From Chicago to Lands End: Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Lands End, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

On Friday, September 6, Sean and I began what was our longest trip since our honeymoon in 2015. The night before, we had quietly toasted at home my final day as Director of Communications at Openlands. After our trip, I’d be starting a new adventure as the founder of Bold Bison Communications and Consulting. We had a lot of packing to do, so we celebrated with a couple drinks and some delivery Brazilian food for dinner. We were both behind on our packing since he’d had to spend a portion of the previous week in Philadelphia for work and I’d been wrapping things at my former employer.

Our flight to San Francisco that Friday wasn’t until 5pm, so Sean was going to work from home most of the day. I had some packing to finish up that morning and a proposal I needed to submit to a potential client. I also needed to finish the final post about Indiana Dunes National Park, since I didn’t want that writing to be delayed by this massive trip.

By the early afternoon, Sean was in the middle of a series of important work calls. I’d tidied and prepped the house for our friend Dale and Rick who’d be coming down from Wisconsin to enjoy our apartment and keep our cat, Elsa, company. I made my new work life Facebook and LinkedIn official, setting off a gratifying explosion of congratulatory notes and inquiries about possible collaborations or services.

At 3:30, I called a Lyft and was horrified when the ETA to get to O’Hare was twice the time it usually takes. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since it was a Friday afternoon. And I stupidly had not been monitoring the traffic. We knew we’d likely be too late to check our bags (the cut-off is forty-five minutes before departure for American), but the only thing we could do was try. We ended up being heart-breakingly close to the cut-off. It’s our fault for not leaving earlier, but the Lyft driver didn’t help (Sean: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Prius that sounds like that”). I suspect that if we’d had a different driver, we’d actually have made it.

We went up to the counter and the agent helped us out. There was a later flight (departing at 8:30) so the agent put us on the standby list and checked our bags for us. The flight was wide open (some fifty available seats, the agent said), so we weren’t worried about getting to San Francisco. We were chatting with the agent about our trip. She said that San Francisco had been her favorite city, but now it had changed so much. I replied with something about too much tech money, but apparently she was talking about the city’s homeless problem and how aggressive the homeless people there be.

We breezed through security and then had plenty of time to have dinner.

After wandering about a bit, we decided against our usual Fronterra take-out and decided instead to sit and have a nicer meal and some drinks at Publican. I was still irritated with myself for missing our flight, but it was nice to have the time to relax.

Afterward, we did some final catching up on emails before heading over to our gate. As we thought, we were immediately issued seats, so we were ready to go.

San Francisco Bay

The flight was so light, that the crew finished the boarding process ahead of schedule and we departed the gate ahead of schedule. The captain ended getting us to SFO over half an hour early. There, we gathered our bags and took a cab through the foggy night into the city.

We were booked for four nights at the Good Hotel in SoMa. The hotel combines what had been a motel and an old hotel in two units. It was almost midnight when we checked in and were assigned a room on the second floor of the motel, with a door that opened directly to the outside. This was not what I had booked. I had booked a queen room in the main building.

We went to the room, which was disappointing and had a very leaky air conditioner dripping onto the carpet. While Sean settled in, I looked up our reservation and verified that we had booked a room in the main building. We had indeed, so I went back down to the lobby and talked to Dave at the front desk. He admitted that we had booked a room in the main building, but that there were none available. He’d be able to move us the next day. As compensation for the inconvenience, he offered to knock a night off our bill. Well, ok.

I slept fitfully, and finally “woke up” around 8am. After i showered, I went down to the lobby and verified that we’d be able to move rooms. Yes, indeed. So we packed up our bags and checked them at the front desk before heading out into the city.

We strolled down Market Street. Our destination was the Farmers Market at the Ferry Terminal. My former colleague, Nora, who’d lived in San Francisco for a decade, had recommended it.

We walked past Fellow Barber. Sean had booked a haircut for the following day at a place in the Tenderloin. (He’d had to cancel a cut back in Chicago earlier that week.) But he liked the look of Fellow Barber so we went in. Ochoa, the charming guy at the front desk, easily convinced Sean to book a cut for the next morning and me to book a beard trim (my first).

