From abandoned mansions to shuttered military bases, San Francisco offers a wealth of fascinating locations for urban exploration. Below, we’ll take a deep dive into the eight best abandoned places in San Francisco to discover in 2021, and no, one of those locations is not Alcatraz!
The Best Abandoned Places in San Francisco
This man-made island in San Francisco Bay is named for the famous book by Robert Louis Stevenson, who briefly lived in the city in the late 1800s. It was initially constructed to host the Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1939, with developers importing thousands of tons of quarried rock as well as roughly 50,000 cubic yards of topsoil to support landscaping.
At its grand opening on February 18, 1939, the island featured vast fairgrounds, a $1.5 million Federal Building, an $800,000 administration building, a Hall of Western States, multiple industry exhibition halls and two aircraft hangars as well as a 12,000-car parking lot.
After the World’s Fair, the island was originally intended to become a second airport for the City of San Francisco, but with World War II raging in the Pacific, the determination was made to convert it into a Naval Station. A Naval Auxiliary Air Facility on the base provided maintenance and repairs for a fleet of airplanes, helicopters, seaplanes, blimps and other aircraft.
Naval ships docked at the island for cleaning and decontamination, resulting in toxic levels of radioactive materials leaching into the soil. The station also processed more than 12,000 men daily on their way to assignments in the Pacific, and somewhat chillingly, the base’s psychiatric ward was used for studies and experiments on sailors who had been discharged from the service due to their homosexuality.
The base on Treasure Island (not to be confused with Treasure Island Las Vegas) remained active through the Korean and Vietnam Wars; during peacetime, it also became a popular location for movie sets, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Matrix. The base itself closed in 1997, and the island was eventually sold to private developers in the late 2000s.
However, the problem of contaminated soil and leftover radioactive waste hampered plans for redevelopment, with the Navy removing at least 16,000 cubic yards of toxic topsoil by 2010.
A plan was announced in 2011 to transform the island by adding 8,000 residences, dozens of hotels and shops and substantial office space at a cost of roughly $5 billion. After the original investors abandoned the project, a second group offered a more modest redevelopment proposal, which is still under construction nearly a decade later.
Meanwhile, crumbling, graffiti-festooned remnants of the old Treasure Island still stand ready to be explored, including two hangars, an exposition hall and the “Magic Carpet” Great Lawn. Overall, this location easily made our list of the best abandoned places in San Francisco.
Hidden under the asphalt of the San Francisco Zoo’s parking lot, you’ll find one of the city’s little-known landmarks: a public swimming pool that was once the largest saltwater pool in the world.
Named for its benefactor, the philanthropist and city parks commissioner Herbert Fleishhacker, the pool was built in 1924. More than 6 million gallons of chilly salt water were brought in from the nearby Pacific Ocean and heated to a tolerable 65 to 75 degrees.
With a 10,000-swimmer capacity, the pool measured 1,000 feet by 150 feet and was so massive, it required lifeguards to use rowboats for their patrols. In addition to its popularity among area residents, the pool was also regularly used for military drills and exercises.
Over the years, the funds required to maintain the enormous facility began to wither, and the pool was already in a state of decline when a storm destroyed a drainage pipe in 1971. The city then converted it to a freshwater pool, but the water quality was insufficient for safe use, and the facility was shuttered later that year.
The abandoned pool sat dormant for nearly three decades, until the San Francisco Zoological Society filled the gigantic basin with rocks and gravel to serve as a parking lot for the zoo. The once-lavish pool house remained standing, its walls covered in graffiti, its roof collapsing and its rooms occupied by raccoons, rats and the occasional vagrant.
In December 2012, a fire consumed nearly all of the remaining structure, leaving only a small fragment of its original architecture consisting of three ornate portals, a sad occurrence for what was once one of the best abandoned places in San Francisco to explore.
These once-resplendent recreational pools have been reduced to mere shadows along the California coast at Point Lobos, but what remains of the Sutro Baths still offers a fascinating opportunity for exploration.
