San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

One of San Francisco’s most spacious venues is Ocean Beach, a long tract of fresh air and open skies. Today, as in centuries past, it attracts residents and tourists.

San Francisco is not the most populous city in the U.S. (it’s 17th), but it is definitely packed with people. There are almost 874,000 people on this small 47-square-mile (121 sq. km.) peninsula, making it the second most densely populated large city in the country.

When residents want to stretch out, they head for Ocean Beach. Folks of all ages can run or walk, plop down in the sand, share bonfires with friends, or sort out their congested thoughts. And you don’t have to fight for a parking space.

Cold Pacific currents arrive here from Alaska, making the waters at Ocean Beach numbingly inhospitable. With the frigid temperatures, frequent fog and strong winds, you won’t find many people in the water.

Surfers, of course, are the exception. But even the stalwart surfers, bounced around by brutal waves, wear wetsuits.

In addition to this five-mile stretch of sand, there are adjacent attractions too. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has an extensive purview. Land’s End, the Cliff House, and Sutro Heights Park are on the northern end of the beach, while Fort Funston is at the southern end. All have stunning views and room to roam.

In the middle is the Beach Chalet restaurant, two towering windmills, and two streets leading the way to Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco’s longest beach also has a long history.

Sutro Baths was a glass-enclosed entertainment complex of numerous saltwater pools that opened in 1896.

Circa 1896, courtesy Wikipedia.

There is an entertaining film clip that Thomas Edison made in 1897 of the Sutro Baths, at this link:

Sutro Baths Wikipedia

The ruins of the Baths are still visible today.

It was in the later 1800s when railway and trolley lines were developed, delivering visitors from the city to this remote windswept expanse of sand dunes.

This began nearly a century of animated seaside attractions at Ocean Beach.

There have been several incarnations of The Cliff House, a restaurant that first opened in 1863.

This is the Cliff House, below, last week on a foggy day. It is undergoing another reincarnation and due to re-open next year.

And over the years, two additional fun spots drew visitors at Ocean Beach: Playland, a 10-acre amusement park from 1913-1972; and Fleishhacker Pool, then one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the world, from 1925-1971.

If you talk to San Franciscans who spent their childhood days at Playland or Fleishhacker Pool, it is a great joy to watch their eyes light up.

This is Ocean Beach and Playland in the 1930s and 1940s.

Still left over from the glory days of Playland, the Camera Obscura, one of my personal favorite Ocean Beach spots, sits on a seaside perch behind the Cliff House. It is an old-fashioned pinhole camera that you walk into; it presents live-time images of the beach and sea.

Here is a link to a post I wrote about it: Camera Obscura, San Francisco

With today’s instantly available entertainment at our fingertips, the tranquility of Ocean Beach is now the draw.

And, as it has been for centuries, the wind and fog continue to embrace us, while the waves, as always, rhythmically shape this blessed expanse of ocean and sand.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

76 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Ocean Beach

  1. Pingback: San Francisco’s Ocean Beach — Jet Eliot – Sandpiper Shores

    • It is indeed a great beach to walk on, John. There were many Cliff Houses over the years. The one pictured here in 1900, the second Cliff House, survived the 1906 EQ but then burned to the ground. Thanks very much for your interest, John, always a pleasure to have you stop by.

      • Out here there are people who swear the bosque is 300 years old. But what they don’t understand is the bosque only came into the existence after the Army Corp of Engineers built the levees for flood control in the 1930s and 40s. Besides, cottonwoods don’t live for 300 years. Before the levees, our property was mostly swampland. There is a book called “New Mexico Then and Now”. The photo of the bridge at Bernalillo in 1935 and the “now” photo are very telling. In 1935, the bridge crossed swampland on both sides of the Rio Grande. In the “now” photo there is a mature thick cottonwood bosque on both sides of the river.

      • Thank heaven for the folks who painstakingly create those books. I have one like your NM book of San Francisco. I, like you, study it and appreciate it, enjoy the perspective and give thanks to the folks who came before us, making our lives more habitable. I’m off to see what you’ve been up to down there in the beautiful Rio Grande.

