Issue 18.1: February/March 2015

A Walk in the Clouds

The San Francisco headlands have been transformed into one of America's great urban parks
Story by Curt Sanborn. Photos by Jack Wolford.

The five-mile straightway of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach terminates at the bluffs of Land’s End in a big, stony embrace called Kelly’s Cove. The cove has been the spiritual home for San Francisco surfers since the 1940s, well before leashes and wetsuits.

The Cliff House at Land's End circa 1900, as seen from Ocean Beach. This was the second iteration of the Cliff House; it was built by millionaire Adoph Sutro as an eight-story Victorian castle, which burned to the ground in 1907. A low concrete building replaced it, but this dreamlike image survives and even though the castle no longer exists, it has become an icon of San Francisco's past. Right: low tide at Naiad Cove at Land's End, with the Seal Rocks offshore.

In fact, it was at Ocean Beach that waterman Jack O’Neill developed the first commercially available neoprene wetsuits in 1952, just so he and his buddies could stay out in the fifty-five-degree water. To really warm up, though, there was always a driftwood bonfire going at Kelly’s Cove.

On a sunny afternoon last October, about a hundred mostly older men and women came together along the seawall and on the beach for the tenth annual Kelly’s Cove Reunion and potluck. Wizened and weather-beaten, in tie-dyed T-shirts, shorts and hoodies, these are the old guard of the west side’s tough and proud surf scene. Organizer Jin An “Arne” Wong bullhorned everyone to gather around a small bonfire pit and lit the fire. “This is where it all happened,” he said. “This is where we gathered as a community, where we shared our experience and learned from each other. This place was our coconut wireless.”

Yogi Steve Krolik, or “Zen Buddha,” as he’s known, addressed the crowd: “Our theme this year is the fire,” he said. “The fire that warms us, the fire within. As surfers we need that internal heat, a warm heart.” He blew a conch shell three times as a siren wailed on the Great Highway nearby. He blows the conch, he said, “for the heart, the spirit and the soul of surfers.”

Then, one by one, members of the group walked up to the fire and tossed into it small flags and spoke the names inscribed on them, names of those who are now gone: “Stan Ross, mat surfer!” one man invoked, tossing his flag into the fire. “Aloha!” the crowd cheered, remembering. “Charlie Grimm, pioneer!” another called. Again, “Aloha!” “Gloria Hickey, bodysurfer and wife and mother!” “Aloha!” … “Da mayor, Bob Flossie!” “Aloha!”

The ceremony was simple and beautiful, like the cold, glassy waves peeling on the sandbars just offshore. Looming above the fire pit was the concrete hulk of the landmark Cliff House restaurant, a San Francisco classic that has presided over the beach from its bluff top at Land’s End since 1863. Back in the glory days of this community of surfers, the San Francisco coastline was a marginal, mostly unvisited place with a checkered past and terrible weather. The weather hasn’t changed, but almost everything else about the headlands has, and the reformation of the urban wilderness where these pioneers surfed has become one of the city’s great successes.

Land’s End and the Presidio are the names given to the foggy twin headlands that dominate San Francisco’s northwestern, seaward section. The two cliff-edged and forested promontories, each rising 370 feet above rocky, coved shores and separated from each other by a creek, comprise the southern shore of the Golden Gate, the treacherous strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific. The strait was named by American explorer John Fremont in 1846, well before the gold rush of 1849 and ninety-three years before it was span-ned by the beautiful vermilion bridge.

The farther east of the two headlands, the Presidio, marks the narrowest point of the strait. Its rugged bluffs and forests belie its nearly 150-year history as a major military base, home to the Sixth US Army. But before that, in 1794, the Spanish had built an adobe fort on its northernmost point, which they called Punta del Cantil Blanco (point of the white cliff). The Army put a massive fort near the same spot in 1861, which is still there. And finally in 1936, builders of the Golden Gate Bridge rearranged the bluff to make way for its southern approach, with a huge arch overleaping the old fort below. Meanwhile, beginning in 1891, big defensive gun batteries were dug into the bluffs at both the Presidio and Land’s End to discourage enemy ships from entering the bay. In this the guns were successful: They never fired a shot except to practice.

