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August 10, 2012

Visit the Lands End Lookout with Kids

Lands End Lookout au naturel – in the fog

It may be foggy when you go, it will certainly be windy, but it’s still the best view in San Francisco. The Lands End Lookout, opened in April 2012, is the newest visitor center of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and a great spot to take the kids or your out-of-town visitors. With the ruins of the Sutro Baths down below, the Golden Gate bridge  in the distance (when it’s not foggy) and the dramatic waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the windswept rocky shoreline, the lookout offers a million-dollar view along with games and interpretive signs to keep you busy. Add to that ample parking space, clean restrooms, a gift shop and a small cafe to boot – it’s the Richmond’s take on the Crissy Field’s Warming Hut and a good place to enjoy the vista sheltered from the wind gusts.

When I walked inside the lookout, I expected a traditional national parks visitor center – information/education on one side, gifts on the other. At first glance, I was puzzled. Was it all a giant gift shop? I thought so until I got closer to the walls and realized that interpretive exhibits and games were blended with the stuff for sale. Sneaky, sneaky. To bring blocks of cultural history together, the inside of the Lookout has been broken down into small areas focusing on separate component of Lands End’s history. Here I found the Yelamu Ohlone, the Sutro Baths, the Musee Mecanique, the Golden Gate Bridge or the local birds and plants. There’s even a kid corner that had a little boy transfixed in front of a block tower.

I started clockwise and headed directly to a Cail-O-Scope. Directly on loan from the owner of the Musee Mecanique. For a quarter, this 1904 arcade game shows you lit-up historic images of the Sutro Baths. Fun! If you have two kids, I suggest spending 2 quarters because the pictures roll by pretty fast and you’ll be sorry junior #2 missed the old steam train arriving at Lands End or the magnificent Cliff House perched at the edge of the continent. Next to the Cail-O-Scope is a selection of hiking books and yes, my book is there – Snoopy dance for me! If it’s not, it should be in the cupboards if you ask the staff nicely with a smile, they’ll pull a dozen for you.

In the same Musee Mecanique spirit, a fun fortune telling game table had me flip wooden “cards” to know more about my future. And guess what I got? Take a hike. No kidding – how did they know? Anxious looks around, spirit are you here? Nope. Phew. Step over to the corner next to the window. Nice window cases display artifacts from the Sutro Baths (the collectible plates are adorable) and watch movie clips about Adolph Sutro above the gift shelves. Yes it’s a tad high but the screen is big.

As with the Warming Hut, the food/soap corner and the kiddie corner are really well done. I had to seriously refrain myself from bringing back yet another jar of the delicious honey harvested by Peter Sinton or the entire collection of wild soaps by Juniper Ridge (that Steep Ravine soap smells so good). On the kids table, I browsed a nice assortment of San Francisco/California-themed books but I knew most of them. Right next to the soaps, my friend Ashley fell for a beautiful National Parks book for kids and got it for her sons.

I continued clockwise and found the Golden Gate bridge table. Did I really need a big copper-color pencil saying Golden Gate Bridge in gold color? Whatever, it’s too late. And I bought more than one! Priced at $1, they are a cute little souvenir. A flurry of fun items and postcards later, I finished my tour.

Hungry! I headed to the cafe for lunch. Since I wasn’t tempted by a vegetarian chili, I settled for a yummy ham and sundried tomato sandwich as well as a sweet indulgence – caramel popcorn! And jasmine tea to wash it all up. The only problem with the cafe – and in my view it’s quite big – is the absolute lack of seating area. You got your food – now where do you eat? Outside’s windy, inside’s nice but the only options are a narrow ledge where you have to stand up or a large bench that only sits 2 or 3 people. I was lucky that the bench was free but the designers could have thought about a few tables. With a killer view like that, it’s a crying shame you can’t enjoy it over hot drinks and cookies.

After lunch, I took a walk down to the ruins of the Sutro Baths and wept over the lost salt-water baths I could have swam in a century ago – in hand-knit thick wool black long johns with a skirt. The derelict cement foundations and rusty metal spikes for the window frames are but a sad ghost of what the baths were. If you still don’t have an idea of what the Sutro Baths looked like after a visit at the Lookout, walk over to the front of Louie’s (yes, the greasy spoon). Their front window displays a giant color reproduction of the baths – blue pools, palm trees, elegant Victorian ladies and all.

That’s it for the Lookout. Now I’ll follow my good fortune and go take a hike!

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