What started out as an excuse to get some fresh air turned into a geological scavenger along San Francisco’s largest beach.
It’s not hard to get to Ocean Beach in San Francisco — just go west in the city — but it still seems a little remote. Miles-long, cold, foggy, and forbidding, Ocean Beach is often greeted with a disinterested shrug compared to its more glamorous cousins Baker Beach and Crissy Field.
But when you’re there, you really feel like you’re at the end of a continent, especially at night, when the sea is speckled with the lonely lights of little boats. And it’s even more frightening to know that it’s only the northern tip of a nearly 12-mile stretch of beach that extends all the way to the Daly City–Pacifica border.
Ocean Beach is nestled right next to the Richmond and Sunset districts, but much of its southern extent is walled in by towering, insurmountable cliffs, and you might have to walk for quite some time before you come to an exit and can return to civilization.
I walked the southern end of Ocean Beach once before, but as the sky grew dark and my phone battery grew low, I gave up and ended up surfacing near Daly City’s Skyline Mall. But for the purpose of fulfilling my curiosity for this article, I decided to try again and see how far I could go before I hit the end.
San Francisco sits in the middle of an urban sprawl, and it can be hard to find true nature, so it’s nice to know that a strenuous, potentially dangerous journey into the wilderness is possible without even having to cross the Golden Gate Bridge.
I started my walk at Ocean Beach’s southern parking lot — which, when I took this walk two years ago, was the only one currently accessible to cars during the Covid-19 pandemic. (It still remains a lively (if occasionally skeevy) hub of activity.)
There are no official borders between Ocean Beach and the southern tip of Funston Beach, Phillip Burton Memorial Beach, and Thornton Beach, all of which occupy the same strip of sand. But I presume Ocean Beach becomes Funston Beach when the Great Highway turns into Skyline Boulevard and the seawalls turn into cliffs.
My favorite landmark of this transitional zone is a massive log I call “the beast.” It looks just like one of those ancient monster skeletons you see in some sci-fi movies and book covers to suggest the aftermath of a cataclysmic battle, and it’s the perfect greeting for what to many San Franciscans might as well be a journey off the edge of the map. Though there are still plenty of sunbathers and beachgoers as Ocean Beach turns into Funston, the density of people noticeably thins as you travel south, and the graffiti-strewn monuments and high cliffs above Funston Beach make it almost feel like a place you’re not supposed to be.
Most San Franciscans are probably familiar with Funston Beach—dog-filled and scenic. Fort Funston was a military installation that operated from 1900 to 1963. After its subsequent transfer to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the remaining military buildings have been allowed to crumble along with the beach’s rapidly eroding cliffs. Three gun mounts fell off the cliff between 1979 and 1997, and the remainder are well on their way to joining them.
The building in the photo above is a place I once went to drink beers and light bonfires with friends. Only a few years ago, it stood upright, but its inexorable slide has begun. A woman died in a landslide on the Funston cliffs in 2019, so I advise any teenage hooligans reading this to take the party elsewhere and, generally, for people to stay off the cliffs and on the trails.
At the southern end of Funston Beach is a sewer outlet festooned with some of the more impressive graffiti I’ve seen in San Francisco. A dog-headed sculpture resembling a Buddha is the work of Jon Engdahl, a Sunset-based sculptor best known for his statue of the San Francisco Zoo’s late Tatiana the Tiger on the Greenwich Steps near Coit Tower.
It was here, about a half-hour walk south of the Ocean Beach parking lot, that I began to feel a little bit over my head. People began to thin out, dogs were less common, the cliffs towered higher and higher, and my repository of childhood memories of the beach began to dry up. The sewer outlet felt vaguely familiar to me from excursions to Fort Funston with my parents long ago. Most of what lay beyond did not.
A thin white band is visible in the cliffs above Funston Beach. This is a deposit of volcanic ash from an eruption of Mount Lassen 400,000 years ago, which remains part of the geologic strata.
Phillip Burton Memorial Beach
Once San Francisco turns into Daly City, Funston Beach turns into Phillip Burton Memorial Beach, which runs parallel to the Olympia Club golf course on the cliffs above. The defining feature of this beach is a deep, narrow cave in one of the cliffs. Spelunkers can enter the cave, but I was afraid to explore after hearing what happened to that woman on Funston Beach. Being trapped under an unstable mass of rock sounded pretty horrid, so I stuck my camera inside and moved on quickly.
Aside from this cave, Phillip Burton Memorial Beach was the least interesting beach I traveled to. It lasts only about a mile and is more or less indistinguishable from Thornton Beach, which begins parallel to John Daly Boulevard.
Thornton State Beach
It was once I hit Thornton State Beach that the vastness of the universe really started to seep into my psyche. I saw no more than a dozen people during the last few miles of my walk, most of them clustered around the paths leading up to Daly City’s St. Francis neighborhood along the beach.
Exits are few and far between on Thornton State Beach, and long stretches are featureless and unpeopled, cowering in the shadow of great cliffs. It’s telling that most of the photos of Thornton Beach I see on the internet are of the trails on top of the cliffs. Maybe the beach is just a bit too forbidding. It’s less the kind of place you’d want to have a picnic than a spot to sit and ponder your own smallness.
Mussel Rock Park
The waterline began to recede, and at long last, the sand ended at Mussel Rock Park, a lovely place I’ll commit an afternoon to explore some other time. An exit at Mussel Rock is not always guaranteed, but I timed my journey for the lowest possible tide and was able to clamber up the pile of jagged rocks that leads to the park and make my way out to Skyline Boulevard.
I took a much-needed rest at Mussel Rock to watch the sunset, then walked along Skyline Drive back to San Francisco and enjoyed a rice plate at Kevin’s Noodle House in Skyline Mall along the way. It’s not hard for city dwellers to return from Mussel Rock on the 110 bus. It takes about a half-hour on the bus from the Palmetto Avenue and Paradise Drive stop to the Daly City BART Station, from which pretty much anywhere in San Francisco is easily accessible.
The journey from the Ocean Beach parking lot to Mussel Rock Park took me a little over three hours, though I walked quickly and did not stop very often except to take photos. A leisurely walk from Ocean Beach to Mussel Rock Park is probably the kind of thing you’d have to carve out a whole day to do right. Please note, however, that dogs must be leashed on much of the beach. And if you’re planning on taking friends along, make sure they’re as adventurous as you, because there’s no guarantee the next exit will come along anytime soon.
I spent the entirety of my walk listening to Boards of Canada, the great Scottish ambient duo whose music at its best sounds the way an abandoned power plant looks. But Wi-Fi is sparse on the beach, especially under those Thornton cliffs. Download your favorite music in advance, make sure you don’t have any phone calls coming up and wander as far as you dare. This is not a hike for casual walkers, and even those used to walking long distances within San Francisco may be taken aback by its length, remoteness, and wildness. It’s a reminder to those that nature is always nearby, and that even the mighty Bay Area metropolis is perched tenuously on the edge of something older and much, much bigger.
All photos: Courtesy of Daniel Bromfield