Farther west, jutting into the wide Pacific, is Land’s End, with its deadly sea cliffs, shipwrecks and panoramic views. During the post-gold rush years of the nineteenth century, it was the city’s premier sightseeing destination, never mind the fog: Thousands of visitors from the East Coast and Europe rode horses or carriages across miles of desolate sand dunes for their first glimpses of the fabled Pacific Ocean. But it was a cold, windy and melancholy place, so in 1868 the burgeoning city decided that the high plateau at Land’s End would make an appropriately remote setting for a two-hundred-acre graveyard for indigents and foreign immigrants. In 1909 the cemetery was dug up and replaced by a greensward and golf course called Lincoln Park, with great views of the Golden Gate and the city’s hilly expanse spreading east and south.

I live a block from Lincoln Park, and I’ve walked the trails threading through it and along the Gate for a decade now. During that time it’s all changed: Where Land’s End was once wild and unkempt, it’s now accessible, civilized and still spectacular. The Presidio, too. Many people don’t know (or don’t care) about San Francisco’s west side, beachy and scenic though it is, because it’s so infernally foggy, especially during summer months when most tourists visit. Guidebooks ignore it or put it in the last chapter under “Other Outings.” But after twenty years’ worth of planning and work, both headlands have been remade into one of the most magnificent urban parklands in the world. It’s a story full of old-time raffishness and magnificence, written with all the civic thoughtfulness—and generosity—required to create great public spaces in the twenty-first century.

Of the ghosts at Land’s End, none is so haunting as the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a gigantic steel-and-glass pleasure palace built in 1894 by Comstock millionaire and later mayor of San Francisco Adolph Sutro. The 3.5-acre building had seven indoor saltwater swimming pools heated to different temperatures, dressing rooms, art and natural history galleries, restaurants and music halls. It’s said that the edifice, considered futuristic at the time, could accommodate ten thousand San Franciscans at once. To ensure an affordable five-cent trolley fare for customers, Sutro built a steam train to the then-remote place and, as a bonus, routed it along the scenic sea cliffs of Land’s End.

“When I was seven years old, my father took me there and threw me into the pool and said, ‘Learn how to swim!’ So I did!” recalls Tom Bratton, now 74. “The place was just enormous. I can still hear the sounds, the echoes, of kids playing in the pools, the screams and the noise bouncing back and forth.” Bratton grew up in the Richmond district of San Francisco, which encompasses Land’s End. His father, Robert A. Bratton, was a building manager at the baths under Sutro’s grandson Adolph G. Sutro. Bratton himself worked at the baths as a teen, wiping windows and “sweeping up cigarette butts and popcorn in the museum,” he says. Now Bratton is a volunteer docent with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), the eighty-thousand-acre collection of open spaces and historic sites created in 1972 as a unit of the National Park Service. Bratton does historical research and shares his stories at the concrete-and-glass Land’s End Lookout, the visitor center that overlooks the crumbled ruins of the baths, as well as the Cliff House, Seal Rock and the stony outcrop of Point Lobos, San Francisco’s westernmost bit of land. This historic complex, along with the entire Land’s End coast and the adjoining Sutro Heights Park (formerly the Sutro family’s estate), have been part of the GGNRA since 1977.

Sitting on a bench outside the lookout, we’re joined by another GGNRA docent and amateur historian, Paul Judge, 64, who tells me that his great-grandparents learned to swim at the baths. I gaze at the low, plaza-like footprint of the long-gone building, with its stubby masonry foundations, its shallow tide pools, the gaping holes dug into Point Lobos, and try to imagine it in its glory days.

Because of corrosion problems, swimming ended at the baths in 1954, and it became an ice skating rink—with puddles in the ice, Bratton says. “It was so decrepit,” he remembers, shaking his head. “The museum pieces were really falling apart, dusty and moth-eaten in that humid atmosphere. And the sunlight—if you’re talking about preserving the collection … it wasn’t dim in the galleries.” New owners finally shut the baths in 1966, then stripped and began to demolish the building, an undertaking conveniently cut short by a fire that leveled the place. Police caught the suspected arsonist, who was notorious for burning down an elementary school years earlier, but didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute. “He’s still alive but ailing, living in the Sunset,” Judge says.