The baths were the brainchild of German immigrant Adolf Sutro, an engineer who made his wealth during the mid-19th century gold rush and ultimately became mayor of his adopted city of San Francisco. His mission was to provide affordable, family-friendly entertainment to his constituents, and he began acquiring vast swaths of land as part of his vision.
On 22 acres of oceanfront property, he built extensive public gardens, renovated the Cliff House into the iconic Victorian mansion known today and completed the luxurious public baths, which began as a modest “aquarium” and ultimately morphed into a three-acre recreational complex.
Construction of the six tide-fed saltwater pools called for 10,000 barrels of cement and 1.7 million gallons of water at a cost of $1 million. The facility also included displays of the artifacts and souvenirs Sutro collected in his global travels, including rare plants, geological specimens, wildlife taxidermy and even several mummies from Egypt. Five hundred dressing rooms and bleacher seating for 3,700 rounded out the baths’ amenities.
The baths enjoyed enormous popularity in their early years, but operational costs began to mount. The addition of an ice rink in the 1930s only added to the financial burden, and the facility closed permanently in the 1950s. It was slated to be torn down in 1966, but before demolition began, a suspicious fire gutted the complex. The land was later acquired by the National Park Service.
Today, visitors to one of the best abandoned places in San Francisco can still make out what’s left of the deep diving pool, where ladder fixtures and patches of faded blue paint have survived decades of exposure to the salty sea air. The building’s concrete foundation still juts out of the earth, and a cave tunnel runs under the mountain, offering glimpses of the submerged channels.
16th Street Station
This historic landmark in Oakland was once one of the city’s three grand train stations, where thousands of immigrants arrived to chase the American Dream and local commuters caught their connections to work and home. Completed in 1912, the 16th Street Station featured a track for the Southern Pacific Railroad on its ground level and the East Bay Electric Line’s elevated railway above it.
The magnificent Beaux-Arts-influenced design of the building made it one of downtown Oakland’s crown jewels, and the electric train that departed the station was famous for its path along the lower deck of the Bay Bridge as it headed into San Francisco.
As rail ridership declined in the mid-20th century, the station fell into disrepair, and its fate was sealed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that rattled the city and irreparably damaged the building’s structural integrity.
After sitting vacant for several decades, the site was ultimately redeveloped as a private event space, but it retained much of the gritty urban quality it acquired during its years of disuse. Much of the graffiti and other industrial trappings were preserved, making it a unique destination for urban explorers and one of the best abandoned places in San Francisco.
The Bayshore Roundhouse
Reflecting San Francisco’s rich history as a western railroad hub, Southern Pacific’s Bayshore Roundhouse was completed in 1910 to serve as a junction between San Francisco and San Bruno. The Roundhouse provided repairs and maintenance for freight engines, with a massive turntable to facilitate the movement of trains in and out of the facility.
With an original diameter of 80 feet, the turntable was expanded to 110 feet in 1941 to accommodate the growing size of Southern Pacific’s steam engines. At its peak, the Bayshore Roundhouse featured 40 engine stalls, employed 3,000 workers and serviced more than 40,000 trains per year.
With the advent of the diesel engine in the 1950s, the Roundhouse descended into obsolescence, since diesel engines do not require a turntable for servicing. In 1958, the facility was converted from a repair yard into a diesel engine storage facility, and in 1982, it closed altogether.
Many of the auxiliary buildings and the surrounding tracks were demolished and removed, but the Roundhouse itself remained, much to the delight of graffiti artists and curiosity-seekers. A 2001 fire consumed most of the roof, but the majority of the structure survived, and in 2010 it was included on the National Register of Historic Places as the last remaining brick roundhouse in the state.
Over the years, various proposals to redevelop the property fizzled, in part due to the challenge of remediating contamination on the site. The most recent plan wouldn’t see construction begin until 2028 or beyond, leaving plenty of time for urban explorers to check the crumbling structure off their bucket list of abandoned places in San Francisco.
