At one time, Adolph Sutro — Prussian Jewish immigrant, mining engineer and 24th mayor of San Francisco — owned one-twelfth of the city’s land. On a buggy ride with his daughter in 1881, Sutro discovered a dramatic bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Here, along Point Lobos, he purchased land that became Sutro Heights Park. Sutro expanded the existing cottage; he added elaborate gardens with tapestry flower beds, a stable, a conservatory filled with exotic orchids and a rock and sandstone parapet that enclosed an observatory, water towers and a gallery. Sutro created replicas of 200 European statues, brought them to the Heights, and scattered them throughout the estate, even on the cliffs.
In 1885, he opened the Heights to the public, who were encouraged to wander the gardens, breathe the sea air and gaze at the exploding waves. In the 1920s, Sutro Heights was given to the city, and today it is managed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as Sutro Heights Park.
What you’ll find
Enter Sutro Heights on the gravel path between two lion statues on Point Lobos Avenue just below 48th Avenue. Today, only two of the statues remain. Look to your left to see a stag, said to be the hunter Actaeon transformed by the goddess Diana into a deer, and a little farther on, high on a pedestal, Diana herself. The path is lined with Canary Island date palms; eucalyptus, Monterey pines, Norfolk Island pines and cypress trees are scattered throughout the grounds. Walk past several benches and explore the terraced hill to your left to find tiles in the grass, once the floor of the conservatory. Continue on the gravel path to a large circle with a fountain in it. A path to the left leads to 48th Avenue. If you take this, you can branch off into a wooded area with rustic steep steps leading down to Balboa Street.
Turning right on the main path leads you to a promontory overlooking the ocean, the Cliff House and Seal Rocks. Peek over the fence to find the remains of steps leading precipitously down the cliff. Here Sutro erected the Dolce Far Niente (sweet to do nothing) balcony, a 250-foot-long cantilevered wood deck with seating areas that protruded precariously from the stone face. To the east is the original location of the cottage and remains of the large sandstone parapet.
Clamber up the rough stone steps to the top, where Sutro built an observatory, a photo gallery and two 15,000-gallon water tanks. Today, this wonderful, flat area is a perfect place for children to play and explore, with a striking juniper tree watching over it all. The water tanks, observatory, gallery and house were demolished by the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression.
Descending the parapet on steps to the north, you come to a small door that once opened into a storage cellar, possibly for wine. Continue on the path back to the lion statues past the Well House, which may have never actually housed a well. One theory is that this structure was a kiosk used as a concession stand at the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park.
If you crave further adventure, cross Point Lobos and walk down to the remains of historic Sutro Baths, once the world’s largest indoor swimming facility, later abandoned and finally destroyed by fire in 1966. Make sure to explore the dark tunnel hollowed out of the cliff. This opens onto large rocky boulders, which are roped off for your safety. In the middle of the tunnel is a large crevasse through which you can watch the surf explode.
After the walk
Sutro Heights Park is a wonderful place for a picnic lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. If you neglected to pack one, you can get a Greek-themed lunch or all-day breakfast at the Seal Rock Inn (545 Point Lobos) at 48th Avenue. For strictly American fare, stop at Louis’ Restaurant (902 Point Lobos). Both places have great views if you’re at the right table.
From the Montgomery BART Station, take the 38L-Geary Limited or the 38-Geary 48th Avenue bus to the last stop – 48th Avenue and Point Lobos. Walk west on Point Lobos a short distance to the two lions at the park entrance. By car, there is a small parking lot just west of the lions. There is also a large parking lot on the north side of Point Lobos Avenue.
Photo: Marcin Wichary via Flickr