We talk about the gothic tales and legends of Land’s End as though we’re teenagers swapping ghost stories by a campfire. The secret surf break at Dead Man’s Cove; the make-out spot at Eagle’s Point, named (maybe) after the nearby Washington High School sports teams; the “social trails” tramped into the thick underbrush by generations of gay cruisers; the Chinese hermit who lived in a cave at Mile Rock beach, the hobos and homeless (“dumpster divers,” Judge says, “before there were dumpsters, just garbage cans”); the ramshackle collection of honky-tonk saloons and dance halls called Ocean Terrace that bloomed next to Sutro’s train depot, not far from where we’re sitting—all gone without a trace. We ponder whether Dead Man’s Rock is so named because of a particular death there or, as Bratton says, because there were so many suicide jumpers off the sheer, two-hundred-foot sea cliffs “back in the old days, before the bridge.” Judge remembers two boys who got caught in a landslide back in the 1950s. “I think one died,” Judge says vaguely. “It was big news. That’s one of the reasons my mother told my sisters and me not to hang out there.” A week later Judge emails me a link to a recent news story about a tourist couple who somehow fell from the cliffs right at Dead Man’s Rock. The man survived, the woman didn’t.

The docents confirm stories I had heard that the cliffs at Land’s End were once used as a city dump. “Sure,” Bratton says mildly. “People would just drive out the old road, El Camino del Mar, and dump stuff —old streetlights and demolition waste, grave headstones, anything—over the cliffs.” Bay Area historian Harold Gilliam once found a fragment of a granite memorial on the beach at Dead Man’s Cove: the gravestone of one William Squire Clark, who built San Francisco’s first wharf, Clark’s Wharf, in 1847. In the 1930s the city razed an early cemetery called Laurel Hill, resting place for many a San Francisco pioneer, and dumped the headstones over the cliff. It was, Gilliam wrote, “an incredible act of official vandalism.”

“It was one of the first things the GGNRA did when they took over,” Bratton says. “They started cleaning all that up.”

Today the headlands are cleaner than they’ve been in 150 years, and they’re now strung together via the GGNRA’s well-marked, 4.2-mile Coastal Trail from Land’s End Lookout to the Golden Gate Bridge. Peppered with overlooks, the Land’s End portion of the trail more or less follows Sutro’s ancient rail bed eastward along the wooded cliffs. Vestigial retaining walls, a big cut behind Dead Man’s Rock and detours around washed-out sections tell the tale: The constantly eroding cliffs forced the line to shut down in 1925. Spur trails lead down the cliffs to pocket cove beaches or up to the Veterans Administration complex at Fort Miley and the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park.

Leaving Land’s End, the trail follows public streets through the Sea Cliff neighborhood’s neat mansions and gardens to the arc of Baker’s Beach, birthplace of Burning Man, where, if it’s not too cold and foggy, a swim may be in order, clothed or not (nudists use the north section). Entering the Presidio, the trail follows Lincoln Boulevard as it climbs along the edge of pale, serpentine bluffs. This is San Francisco’s own corniche, with views across the Gate to the Marin Headlands, Point Bonita and Point Reyes in the distance. The Battery to Bluffs side trail peels off to access the cliffs and coves of the Presidio, where native ecosystem restoration is under way, then rejoins the main trail to meander through the impressive lineup of defunct concrete gun batteries before ducking under the Golden Gate Bridge and descending the face of Punta del Cantil Blanco to the flats of Crissy Field and the rest of the city.

