Situated on San Francisco's rocky and windswept coast, the park is located at the northwestern edge of the city in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The site has attracted visitors for centuries, from Native Americans collecting shellfish to tourists following the Gold Rush. The Cliff House opened in 1863 and was purchased by Adolph Sutro in the 1880s as part of a plan to develop the western headlands into a major recreation area. By the late 1890s, the area included the Cliff House, the Sutro Baths, Sutro Heights Park, numerous shops and restaurants, a carnival midway - Merrie Way - built for the 1894 Midwinter Fair, and a steam train to carry the thousands of visitors from downtown to Lands End. Major landslides stopped rail service in 1925 and the area began a slow decline. The Sutro Baths closed in the 1960s and was destroyed by fire in 1966.
The National Park Service initiated planning for the area in the 1980s with a final master plan for the Coastal Trail completed by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in 2005. Improvements to date include a promenade and trailhead at Merrie Way, one-half mile of accessible trail and four scenic overlooks with thirty-mile views stretching from Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, and Point Reyes to the Farallon Islands and Pacific Ocean.