San Francisco’s Spooky Sutro Baths

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Crumbling stairways at San Francisco’s Sutro Baths.

When the Sutro Baths first opened to the public in 1896, the west side of San Francisco was a vast region of all-but-unpopulated sand dunes.  The sprawling natatorium was a pet project of Adolph Sutro, a wealthy entrepreneur and former mayor of San Francisco who became widely known as a populist over his illustrious career.  Before constructing his magnificent bathhouse at Land’s End, he opened the grounds of his personal estate to all San Franciscans.  Later, when transportation costs proved too high for many to reach his baths, he built a new railroad with a lower fare.

The Sutro Baths were the world’s largest indoor swimming establishment, with seven pools complete with high dives, slides, and trapezes, including one fresh water pond and 6 saltwater baths of varying temperatures with a combined capacity of 10,000 visitors.  The water was sourced directly from the Pacific Ocean during high tide, and pumped during low tide at a rate of 6,000 gallons per minute.  The monumental development also featured a 6,000-seat concert hall and a museum of curios from Sutro’s international travels.

The Sutro Baths in its glory days.

The Sutro Baths in their glory days.

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What remains of the Baths today.

The Baths’ popularity declined with the Great Depression and the facility was converted to an ice skating rink in an attempt to attract a new generation of visitors.  Facing enormous maintenance costs, the Sutro Baths closed in the 1960s as plans were put in place for a residential development on the site.  Soon after demolition began, a catastrophic fire broke out, bringing what remained of the glass-encased bathhouse to the ground.  (There’s some suspicion that the fire was related to a hefty insurance policy on the structure, though it’s never been confirmed.)

The condo plans were scrapped and the concrete footprints of the Sutro Baths were left largely undisturbed.  In 1973, the site was included in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the ruins were opened to the public for exploration.  This is not your typical park; as one sign warns, “people have been swept from the rocks and drowned.”

The highlight of any trip to the Sutro Baths is the cliffside tunnel.  Through a pair of apertures, visitors can watch waves collide on the rocks below as the unlit corridor fills with briny mist and the booming sounds of the sea.  In this spot, you might catch yourself believing vague rumors of hauntings that hang like a fog around the ruins of the Sutro Baths, or as some would have it, strange sightings of Lovecraftian demigods that lurk in its network of subterranean passages…

-Will Ellis

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The cavern at Sutro Baths.

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A misty opening reveals the teeming ocean below.

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A portion of the property has been deemed too dangerous for the public…

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…apparently for good reason.

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This pool was freshly inundated with sea water.

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Stunning views of the foggy Pacific from a clifftop lookout.

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Purple flowers color an otherwise gloomy scene.




20 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Spooky Sutro Baths

  1. Thank you so much for your work, I truly appreciate photos


    Posted by Linda | 6-11-13., 7:32 pm
  2. gorgeous photos! thank you for sharing.


    Posted by Crista | 6-11-13., 11:06 pm
  3. I was there many years ago but I didn’t wander around enough to see everything in your photos. Wow, the photos are great…I always look forward to your new posts…thanks so much.


    Posted by Frank | 6-12-13., 6:10 am
    • Thanks for tuning in, guys.

      I really enjoyed seeing the baths, and it’s great that so many people are able to access them. I think there’s a lot of potential for “ruin parks” here in New York, hope the trend continues…


      Posted by abandonednyc | 6-12-13., 8:25 pm
  4. What a fantastic place for some exploration. Love your post.


    Posted by Archard | 6-18-13., 2:59 am
  5. I remember my Father taking me to the Sutro Baths when I was about 4, that would have been 1946, are there photos of it then?


    Posted by Klaudia Jo Klaudi | 6-24-13., 7:31 pm
  6. Fascinating photos.


    Posted by Heather D | 6-25-13., 10:03 am
  7. I remember in the very early 60’s mom taking us to Sutro’s…….I was mesmerized by the museum. I found all the displays fascinating, Tom Thumb’s tuxedo and his wife’s wedding gown on display………..his coach…….it seems if itr existed, there was a display for it at Sutro’s. We made many return trips as we lived in Millbrae, and I was awestruck every time we went. I cried when they were tearing it down and then again when it burned to the ground.


    Posted by Syd | 6-26-13., 3:07 am
  8. I remember the Tucker car, the chamber of torture devices (particularly the iron maiden) and the statue of the Japanese chap who used his own hair to enhance the sculpture. it was a wonderful place for a person aged less than 10!!!


    Posted by St. Leander | 6-27-13., 10:52 pm
  9. Thanks to SYD and St. Leander. I was beginning to think my childhood memories of the Phantasmagoric Sutro’s Museum or whatever were a dream. I remember the statue of the Japanese man with his real hair. They had several mummies and an actual mermaid, which seemed to be some dehydrated animals mashed together. It was creepy, scary and totally mesmerizing for a kid (about 8 or 9, 1958 or so). Great photos. Would love to see some of the museum.


    Posted by Richard Stimler | 1-26-14., 5:38 pm
  10. Thanks for the great post and trip down memory lane. Went here a lot as a kid. Still fun to hike around the ruins. I assume you’ve seen the classic film “Harold & Maude”? Great scenes in there from it…


    Posted by Supadisco | 4-5-14., 3:05 pm
  11. Great, I saw this when you posted it and I headed out to San Francisco in January. Got some solid shots at the sutro baths:
    (Links to the photos on my website)

    It was really foggy/misty and a lot of photographers backed out from trying to capture a sunset, their loss.


    Posted by Nathan Engel | 4-17-14., 12:30 am
  12. I seem to remember a toy rocking hobby horse built for a child that was made out of a skinned real pony. It was so bizarre.


    Posted by D F | 1-12-16., 3:19 am


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