  2. A delightful post. Another reminder of ‘vacation time?’ Whenever that might happen, this is certainly
    an excellent place to visit Jet, wouldn’t you say? Yes it looks marvelous here. Sparkling waters,
    maybe to cold to swim but certainly glorious enough to appreciate. Great photos and text, as usual.
    Thank you dear friends for this lovely refresher on San Francisco’s sparkling ‘Ocean Beach’.
    enjoy your day, Eddie

    • Ocean Beach sure is an excellent place to visit, Eddie. One day last week we visited here and it was 30 degrees cooler than our 90 degree inland home in the North Bay. whew. So refreshing! I’m really glad you enjoyed it too, Eddie, here today. My warmest thanks for your delightful visit.

  3. Oh, what a blast from the past! We used to go to Playland and the Zoo, and I remember taking ice-skating lessons at a rink very close to the old Sutro Baths. And walking Ocean Beach in the fog and cold (even in August). I wonder if I would recognize anything today. Thanks, Jet!

    • Hey-hey! I’m absolutely delighted to hear you spent youthful days at Playland, the Zoo and the ice-skating rink, Donna. Thanks so much for your contribution. Your memory of the cold August days is spot-on; when we were there last week it was in the 60s (and in the 90s where I live in the North Bay). I’m happy I could share the current Ocean Beach with you too.

  4. I have fond memories of visiting here. A beautiful spot of nature so close to the city, an easy escape from the hustle/bustle. I found the Camera Obscura fascinating. Great post and photos!

  5. What an amazing beach area this is! I really like how you’ve added the historical perspective. I didn’t know about all those sites along the beach (the baths, the restaurant). Great post, as always. Have a wonderful weekend, Jet.

    • I love love love to look at old photos, Anneli, so I have scoured lots of books and prints over the years of the Ocean Beach area. So I’m glad the history added a layer for you in this post. Many thanks for your visit and comment, and my best to you, too, for a wonderful weekend.

  6. The Sutro Baths look very much like the Plunge (Natatorium) in Mission Beach, San Diego. The Plunge opened in 1925, and was fed by the Pacific Ocean. It was the largest salt water baths/pool in the world. By 1940, salt eroded the filtration system so the water was drained and replaced with fresh water. The Plunge reopened in 2019 after a five-year restoration. The glass enclosure restored the original design similar to what is seen in your photograph.

    The photo of Ocean Beach-Playland looks like Ocean Beach-Wonderland of the same time period. OB lies across the Jetty from Mission Beach.

    Huell Howser filmed an episode of California’s Gold at the Sutro Baths. It is episode 702 — “California Pools” — and can be viewed online at Chapman University’s archives. I’ll try to insert a link as some WordPress blogs flag links as spam.

    https://blogs.chapman.edu/huell-howser-archives/1996/12/10/california-pools-californias-gold-702/

    • I so enjoyed your comment and contribution, David, to the Ocean Beach post. The Sutro Baths do sound like San Diego’s Plunge, and it eroded from the salt, and fell into disrepair, eventually burning in 1966. I love that The Plunge was restored and reopened! I very much enjoyed the California Pools film clip by Huell Howser, found it entertaining and educational. Thanks so much for taking the time to find it and link it. I really enjoyed this.

      • Huell did a wonderful job presenting the history of the Sutro Baths, but I wonder how many people know that the employee parking lot at the San Francisco Zoo was once the famous Fleishacher Pool?

      • Re Fleishhacker Pool. The SF zoo parking lot featured in that film was illuminating, David. Just last week I went to the zoo parking lot, having learned about it on the FP Wikipedia. I was hoping to find the meager portal remains as photographed and presented in the Wikipedia site. But the only way to get into the lot, the visitors’ lot, was to pay $11.00, and I didn’t want to do that. So I aborted the effort. Then in the film you shared, I learned from Huell that it was the employee lot, not the visitor lot. So back I will go. Great fun!

  7. Very nice place the Sutro Baths in their times, the location is perfect and suitable. I’m surprise that someone hasn’t bought it for a new club or restaurants. The Pacific Ocean’s currents always have frigid waters all the way to the tip of Patagonia in South America.
    I remember you posted about the Camera Obscura before. I had read and remembered that was in vogue during the Medici Era in Florence, Italy. Most famous painters used that system for their inspirations.
    Loved this post, my friend as always! Thank you. 🙂

    • Yes, you know well how cold the waters on the Pacific coast are, H.J. And I’m glad you enjoyed the Sutro Baths and Ocean Beach post today, and also glad you remembered the Camera Obscura post. Also, I’m happy you are recovering from surgery and appreciate that you set your new but probably still-fragile eyes on this post. My warmest smiles and thanks.