We continued on to the Ferry Terminal.

The Bay Bridge

After grabbing some coffees, we explored the market.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We picked up some locally grown dried apricots to take with us camping before we got some breakfast. I got some tasty bi bim bop from Namu Stonepot. Sean got a big grilled cheese. We went and found a place to sit down near the end of the dock.

After breakfast, we wandered through the terminal.

Coit Tower

It turned out to be MUNI Heritage Weekend, so we kept seeing vintage busses and streetcars on and around the Embarcadero.

We walked up Mission Street toward SFMoMA. We passed a CVS that, three years ago, had been a coffee shop. It’s where I first began planning for my post-Openlands life of owning my own business. It was nice to come full circle even if the place didn’t exist anymore.

At SFMoMA, we were excited to see a special exhibition, “Far Out,” that explored both real and speculative design for humans in outer space. It was a very beautifully designed one-room exhibition.

Tom Sachs, Mary’s Suit, 2019 (detail)

Cristina de Middel, UMEKO from the series The Afronauts, 2012. Image: Sean M. Santos

NASA Gemini-era flight suit

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Four on a Bench I (Group A), 1990

Exploring rooms of the permanent collection, we came across a piece by Magdalena Abakanowicz, who has a monumental installation at the southwest corner of Chicago’s Grant Park.

Carl Andre, 13th PbFe Triangle, 1987

Dan Flavin, untitled (in honor of Leo at the 30th anniversary of his gallery), 1987

Bruce Nauman, Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know, 1983. Video: Sean M. Santos

Sol LeWitt, Wall Structure, 1963

Alexander Calder, Big Crinkly, 1969 (detail)

I like that Calder’s signature on this sculpture looks like California 1969.

Stephen ESPO Powers, Daymaker, 2019 (detail). Image: Sean M. Santos

Then we stumbled on a commissioned installation by Stephen ESPO Powers, which Sean was particularly taken with.

Stephen ESPO Powers, Daymaker, 2019 (detail). Image: Sean M. Santos

Stephen ESPO Powers, Daymaker, 2019 (detail)

Stephen ESPO Powers, Daymaker, 2019 (detail)

On this visit, we spent about three hours at the museum before grabbing a late lunch at the Grove.

By this point, it was almost 4pm, so we headed back to the hotel.

True to their word, they had moved us into a queen room in the hotel’s main building. It overlooked the air shaft, but it was on the top floor so it was bright. It suited us much better.

We had dinner reservations at 7:45 at Barcino in Hayes Valley, so we spent the intervening time unpacking, downloading the MUNI app on our phones so we could start using public transit, catching up on email (even though it was Saturday afternoon), and relaxing.

At a quarter after seven, we strolled out into the cool evening to walk up past City Hall and the performing arts houses to Hayes Valley, a neighborhood we’d stayed in during our last visit to San Francisco.

Barcino, where we had tapas, was excellent. The Catalan-inspired dishes were creative, delicious, and beautifully presented. Over cocktails, I could feel us beginning to settle into our vacation.

Image: Sean M. Santos

San Francisco City Hall

After we finished our dessert of “s’mores” churros at Barcino, we wandered back toward our hotel.

As we passed the Orpheum, Hamilton was just getting out. The crowd in front of the theater contrasted with the crowd of homeless folks in the plaza of the Social Security Administration Building across Mission from our hotel.

Back in our room, I backed up the first day’s photos and we checked social media before going to sleep.

Image: Sean M. Santos

I slept much better, and next morning, Sunday, September 8, we were up at 8am to shower, dress, and go in search of coffee before our 10am appointments at Fellow Barber. We found coffee and a light breakfast at Sightglass, a few blocks down 7th Street from our hotel.

Image: Sean M. Santos

As we headed back toward Market, Sean was amused by the midcentury Americana signs of some of the other hotels.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Al, my barber, gave me a beard trim and hot towel wrap while we gabbed about National Parks. A Boston native, he met his wife in Glacier National Park while working there. He gushed about how wonderful Lassen Volcanic was and envied us our coming adventures. I daresay that I enjoyed my first professional beard trim (after sporting a beard for the last eleven years).

