Sacred places of San Francisco: the Pacific at our front door

I have been lucky enough to live in cities that are known for their natural beauty. Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco city planners have all been very intentional about building public green space and open, often wild, areas for people to escape from their daily lives into nature. Even San Francisco, a city that was originally an expanse of barren stand dunes, has become a vibrant, green, tree-ed city. Especially in the last 50 years, with a citizen-organized initiative to plant trees in the city, it is a wonderful, picturesque example of urban nature.

All the cities I have lived in are also blessed with hilly terrain, which are ideal locations for viewing the expanse of a city. Views from these lofty locations often encapsulate sights of water: the Willamette River in Portland, the Puget Sound or Lake Washington in Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay in San Francisco. But San Francisco is different. Not only is it surrounded by a voluminous estuary bay on most sides, but as the “Golden Gate Bridge” suggests, it is also a gate to the Pacific Ocean. And what comes as a packaged deal with an ocean? A beach. An actual sandy, ocean beach.

As a native of Portland, Oregon, I am accustomed to driving an hour and a half to the nearest ocean beach. Even Seattle’s salt water presence, the Puget Sound, doesn’t have “real” beaches. There are certainly coast lines but they are made entirely of small rocks and pebbles. And it’s cold! But San Francisco is one of the only cities I’ve been in that boosts a balance of urban park beauty with wide expanses and vistas of salt water. Standing on the top of Twin Peaks, you can see both the wide and sparkling bay with its grey bridge to Oakland and the iconic red Golden Gate Bridge- the gate between the bay and the ocean. And to the West- there it is- stretching as far as the eye can see, circling the horizon- the Pacific Ocean. Blue and beckoning.

handsome guy on Ocean Beach

So you descent the hill into the Sunset neighborhood, also called the Avenues, the neighborhood of the whole Western part of the city. It is aptly named- what’s an ocean-front neighborhood without a sunset? You progress along the predictable gridded streets, imagining the flat expanses of sand that this are of the city used to be. Finally, you reach the Great Highway. The air has become more salty, moister, more dense almost. Even on a sunny day, whispy tendrils of fog may float across the sky. The wind picks up and you can smell the sea ahead. It is almost a different way of life by the ocean. We are still in San Francisco but the houses have started to resemble the beach houses that I know along the Oregon Coast. The streets are wider-almost as if they’re reaching out to embrace the sea. It is dustier- particles of sand floating in the air. And foggier.

You cross the Great Highway, stepping onto a paved path along the ocean wall. On either side of you, Cooper’s Ice Plant lines the path with its succulent-looking leaves and bright purple, pink, or yellow flowers.

Cooper’s Ice Plant

You step beyond this onto the beach, beauty and sand. The sky may be big and blue, a bright sun illuminating but deceiving as a chilly wind whips across the beach. To the North, the Marin Headlands are forested and craggy. The beach extends for miles. You walk and walk and walk- smelling salt as your body becomes absorbed by the wind.

Eventually, if you keep walking north, you will reach one of the most interesting landmarks in the city. The Cliff House and the Sutro Baths ruins. The Cliff House is a relatively new addition to the landmark-scene, but the Baths are a piece of history. They were built in the late 19th century and opened to the public in 1896. At the time, they were the world’s largest indoor swimming pool complex, with seven different pool choices- one fresh water and six salt water options! The baths and Playland at the Beach amusement park  helped make Ocean Beach a fashionable resort on the outskirts of San Francisco, as the Sunset and Richmond neighborhoods did not exist at the time. They were merely sand dunes stretching from Ocean Beach to the main part of town. The baths’ funder was  entrepreneur and SF city mayor Adolph Sutro, who is the namesake of many San Francisco landmarks. The Sutro Baths also contained a museum displaying Sutro’s large and varied personal collection of artifacts from his travels, a concert hall, and an ice skating rink. During high tides, water would flow directly into the pools from the nearby ocean, recycling the 2 million gallons of water contained in the pools in about an hour.

Sutro Baths

Surprisingly, the Sutro Baths were not destroyed by the famous 1906 earthquake, but rather, merely fell into disrepair and out of favor during the 20th century due to their high maintenance costs. A fire eventually destroyed the building in 1966 while it was in the process of being demolished. All that remains of the site are concrete walls, blocked off stairs and passageways, and a tunnel with a deep crevice in the middle. This historic monument is now mere piles of rubble, lying like Roman ruins below dramatic cliffs. The trails of Lands End meander above the ruins and relentless waves crash violently on the rocks of the shoreline, sending up spray. It is a picturesque and quaint spot- a moss-grown piece of history encompassing Victorian San Francisco. But intact enough that as modern viewers, we can close our eyes and almost envision ourselves there- sun streaming through glass windows, warming our faces, the pool water gently rippling, the splashes of fellow swimmers echoing in the glass room, and the distant crashes of the Pacific Ocean- ever present, reliable, timeless.

The Sutro Baths and Pacific Ocean below

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9 thoughts on “Sacred places of San Francisco: the Pacific at our front door

  1. I’ll be dreaming of the Sutro Baths tonight. I never knew such a place existed. Beautiful, just beautiful.

  2. Katie Boehnlein, dear one!

    I love your writing! Though I must say it makes me homesick (west-coast sick in general)! I yearn for our beachtrip days with custom playlists and blue skies. . .

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