  8. Oh, what a joy to read your post of this WONderful area, enjoy the new and old photos, and see the film clip of Edison’s!! What a HOOT! And as much as I enjoy the peaceful expanse of this area today, I would have loved to experience it in one of its previous hey-days! Thanks so much!
    Love how you got a robin in there at the end! ;>)

    • Dear Nan, it was so much fun putting this post together, but I would need to write a book or two to tell and show all the marvels that exist in this corner of SF. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and glad you took the time to look at the Edison film clip. I thought it was a hoot too! Everyone is having SO MUCH FUN! That robin was part of Athena’s skill. He perched there for only a few seconds, and I was amazed how well the photo came out. My warmest thanks for your visit, and fond memories of times there with you.

  9. Thanks for the memories 🎶
    First place I lived in San Francisco was the Great Highway. An affordable little rental between Ortega and Pacheco with sunset views of the Pacific. Fun times. 💕🌈☮️

    • Oh wow, I love knowing you lived out on the Great Highway, Gunta. That’s a very special side of town, and I can imagine you did indeed have some fun times there. Glad you enjoyed today’s post. Thanks so very much, my friend.

  10. Wonderful overview of Ocean Beach, Jet. Love the historic photos. Sutro Baths and the Cliff House were quite something back in the day. I was reading a book about SF to my granddaughter the other night and she was fascinated by the windmills. Next visit! Terrific post…thanks. 😄

    • Thanks very much, Jane, for your lovely comment. It is not easy doing an overview of Ocean Beach because there is so much to share, I just wanted to go on and on about each endearing place. I liked hearing about you reading the SF book to your granddaughter, and her fascination for the windmills. The windmills are really amazing, I share your granddaughter’s joy in it. (On an adult side note, the Hitchcock movie “Foreign Correspondent” has some of the most engaging scenes of the insides and workings of old Dutch windmills that I have ever seen.) I know you have strolled this section of SF and taken incredible photos here, so I really appreciate your interest in my post today, Jane.

    • You’re right, Craig. Having a place to expand your lungs and stretch out your arms is such a gift, especially in this city. We don’t have many ruins in San Francisco, because real estate is so outrageously expensive that the next thing gets quickly built. So these rare ruins are not so bad. hmmm. Never thought about it before. Thanks for your thought-provoking words today, Craig. Sending smiles your way, and a salute to Lisa, the Hat, and all your friends and mine.

  11. I loved this post and all the images! Great history and historical images which brought back many happy memories for me. Queen Wilhelmina’s garden in the spring for tulips and that wonderful windmill, the sand castle building contest, Moonset from Camera Obscura, Sutro Baths! Oh, so many memories there. I’m so glad I never fell in walking in the ruins! Land’s End and seeing a hawk there for the first time and how amazing I thought that was. That still amazes me actually, the zoo and finding a wild duck in the zoo banded ducks! LOL! That was fun and a surprise. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you.

    Good times and good memories. Thanks for this post. It struck all the right notes. 😀

    • I really enjoyed your memories and words, Deborah, of beautiful Ocean Beach and its surroundings. I loved hearing about your first hawk at Land’s End, and with your description could almost see it myself in those windswept junipers. Funny about the wild duck who took up residence at the zoo, too. I’m chuckling about that as I type. Your words also lent the spirit of San Francisco, a place where most of us just want to get along and have some bright moments in life. Blessings and thanks to you, I hope where you are today you are having beautiful, bright moments.

    • I agree, Cathy, the Sutro Baths did look amazing. I love that postcard image a lot, too, and even have a tote bag with the image on it. Between reading about it, looking at the images, and walking around the ruins you can get pretty close to bringing this place to life. I’m glad to share this interesting place with you. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. The lat time we visited San Francisco, in 2016, I made sure to visit Ocean Beach. As you pointed out, people in San Francisco are fortunate to have it so easily at hand. I wouldn’t mind seeing a return of the original Sutro Baths and the mansion-like Cliff House.

