Urban hiking usually just means a long walk through a city but not in San Francisco. Here, the Coastal Trail hike lies just steps away from the city streets (occasionally it goes right over them) and yet feels like you’re miles from the hustle and bustle as you explore from beach to beach, passing through forests, past historic sites, and with an endless count of incredible stops along the way. It’s one of the best hikes I’ve done in the Bay Area and without a doubt one of the most incredible parts of SF to see.
The Coastal Trail effectively stretches for many miles but the section I want to share with you begins at the historic Lands End Lookout Visitor Center and ends with a walk over (or at least up to) the even more iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The direct path is under 4 miles one way with less than 1,000′ of elevation change though if you add in the side stops, you’ll get at least another mile of distance and several more sold climbs to add on to that making for a nice day hike (hint: just take Lyft on the way back!)
(Heads up: the map shows the direct path but if you drag the dots, you can change it to the actual coastal trail)
Getting to the trailhead: Directions, Lodging, Trail Facilities
Your day starts at the Lands End Lookout Visitor center, a National Park site and an epic enough stop to warrant a drive out on its own. Parking mid-afternoon on a weekend will be tough but if you show up in the morning, you should be fine. Do be sure to take everything with you for the day as this area is prone to break-ins (as the numerous signs will remind you of.) Before heading off on the adventure, you can stop in to the Visitor Center for a map of the trail (which is how I found out about this incredible trail), a restroom or a quick snack at the small coffee shop inside. Hours are 9-5.
The trail is off the main roads for the most part so don’t expect many immediate chances for food or drinks but you will pass plenty of restrooms and a few spots to refill water on the way. Bring supplies for a day hike, especially water, food, and layers for the SF chill but if you do need something else, it’s never that far to get back to a truly urban block.
What To Expect On the Trail
As the map above already gave away, the Coastal Trail is basically one long path of amazing sights. In terms of logistics, the path from Lands End to the Golden Gate Bridge is a mix of everything from dirt trails and big stair cases to city streets to sand so a pair of trail runner shoes is extra helpful here.
You’ll start off walking down the steps from Lands End to the Sutro Baths, a massive recreation facility built by millionaire Adolph Sutro in the 1890s that were demolished in 1964 leaving just ruins behind. It’s a pretty sweet start with a cool little tunnel to explore on the side. Once done, head back up part of the hill to Point Lobos and take the stairs on your right to follow the Lands End Trail.
After a few minutes and a brief hill climb through a forested area, you’ll reach the Eastern Coastal Trail overlook which you’ll take for the time being. Inland from here and down a short path is the USS San Francisco Memorial, towards the coast, Battery Lobos. Maybe 15 minutes in and 4 map worth spots already! From here, the trail strays a bit away from the water and through the woods on a nice path. There are several up and downhill sections along the way but nothing too aggressive to push it past a moderate hike.
In a little over a mile, you’ll reach a junction between the Coastal Trail and the Lands End Trail, stay left to Lands End for now and take it to yet another junction with Mile Rock Beach. It’s a nice climb down and back up but well worth the effort. Enjoy the beach and then head a short ways back up to take the less developed trail on your left towards Lands End Labyrinth — an art display created out of rocks in 2004 (and recreated in 2015) by Eduardo Aguilera with one great view of the Golden Gate Bridge!
After hiking a few hundred stairs back up to the Lands End trail, the shade cover from the trees makes for a nice break as you return to dirt walking still on the Lands End trail (note: the Holocaust Memorial, Memorial for Peace, the Lincoln Highway Terminus and a few other sights can be reached taking the side trails here or on the way back via the Coastal Trail.) Along the way, you’ll find more views of the coast, the bridge (on a clear enough day) and just a nice hike likely with a few bikes passing by as well.
Lands End Trail ends at the road and you’ll have to walk through the city streets for a few blocks, along the way, you’ll pass by some great SF houses and officially check the box on urban hike. You can punch things into your map app or just take El Camino Del Mar to Sea Cliff to 25th Ave and turn right. It may not seem like this will work but at the end of that last street is a very official Coastal Trail sign marker and just like that, you’ll be back on dirt, well, until the beach right ahead.
Baker Beach is an impressive stretch of sand along this part of the city. It’s also a popular one as you might expect so you’ll likely see plenty of people out even on a windy day (it’s SF, we’re use to it.) You can take your shoes off and walk the sand or skirt to the side on a little less sand and cut through the parking lot. You’ll find a few restrooms and I believe there’s water here as well before you return to the dirt trail.
Next up on the sights list is Battery Chamberlin, completed in 1904 with some mighty big guns (NPS website says the range was 9 miles). The site was deactivated in 1948 though on the first Saturday and Sunday of each month, you can see (and hear) demonstrations from 11am – 3pm and access an underground room, see the park site for details.
Returning to the trail, it’s time to head up and away from the beach, unless you want to stay on the sand and hike up a few stairs instead. In just a few more minutes, you’ll intersect the Sand Ladder at Baker Beach which is a sand covered “staircase” that will get you back to the trail or gives you a fun way to get down to the beach one last time.
Now that you’re following the road it’s time for the big decision of the day: more beaches, bunkers and views with more stairs or the more straight forward path. The obvious call is the the views so take the Bluffs Trail fork on your left to Battery Crosby which was first armed in 1900 though unfortunately graffiti filled these days. Hike up and over the old structure and enjoy the stunning view from the bluffs but wait, it’s actually going to get better!
The staircase down towards Marshall’s Beach is probably one of the coolest views of the Golden Gate Bridge out there especially if you’re lucky enough to get the right fog rolling in under it. You can and very much should hike out the short side trail to the beach its self where, surprise surprise, you’ll find a few more steps to get down to the water. Once you’ve had your fill, the trail will take you back up without retracing your steps though you will have a nice hill to climb.
Stepping off the last step, you’ll be just a few minutes from the Golden Gate area so prepare yourself to re-enter the tourist zone as you step towards Battery West, Battery Godfrey and the Golden Gate Overlook. Just to your right is Fort Scott and the stunning Log Cabin as well as many of the Presidio’s stunning buildings. If you’re planning to hike back to your car, you can and should cut through the area and explore away (you’ll find restrooms over that way as well FYI.)
As you trade trail for road, follow the well marked signs to the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center. There’s a sit down restaurant in the building just before the bridge but also a cafe / snack shop right as you enter the plaza area where you can grab a well earned cookie and coffee before braving the wind, fog and crowds of the bridge. When you are ready, it’s pretty clear how to get to the Golden Gate whether you want to walk it all or just step a short ways up for a photo.
When you finish exploring the bridge, its endless viewpoints and the Visitor Center, you can either continue on the Coastal Trail towards the Battery and Crissy Field and even down to the Marina, or return the way you came to explore some of the other stops or cheat. Lyft picks up right in the Welcome Center parking lot and for under $10 (generally), they’ll get you back to your car at Lands End. There are public transit options as well though not direct ones.
Quick facts about the trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Moderate
- Start point: Lands End Lookout Visitor Center
- Distance: 4-5 miles one-way
- Duration: 2-5 hours
- Elevation Gain: 500 – 1500′ depending on sidetrails
- Facilities: Restrooms, occasional water
- Crowds: Moderate to Heavy
- Cost: None
- Permits: None