The $25 million project to spruce up Land’s End’s 110-acre complex of woodlands, trails, parking lots and attractions was announced by the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy in 2006, with lead funding coming from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the National Park Service. A similar conservancy project to revamp the Presidio’s twenty-four miles of trails and overlooks was announced in 2007, with lead gifts coming from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the SD Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

“We can do things that a government agency can’t,” explains the conservancy’s John Skibbe. The conservancy is the private, nonprofit partner for the two federal agencies, the GGNRA and the Presidio Trust, that have jurisdiction over the two headlands. “Things like raise funds for projects, lobby Congress and make profits that are then turned over to the agencies for operations. We’re behind all kinds of improvements in the parks.” Not the least of which is the sleek Land’s End Lookout visitor center, which opened in 2012. Skibbe, who’s been with the conservancy for seventeen years, remembers the old days at Land’s End: “There were fallen and overgrown trees, impromptu paths that people just kept using. There was a homeless problem. Mostly, though, it was a scary place. People didn’t want to bring their families out here. It was derelict.”

Skibbe and I walk a wide portion of the recently completed Coastal Trail near the lookout. As a landscape architect and director of planning and design for the conservancy, Skibbe is the design-and-build man behind most of the two headlands’ trails. They range from sixteen- to eighteen-foot-wide pedestrian/bicycle/wheelchair-friendly “multi-use trails” down to six- to four-foot-wide “rustic” trails. I compliment him on the soft yet sturdy surfaces all along the coast. He explains that the “surfacings” are the result of experimentation. “When we started,” he says, “there wasn’t a material as tough as concrete or asphalt that could be made to feel like compacted earth underfoot.” So they developed “stabilized aggregates”: crushed stone mixed with water-soluble, nontoxic polymers and tree resins. The stuff is “as durable as asphalt but doesn’t look like it,” Skibbe says as he kicks at the pavement with his shoe and scrapes up sandy bits. Since the trail improvements were completed, he says, the number of users has doubled. About 2,500 people walk some portion of the headlands’ trails daily, with many more on weekends.

Land’s End’s dank forest of Monterey cypress, pine and eucalyptus was planted on the scrubby, windy heights in the 1920s and 1930s by the US Army. Over time the “historic forest” had crept down the bluffs, almost to sea level. “We knew the forest was in poor health,” Skibbe says, “so we really worked with the community to make them understand that there might be some trees removed, there might be some trees pruned, but we weren’t going to remove the forest.” So with community assent trees were cut back from the cliffs and pruned throughout to allow more sunlight to hit the ground. Community volunteers, along with GGRNA and GGPC staff, are stripping out tough, invasive underbrush from whole tracts and replanting with native seedlings —cotoneaster, baccharis, yarrow and many others—that poke up through protective sheets of jute mesh.

They get no irrigation, Skibbe says, though in March 2014, in the midst of severe drought, a late-in-the-season planting at Eagle’s Point required a bit of hand-watering, “which is labor-intensive,” he notes, “but that’s part of what volunteers do.” Setting up a plot to thrive on its own takes three years of active management, he tells me, but the ends justify the labors: Now, on the brooding bluffs at city’s edge, one can see the mottled colorings of California coastal scrub once again.

The Presidio’s forest patchwork is much older than the one at Land’s End, but it’s still “historic,” as opposed to naturally occurring, in that it, too, was planted (beginning in the 1880s) by the US Army along the edges and atop the heights of the hilly, 1,480-acre military base—in tight rows that were never thinned. The mature tracts of spindly cypress and towering eucalyptus are object lessons in how not to cultivate a real forest, but they’re a sublime experience nonetheless, especially in the fog: slender, silvery trunks receding into a ghostly infinitude.

When the Army announced it was moving out in 1989, liberal San Francisco’s pundits and dreamers hoped the Presidio would become a campus for a global array of peace and environmental groups or maybe offer some space for the city’s homeless. But the Republican sweep of Congress in the 1994 elections panicked everyone: Budget hawks might decide to sell off the Presidio to developers. After all, it abuts three of the city’s priciest neighborhoods. San Francisco’s Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi quickly worked out a deal with Republicans to transfer the Presidio to the National Park Service; however, its 250 commercially viable buildings, its 1,200 units of housing and most of its land would be turned over to a new entity called the Presidio Trust which would derive its operating revenues from lease rents—at market rates. The trust’s mandate was to become financially self-sustaining within fifteen years, and it did so in 2013. Rules about limiting total rentable square footage to what existed in 1994 and restoring significant buildings ensured that the Presidio’s natural and historic legacies would be preserved for the nation’s enjoyment. The coastal strip of the Presidio was turned over to the GGNRA, filling a big gap in its string of coastal open spaces.