The Shipwrecks at Land’s End
Thanks to its rocky coast, powerful tides and famously thick fog cover, San Francisco Bay has become a magnet for shipwrecks over the centuries, with more than 300 ships meeting their demise in its choppy waters since the Gold Rush of the 1850s. The skeletons of many of these vessels still sit undisturbed beneath the waves, and in low tide, three remain visible to urban explorers: The Lyman Stewart, the Ohioan and the Frank Buck.
The Ohioan, a cargo ship that was converted for U.S. Navy use during World War I, became stranded near Seal Rock on a foggy morning in October 1936. The Coast Guard arrived to rescue the crew, but they opted to remain onboard in hopes that the coming high tide might unmoor the vessel. Crowds gathered along the coast for several days to watch as multiple approaches attempted to free the ship, but nothing worked, and it was ultimately abandoned in the spot where it ran aground.
Both the Lyman Stewart and Frank Buck were tankers from the same shipyard; the bay claimed the former in 1922 and the latter 15 years later. Dynamite was used in 1938 to dislodge some of the ships’ remains, but both engines can still be seen in the water when the tide is low.
Though visible only to divers, the wreckage of the City of Rio de Janeiro marks the site of the worst marine disaster in the bay, and a great difficult to get to abandoned places in San Francisco option. In 1901, the ship arrived in the region from its launch in Hong Kong, but dense fog sent it careening into the Mile Rock with devastating force. It sank within eight minutes of crashing, taking two-thirds of the passengers onboard to their watery graves, including Captain William Ward.
Eighty-two passengers survived by clinging to wreckage until a fisherman came to their rescue. The tragedy dragged on for weeks as bodies continued to wash ashore at Fort Point, and the Mile Rock lighthouse was ultimately erected in their memory to help prevent similar tragedies in the future. With ample places to explore, this is easily one of the most interesting abandoned places in San Francisco.
Situated on Point Lobos, this once-vast military installation is a shadow of its former self, but the remains of large guns and other defensive accouterments hidden in the surrounding woods remain a delightful discovery for adventurous hikers and urban explorers.
Conceived in the late 19th century as the City of San Francisco’s primary point of defense, Fort Miley was built on the site of a massive cemetery with tens of thousands of graves, each neatly subdivided into sections based on ethnic and cultural ties.
Though the federal government had promised the previous landowners the bodies would be relocated in a dignified manner, later discoveries proved that commitment to be hollow. Still, construction began in 1898, with three 12-inch guns added over the next five years along with multiple buildings and the surrounding fort.
In the 1930s, most of the original buildings were removed to allow for construction of a large Veterans Administration Hospital, although the guns remained on-site through the end of World War II. Today, the vacant gun batteries and one building still stand on the site, which has been incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Based on discoveries made during a 1990s construction project, it’s clear most of the original occupants of the cemetery are still interred on the property, suggesting the federal government did little more than remove the headstones in its rush to complete the fort. In the end, this is yet another location on our list of abandoned places in San Francisco.
Presidio Pet Cemetery
This peaceful hillside site is the final resting place for hundreds of pets who crossed the rainbow bridge while their owners were stationed at the Presidio, a former U.S. Army post along San Francisco Bay. The inscriptions on more than 400 tiny tombstones are bound to elicit a smile, memorializing treasured companions of the feline, canine, bird, rodent, fish and reptile species, including “Mr. Iguana” and “Woody, One Great Wiener Dog.”
Though its beginnings are largely undocumented, the cemetery project seems to have been led by 6th Army Commander Lt. Colonel Swing, who directed army engineers to design and landscape the site at the end of McDowell Avenue.
Though the memorial park has fallen into disrepair over the years, with headstones leaning precariously into the overgrown underbrush, volunteers have consistently shown up to restore and maintain the quirky yet popular attraction. This is easily one of the creepiest and best abandoned places in San Francisco.
That’s it for our list of the best abandoned places in San Francisco. If you enjoyed this article, read about interesting abandoned places in Jacksonville, Florida next.