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