue to have amazing views from the top of the bluffs. After about a tenth of a mile you’ll enter a Cypress Grove. There will be another small lookout on your left. Continue to follow the trail and when you come to the junction with the Coastal Trail make a right and follow the path to the Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center.

Further Explorations at Lands End

If you want to explore the area some more instead of heading back to the Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center, make a left on the Coastal Trail. You can then follow the Lands End Coastal Trail for an additional 3.4 miles. My Lands End Coastal Trail Hike passes by a hidden labyrinth on a cliff and has amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

People standing on the walls at the Sutro Baths ruins and cave

Map of Sutro Baths Ruins and Cave Trail

Map of hike to Sutro Baths Ruins and Cave trail to Point Lobos

Getting to Sutro Baths: Parking and Public Transportation

The Sutro Baths are next to Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center and Louis’ Restaurant, just up the street from the Cliff House Restaurant.

There is a large parking lot next to the Visitors Center and a smaller lot on the other side of Point Lobos Avenue. Parking is free, but it can be difficult to find a spot as the lot often 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.

Public Transportation

The 38-Geary bus takes you to the baths 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 Sutro Baths with Dogs

The Sutro Baths and Ruins hike is a dog-friendly hike. 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.

Sutro Baths is a popular place and there are often lots of people and dogs out enjoying the ruins. Leave your dog at home if you want to walk the walls of the ruins. The walls are very narrow and it is difficult for people to pass. Having a dog walking the walls would make things very difficult!

Coyotes live in this park and are often seen in the area. Coyotes can be aggressive to other dogs during coyote 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 leash while walking in this area during pupping season.

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The Trailhead

The walk begins at Louis’ Restaurant at 902 Point Lobos Avenue. Use the entrance at the white picket fence and follow the paved trail down towards the ruins. Louis' does not have public restrooms, but there are bathroom facilities and water fountains at the Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center, just a short walk up the hill.

The Route

Follow the paved path from Louis' Restaurant down into Sutro ruins. When the path splits stay to the left to head downhill. After exploring the ruins and cave retrace your steps back to the split. Make a left to head uphill toward the Point Lobos viewpoint. Walk around the viewpoint and take the stairs up the bluffs and into the cypress grove. When you meet the Coastal Trail make a right to follow the wide path to the Lands End Lookout and Visitor Center and back to the start of the walk.

Other Details

Trail Safety

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!

For more dog-friendly trails near San Francisco check out our list of the best dog-friendly hikes.

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