The Good Hotel, where we were staying in San Francisco

We swung back to the hotel so Sean could take a post-haircut shower.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Then we were riding a bus over to Chinatown in search of Sunday morning dim sum.

Image: Sean M. Santos

At City View Restaurant, I put my name on the list. We were expecting a bit of a wait, so we went into the Asian antique store next door, but suddenly I heard “Brandon” and said to Sean, “I think they just called my name.” Indeed, they had. “How did you even hear that?” Sean asked.

The dim sum was damn good. And we ate more than our fill.

After we ate, we walked over to City Lights, which was nearby. I surprised myself by not buying anything, but it is always a great place to browse.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Then we hopped on a crowded bus from Chinatown back down to Market. From there, we hopped on a bus headed all the way out to Ocean Beach. Our plan was to hit some spots in Golden Gate Park.

I’m a little uncomfortable posting the photo above because I’m not particularly comfortable with street photography of people, particularly marginalized populations. But it does capture part of the experience of visiting the city.

These two near city hall, on the other hand, made us laugh because the one with the man bun hopped a fence while his companion methodically walked over to the gate and walked through. I said to Sean that they mirrored us.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Golden Gate Park

An hour’s bus ride later, we were at the end of the line, across the street from the Pacific Ocean, our first view of it on the trip. I proposed we check out Lands End in Golden Gate National Recreation Area before we went to Golden Gate Park. Sean was amenable, so we ducked into a Safeway to get waters and kombuchas before strolling through the neighborhood toward the park.

After one wrong turn, we entered Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the steps at Sutro Park.

Quickly we were treated to views of the Pacific and Ocean Beach.

Hottentot Fig

Back below, the Ocean Beach section of San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood was tucked between the National Recreation Area and Golden Gate Park.

The steps topped out into Sutro Park, once a San Francisco city park, but now part of the National Recreation Area.

We crossed Point Lobos Avenue and formally entered the Sutro District of the National Recreation Area.

A trail led toward the views.


Along the trail, nestled near the base of a tree, someone had put up a little installation that felt sort of like a shrine so a Cossack Capuchin Monkey.

Marin Headlands

Then a little further down the path, the views opened up of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate.

The Golden Gate (and its bridge)

The Golden Gate

Marin Headlands

Much of the landscape across the water was protected by the National Recreation Area, which had been established in 1972 as the first specifically non-contiguous unit of the National Park Service. Now it protects over 82,000 acres in and around San Francisco, San Mateo County, and Marin County.

Marin Headlands

Sean and I had first visited Golden Gate National Recreation Area when we visited Muir Beach and nearby Muir Woods National Monument.

Image: Sean M. Santos


After getting our de rigueur photos of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sean and I headed back the way we’d come.

We split off from the main trail and took a trail toward the Sutro Baths.

I turned around and Sean was nowhere to be found. I thought he’d not realized which way I’d turned, but he had been shooting some video of Brown Pelicans.

Brown Pelicans. Video: Sean M. Santos

We descended down to a point jutting west toward the Pacific.

Sutro Baths

To the south, we could see the ruins of the Sutro Baths.

Adolph Sutro, the self-made millionaire who designed Sutro Heights and later the second Cliff House, developed the amazing Sutro Baths in 1894. With his special interest in natural history and marine studies, he constructed an ocean pool aquarium among the rocks north of the Cliff House. Sutro then expanded his ocean front complex by constructing a massive public bathhouse that covered three acres and boasted impressive engineering and artistic details.

Sutro’s dream for the Baths was to provide a healthy, recreational and inexpensive swimming facility for thousands of San Franciscans. A classic Greek portal opened to a massive glass enclosure containing seven swimming pools at various temperatures. There were slides, trapezes, springboards and a high dive. The power of the Pacific Ocean during high tide could fill the 1.7 million gallons of water required for all the pools in just one hour. The Baths could accommodate 10,000 people at one time and offered 20,000 bathing suits and 40,000 towels for rent.

Sutro Baths

Brown Pelicans

We spotted the bridge peeking at us.