The trust, with a board appointed by the White House, and running by 1998, but there were difficulties: Community activists protested the plan, fearing the creation of an enclave for wealthy renters and posh commercial tenants. The Public Broadcasting Service picked up on the controversy and aired a TV news segment, “Privatizing the Presidio.” A 2002 history published by the GGNRA noted that the trust’s mandate gave it a complicated status that “stood astride the blurring lines between public and private in the United States.”

I ask Michael Boland, the trust’s chief planning and projects officer, how the Presidio avoids becoming an exclusive enclave. “There are a number of strategies we use for that, because it’s really important,” he says, sitting in his office in a remodeled barracks building, circa 1898. “Our fundamental purpose is to make the Presidio a national park, and national parks serve everyone.” He remembers that when he was a Boy Scout from Berkeley, there were “MPs with guns” at the gates, but now “we’re open to the public twenty-four/seven.”

He ticks off a list of public attractions in the park: “We’ve got the only public campground in San Francisco,” he points out, referring to the hilltop Rob Hill campground. There’s the kid-friendly Walt Disney Family Museum, the museum and library of the Society of California Pioneers, and the Presidio’s own museum, tucked away inside the restored Officers’ Club. There’s the network of forest and bluff trails, the National Cemetery, a golf course, bowling alley, three site-specific works by environmental art star Andy Goldsworthy. Fine cafés and restaurants hide in the old buildings, with minimal signage. George Lucas’ Lucasfilm studio operates out of the Letterman Digital Arts Center. Four thousand people work inside the Presidio; three thousand live there. It’s not your average national park, blurred lines or no.

What’s more, it’s a national park made out of a longtime Army base; Boland reports there were thirteen landfill sites, or dumps, that had to be cleaned up. The trust excavated 153,000 tons of contaminated soil from the Presidio bluffs where a base incinerator had dumped ash for decades. Ongoing excavations and restorations are bringing four buried creeks back to life.

While touring the Presidio’s twenty-one distinct residential neighborhoods, its forest trails and winding, peaceful roads, I try to imagine living in it—if I could afford it. Modest two-bedroom apartments rent for around $3,000 per month; a grand Georgian general’s mansion will set you back $14,000 every month—this is San Francisco, after all. But 16 percent of the housing, Boland points out, is discounted and reserved for lower-income folk who work in the Presidio. Noblesse oblige. Do the Presidio’s renters ever complain about gawkers wandering through their yards? “Well, interestingly enough, that hasn’t happened in sixteen years,” says Boland. “You know, when people move in, we explain to them really carefully that they’re moving into a public place and that there are all kinds of special rules to live here—rules about what you can and can’t do with pets, with your yard—because it’s a national park.”

As he approaches the strait from the south, the voyager has seldom perhaps seen so dismal a looking place,” opined a travel writer in 1855, describing for the folks back East the seaward face of San Francisco. “A multitude of low, bleak sand hills, often swept over by flying clouds of dense mist, first greet his eyes,” he wrote. Nine years later the young San Francisco newspaperman Mark Twain reported on a morning’s carriage ride to the Cliff House in July, which he likened to “an excursion to Lone Mountain [cemetery] in a hearse.” When he got there, he found “a ghastly picture of fog, and damp, and frosty surf, and dreary solitude.”

That was then. Now the twin headlands have undergone an almost total transformation during the past twenty years. Like the west side surfers driven to ride the cold waves, I love this spooky, soulful corner of San Francisco. The headlands at Land’s End and the Presidio are now bound together as a single entity, the city’s most impressive natural feature. It is the edge-of-the-continent frame that makes the booming city itself truly grand. HH