  13. What a fascinating post, Jet, thank you! Though I doubt that I will ever get there in person, it would certainly be a place I would visit based on your descriptions and photos, if I ever do wind up in the San Francisco area.☺️The Sutro Baths history was amazing – what a unique phenomenon that must have been in its day! And I love the camera on the cliff edge!

    • A pleasure to “see” you today, BJ. I am happy I could take you to San Francisco’s longest beach, including a bit of history, especially since it is probable you will not visit yourself. That’s what I like about blogging, we travel the world and vicariously visit so many places that we couldn’t possibly see in person. I love that camera on the cliff edge, too. Thanks so much, BJ.

  14. I’m not sure if the image of the Sutro Baths is a vintage postcard or an illustration, but it’s a gem. I’m glad you included it. One of my most amusing SF experiences took place on Ocean Beach. The good news is that no one was injured, but a group of Japanese tourists got a little too close to the surf. The fellow taking their group photo wasn’t paying attention, and he kept backing them up: presumably for the perfect scene. Of course you know what happened. One of those nice, fat waves overtook the whole group. The photographer saw what was coming; the group didn’t have a clue. Such giggling and laughing you’ve never heard — even after all these years I still can see those expressions.

    • I sure enjoyed your Ocean Beach story, Linda. Sounds classic, and what fun to actually watch it unfold. There are sizeable waves there, what a scene that must’ve been! The Sutro Baths image is from a poster on the wall inside the Cliff House, but my guess is it originated from a vintage postcard. (I love vintage postcards.) Many thanks for your visit and comment, always a pleasure. You are a good storyteller, Linda.

    • I’m smiling, Sherry, happy you enjoyed the Ocean Beach post. I think that video clip is hilarious too. So much excitement and frolic, yes, they must’ve had some bodies falling on bodies. Fun! My warmest thanks.

  15. I love the history you’ve included. I have to say that film clip of the Baths made me laugh–looks TOTALLY unsafe by today’s standards. 😉 I love the idea of the Camera Obscura. Your mystery writing reminded me that the long-running British mystery series Midsommer Murders features a camera obscura as part of a mystery…Maybe you’ll be writing a historical mystery set in the Sutro Baths one day? 😉
    Cheers,
    Julie

    • Lovely to hear from you, Julie. That film clip of Sutro Baths makes me laugh every time, I’m glad it did the same for you. I am a big fan of Camera Obscuras, and have seen a few, but would love to see more in this world. I am a huge fan of Midsummer Murders (espec. the first Barnaby) and am happy you have seen that episode, as it does a good job of highlighting this incredible camera. I would love to write a mystery set in the Sutro Baths, and how kind of you to ask. Thanks so much for this wonderful exchange, Julie.

      • I like the second Barnaby myself. I especially get a kick out of Fleur, the new examiner, as the very first time I saw her was way back in the first PBS Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) A Pocketful of Rye. She played the maid. Fun to watch those PBS characters over the years! 😉
        Julie

  16. This looks like such a tranquil way to spend the day in San Francisco, Jet. When you mentioned SF is not the most populous city, it took me back to what my friends who visited told me – it is not exactly as packed city to visit say in comparison to New York or the heart of LA. Looks like there are lovely long stretches of beach to walk along all afternoon. Amazing there are quite a few attractions along Ocean Beach. The Camera Obscura look so cool – a giant camera with rolling images where you can walk right in, and pretend you are inside of a camera looking out 🙂 Hope you and Athena are doing well. Brilliant photos from the two of you.

    • I so enjoyed your comment and visit, Mabel. Yes, it is a tranquil way to spend the day in SF. There is a lot of hustle and bustle in the interior, as cities will be, and a visit to the Pacific Ocean on the outskirts is a great getaway without having to go too far. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  17. What a beautiful post with so much rich history. I knew nothing of what you wrote here and I found myself fascinated. How much of our history do we even know? Thank you, Jet!! I really enjoyed this post!

    • One of the joys of blogging is coming upon places we’ve never heard of, so I am truly happy I could share the beauties of Ocean Beach with you, Amy. Thanks so much for stopping by.

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