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Improving the California Coastal Trail at Lands End

Community partnerships enabled improvements to the Coastal Trail at Lands End for safe and accessible recreation that also protects native landscape, plants, and wildlife.

by Kate Bickert, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

photo credit: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

The trail at Lands End in San Francisco looking across the Golden Gate

About Lands End

One of the most spectacular stretches of the California Coastal Trail winds through Lands End, a rugged corner of San Francisco where the city meets the ocean. With its cinematic vistas, breathtaking sunsets, and dramatic crashing surf, this significant site in the Golden Gate National Parks (Golden Gate National Recreation Area) has long been cherished.

Native American Ohlone used the area for hunting, fishing, and gathering; in the 19th century millionaire Adolph Sutro transformed this remote section of San Francisco into a vibrant entertainment and amusement grounds. Beloved institutions past and present— such as the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights Gardens, and Louis’ Restaurant— are all woven into the fondest memories of generations of San Franciscans.

However, by the middle of the 20th century, the luster of Lands End had faded. Since 2006, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy— in close collaboration with the National Park Service— have teamed with neighborhood groups, civic organizations, government agencies, philanthropists, and community volunteers to revitalize the Coastal Trail and the adjacent Lands End area. We completed the first major phase in October 2008 but habitat restoration is ongoing and future improvements are planned. Now 1 million visitors each year enjoy the park trails. A recent NPS survey found that within a 48-hour period, nearly 5,800 people visited Lands End.

photo credit: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
Overlook area with benches and interpretive panels

Overlook area with benches and interpretive panels

The project

In just four years, the pot-holed parking lot, the dangerous pathways, and overgrown trail corridor were totally transformed. As one longtime San Franciscan resident put it: “You can’t even believe it’s the same place.” Led by the Conservancy’s Park Stewardship team and Trails Forever (a cooperative initiative of the Parks Conservancy, NPS, and Presidio Trust), we improved the trails experience through the following:

  • Four new and improved overlooks with seating areas
  • Paved and accessible promenade and trail, adhering to universal design standards
  • Approximately 40 new wayfinding signs and interpretive panels
  • Enhanced trailhead with educational kiosks, and a more environmentally-conscious parking area, for greater visitor access and use
  • Revitalized forest health and trailside habitat corridor for wildlife
  • More than 80,000 native plants (of 81 different species) planted to restore native coastal dune and coastal scrub habitat for over 300 species of birds

photo credit: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
New retaining walls allowed for widening of the trail

New retaining walls allowed for widening of the trail


None of this would have been possible, however, without a broad coalition of park partners. This spirit of cooperation and collaborative stewardship is best reflected in the robust volunteer program at Lands End. More than 3,150 community members— of all ages and from diverse backgrounds— joined us to restore native habitat and maintain trails, while fostering conservation consciousness and a greater sense of civic pride. In fact, a remarkable 31,000 hours of volunteer time were donated to help grow and replant the native plants. The volunteer groups— ranging from high school service organizations to church groups and from conservation corps to corporate volunteers (such as from FedEx and Genentech)— represent the scope and appeal of this trail work.

One particularly imaginative volunteer contribution came from the art department at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Artists used woody debris from our landscape restoration to create sculptural brush piles— an artistic expression that doubles as habitat for songbirds. Another creative reuse came from San Francisco Zoo staff members, who salvaged cut eucalyptus from Lands End to feed their giraffes!

Throughout this project, the Parks Conservancy has worked hard to inform, educate, and engage the most important partners— the community members who use the Coastal Trail and care passionately about Lands End. Informational meetings are held with interested groups, including the Planning Association of the Richmond (PAR), Neighborhood Associations for Presidio Planning (NAPP), and Friends of Sutro Heights Park/Coalition to Save Ocean Beach. Additional input was sought from organizations that use the area regularly, such as Friends of Lands End, Boy Scout Group 12, USS San Francisco Memorial veterans, and Pacific Leadership Institute.

photo credit: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
Some steep sections of the trail were rebuilt with steps along with post and cable to keep visitors off adjacent steep slopes

Some steep sections of the trail were rebuilt with steps along with post and cable to keep visitors off adjacent steep slopes

Project staff members are at Lands End for at least four days a week— greeting visitors, providing information, and running stewardship projects. Lands End is also patrolled by Parks Conservancy “Trail Keepers,” a dedicated group of volunteers who walk select areas of the Golden Gate National Parks and assist fellow visitors, monitor trail use and conditions, and perform light maintenance. In addition to the new maps and interpretive signs installed on-site, a trail map in print form has been prepared and translated into four languages. A new brochure, The Birds of Lands End, is also available for birding along the Coastal Trail.

Furthermore, a program called “Destination: Lands End,” provided a series of expert-led cultural and natural history hikes to foster awareness of the area’s unique resources. For this effort, we partnered with organizations such as the Audubon Society-Golden Gate Chapter, Nature in the City, California Academy of Sciences, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and representatives from the Native American Ohlone. These talks and hikes included wildflower walks, marine mammal tours, and bee lectures.

Of course, the philanthropic community has also played a key role in catalyzing the revitalization. The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund provided the initial lead gift for Lands End, and has since made an additional $5 million grant— bringing the Fund’s total support to $8.6 million. Inspired by the Fund’s vision, additional support has come from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the California State Coastal Conservancy, the National Park Service, and members of the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy.

Lands End, with its spectacular vistas and diverse habitat, provides wonderful experiences for both amateur and avid birdwatchers. Due to its location at the tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, Lands End is an important stopover for migratory birds. More than 200 species of migrant and resident birds have been sighted.

Published January 2007

About the Author

The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy is the nonprofit membership organization created to preserve the Golden Gate National Parks, enhance the experiences of park visitors, and build a community dedicated to conserving the parks for the future.

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