Not your average California beach, Ocean Beach's harsh rip currents aren't safe for the everyday swimmer. But what Ocean Beach lacks in swimmable water, it makes up for with brilliant coastline, plenty of open space, and unpopulated beaches.
If you're looking to get away from downtown and enjoy the cool sea breeze of the Pacific Ocean in your hair as you listen to the shorebirds, Ocean Beach is the perfect place for a casual walk with your sweetheart or a relaxing picnic with your whole family. Read on to learn about the history of Ocean Beach as well as learn everything there is to see and do there.
Once known simply as the Outside Lands — a name that reeks of mystery & adventure — Ocean Beach remained largely undeveloped throughout much of San Francisco's early history due to its often inhospitable weather. Complete with high winds, cold weather and fog, the area was just a wilderness of sand dunes during the early years of the city.
As if to confirm its reputation, in 1878 the three-masted clipper ship the King Philip was wrecked on the shore of Ocean Beach. From time to time, you can still view the wreckage of the ship on the sands offshore.
When a steam railroad was built in 1884, development finally came to the area. Playlanda, a popular amusement park, was built at the beach and featured the first amusement ride at the city's oceanside — a roller coaster named Gravity Railroad. The amusement park was torn down in 1972 to make way for apartment blocks and a supermarket. In the same era the Ocean Beach Pavilion was built to host concerts and dance recitals.
Cliff House opened in 1863 and is still an iconic site at the edge of the bluffs facing Ocean Beach. Additionally the Sutro Baths, once the largest swimming pool in the world, was built in 1896, just up in what is now Lincoln Park. These two attractions drew additional thousands of visitors to the Ocean Beach neighborhood.
Another part of Ocean Beach's fascinating history is that it served as a sort of refugee camp after the great 1906 earthquake, the camp spilling into Golde Gate Park. All this history has created one of San Francisco's most unique waterfront locations: Ocean Beach.
Getting to Ocean Beach is pretty easy. Ocean Beach is accessible by the N-Judah and L-Taraval Muni lines. The 38-Geary bus also runs a route that goes right up to Cliff House.
By car, it's even easier. There are free public parking lots at the northern and southern ends of Ocean Beach. The nearby streets parallel and perpendicular to the ocean have tons of parking spots as well. It's so simple to get there that you can leave your worries behind and enjoy an easy day at the beach.
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Built in 1863, Cliff House is a popular viewing point for the beautiful expanse of the Pacific Ocean ahead of you. Well known in San Francisco, this house is a bit of a city icon, and for good reason. Cliff House is propped up against the dramatic bluffs and gives off a quintessentially Californian vibe. Nowadays, Cliff House is a restaurant where you can dine as you gaze over the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. This is also a miraculous place to watch the sun set over the world's largest body of water.
Just offshore are the Seal Rocks. These stony islands are usually inhabited by shorebirds and a plethora of sea lions, the comic jokesters of the sea. Watch the sea lions sunbathe as the shorebirds take turns diving into the ocean to find their latest meal.
If you love to sightsee, bring your binoculars for a closer look of the Farallon Islands, some 30 miles offshore. You have to be sure it's a clear day though, as Ocean Beach is often covered in fog rolling in from the mighty Pacific.
Today the ruins of the Sutro Baths are another interesting place to see near Ocean Beach. During its height, this bathhouse with seven saltwater pools was the largest in the world, but the high overhead costs made it difficult to maintain. While it was being demolished an arsonist torched the place. Coincidentally (or not), the owners then filed insurance claims and hightailed it out of the city. Whatever the cause, the ruins of the Sutro Baths are a quirky place to see.
Let's make this clear: Ocean Beach is not a beach you want to go swimming at. If the frigid water doesn't deter you (the water temperature is 53° to 57° Fahrenheit year round), the dangerous rip currents mean that you'd better stay away. The only people who should brave the water at Ocean Beach are seasoned surfers wearing a wetsuit. In fact, the harsh conditions of the waves make Ocean Beach pretty popular among professional surfers.
However, no need to dismay as there are plenty of other things to do at Ocean Beach than surf and swim. The wide sandy area makes the beach a perfect spot for jogging. Another reason the beach is great for casual exercise is that it's often foggy so you won't get overheat as you work out.
If you're visiting Ocean Beach with your family we're sure the kids would love flying a kite — there is almost always plenty of wind and space to roam free. Pack up your picnic basket and bring your doggy along, this beach is dog-friendly!
If these activities are a little too active for your tastes, do what most habitués do — a little sunbathing on the soft sand. Listen to the gentle caw-caw of the seagulls and feel the cool ocean breeze in your hair. Don't be surprised if you find only a few people fishing as well. Overall, the beach is surprisingly uncrowded for how close it is to San Francisco's busy metropolis.
Along the top of the dunes there is a sandy path that's perfect for walking and a paved path nearby that's great for cyclists as well. No matter what your activity, Ocean Beach has the wide, open spaces you need to relax and enjoy yourself.
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