Someone had graffitied the walls with vegan messages.

Sutro Baths

Sutro Baths

Neither of us was particularly interested in going down to the ruins of the baths, so instead we walked a trail that traversed the slope toward the visitor center.

Insta-worthy views and poses, presumably


Louis’ Restaurant, perched on the bluff, had a rendering of the baths in its window.

The wind has shaped the canopy of the cypresses so that they seem to continue the slope of the bluffs.

At Lands End Lookout Visitor Center we checked out the exhibitions and bought a few books. We didn’t stamp our passports since we already had stamps for Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

This lion was part of the sculpture park at the Sutro estate.

After the visitor center, we strolled down the sidewalk toward Ocean Beach.

We wandered past Cliff House, now part of the National Recreation Area, which has been the site of a restaurant (actually five successive restaurants) since 1858.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Ocean Beach

Beneath Cliff House, Ocean Beach stretched south into the distance. Although it comprises the point wherein San Francisco touches the Pacific, it is protected by the National Park Service as part of the National Recreation Area.

It was a windy afternoon, and the surf was full of a rainbow of windsurfers.

From where we stood adjacent to Cliff House, we could see Ocean Beach, the edge of Outer Richmond, the two windmills (?) marking the western edge of Golden Gate, and the hills south in the city blanketed in fog.

Western Gull, juvenile

We continued down the sidewalk, taking in the scene and watching the windsurfers.

Seal Rocks, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Western Gulls

When we reached the northwestern corner of Golden Gate Park, we said goodbye to Ocean Beach, crossed Great Highway, and entered the park.

Golden Gate Park, which dates to the 1870s, is more than 1,000 acres. It is roughly three miles long from west to east and about half a mile wide north to south.

We had no particular destination in mind in the park, so we decided to make our way toward the Bison Paddock.

At the paddock, we rested on a bench while we watched the Bison graze. It was odd to see them in the park, but their presence here dates to the 1890s, so roughly contemporaneous to the successful experiment to breed and reintroduce Bison to the wild undertaken at the New York Zoological Society.

It was not quite 5pm and we were getting a bit hungry. Sean found a well-reviewed taco food truck on Eater San Francisco. The truck was located next to a minigolf course (apparently San Francisco’s only outdoor minigolf course) in Mission Bay, which was, well, a good hour and fifteen minutes away by public transit. We hedged for only a moment before we decided to go play minigolf and eat tacos. As we walked toward our streetcar/train, Sean booked us a 6:30pm tee time.

We headed south out of Golden Gate Park into the Outer Sunset neighborhood.

At Judah Street, we waited for our electric streetcar train. We’d be taking it from almost the western end of its line all the way to its eastern terminus.

The ride was fun as we went through various neighborhoods and ultimately underground as we recached downtown before emerging aboveground on the Embarcadero.

We disembarked and trotted south into Mission Bay, a neighborhood that felt so new it seemed to still have its tags on. When we reached the minigolf/streetcar/open air bar complex, it felt like a little playground for rich, white twenty-somethings. Sean observed that it was like the “Flats” developments in Chicago had taken over a park.

So we grabbed a couple beers and checked in for our tee time.

Stagecoach Minigolf turned out to be actually pretty great. The course was themed around San Francisco history, everything from geology to Barbary Coast saloons to the Great Earthquake to the rise of the tech industry. Each hole had a placard about the history and a button for an audio recording about its historical moment.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Some of the holes were even funny. Here the new Salesforce Tower dukes it out with the Transamerica Building while a diminutive Coit Tower looks on.

Heh. There was even the Bison Paddock, where we’d just been.

Video: Sean M. Santos

The rocking Victorian filled with aghast people representing the 1906 Earthquake was Sean’s favorite, though.

To our chagrin, the taco truck was closed. So after we played a round, we grabbed a Lyft over to El Metate in the Mission for yummy fish tacos, chicken quesadillas, and cold beer.

After eating our fill, we went back, exhausted to the hotel.

While I backed up photos, Sean turned on Electric Dreams, set in San Francisco, which we watched until we fell asleep.

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