Cahill Ridge P300
Buri Buri Ridge
Cattle Hill
Peak 1,412ft P300
Sweeney Ridge
Pulgas Ridge P300

Wed, Oct 1, 2014
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPXs: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2

Warning: This report contains descriptions of insignificant hills, silly bushwhacking, illegal access and hikes to neighborhood water tanks. May produce boredom, nausea and/or cause uncontrollable shaking of head. Please consult your doctor for more information on side-effects and long-term consequences should you experience any of these symptoms. Or just stop reading.

In the far northwest corner of the Santa Cruz Mtns is a collection of public lands managed by various agencies. The northernmost section between Pacifica and San Bruno is part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area managed by the National Park Service. Adjacent to this to the southeast is a 12mi stretch under the control of the San Francisco Water Dept. Unlike the GGNRA which is open for (nearly) unfettered access, the SFWD has strict controls over who can visit the area. With a collection of five reservoirs serving SF and surrounding communities, they appear to be highly concerned about maintaining water quality and the dangers recreationalists pose to it. The two areas combined form a very scenic, natural backdrop to the southwest as one drives along Interstate 280 which boasts to be "The Most Beautiful Freeway in the World." The accuracy of the claim is dubious, but there's no doubt the area is scenic. In addition to the miles of undeveloped coastal mountains and valley, there are superb views overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the SF Bay and the surrounding communities.

Cahill Ridge

This 5mi ridgeline runs NW-SE above the Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir. The SFWD allows docent-led trips along this ridge every Sat,Sun and Wed, usually hiking trips. Once a month a bike trip is planned and it so happened that it was scheduled for the very day I was to be there. I would have signed up for it but I knew they would not have taken kindly to my request to stop along the way and bushwhack to a couple highpoints. So instead I planned my arrival at the Skylawn Memorial Park off SR92 about an hour after the guided group had departed. A cemetery is an odd place to start a nature outing, but it has made for a nice arrangement that the cemetery has not only granted an easement for the Bay Ridge Trail, but has provided space for a parking lot and TH kiosk. I didn't realize the latter when I parked just outside the cemetery on SR92 and road my bike in. Simply take several forks to the right and you will arrive at the parking lot which is an easier starting point. From here one can ride or hike for about a mile along the outer edge of the memorial park through delightful open hilltops with fine views. The well-manicured areas I passed through appear to be favored by asians judging by the shrines, gravesites and large structures with chinese characters upon them. But I noticed there were also non-asian graves scattered about among the preponderance of chinese names. There were more than a dozen kites I found abandoned along the way. My guess is that there's some sort of Chinese holiday to honor the dead where it's customary to fly kites as part of the tribute. Those that get stuck in overhead lines, trees and shrubs seem to be simply abandoned, strings and all. A mile and a half is all you get before reaching the first of several signs letting you know you're no longer welcome. Where the pavement ends is a short stretch past the cemetery that is part of an active quarry. A large truck came rumbling down the road in my direction trailing a cloud of dust. I pulled over to let it pass, waving to the driver. He waved back, not the least concerned by my presence. A half mile through the quarry property leads to a gate with the SFWD property, also called the Cemetery Gate. This is one of several THs for the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail. The gate was locked and barbed-wire is strung high over the top of the gate and fences here. I might have gotten my bike over the fence with some trouble, but since my goal was only 1/2mi from this point, I simply locked it to the TH sign, slipped my skinny body through the bars on the fence, and continued on foot.

Immediately inside the gate is handicap access parking with some construction equipment, piles of gravel and a project of some sort either underway or abandoned. The good dirt/gravel road makes for a pleasant stroll under the forest shade, though no views on this part of the ridge. Mile marker 2 is encountered shortly, followed by the first of several rest areas with restrooms and a picnic bench. The place certainly looks to have been designed for more traffic than it currently receives. As I was near the Cahill Ridge highpoint, I followed an old road to the left just past the picnic table that led to a long-forgotten gate with horrible overgrowth on the other side. I turned right here and started my bushwhacking effort to the highpoint only 1/5mi distance. It was not an easy affair. Thorny vines (blackberries, or related) cover much of the forest floor, climbing trees and bushes and tripping one up easily if care is not taken. More than a few lines I tried ended in thick brush well over head level. After 10 or 15 minutes' effort I decided I was close enough - there's no easily recognized highpoint here, no views and more than enough bloodletting. Luckily I had changed into long pants when I had locked up the bike, but my arms took a beating and I would be picking small thorns from my clothes for hours afterwards. I returned to the road and back to the cemetery without any encounters (the docent-led group should be well to the northwest of here past mile marker 6, I figured). Not much to recommend the highpoint, but the guided hike/bike is probably pretty nice.

Buri Buri Ridge

This highpoint is located on the urban side of the interstate, immediately adjacent to the freeway across from the Cyrstal Springs Golf Course. A pair of water tanks sits atop the highpoint which takes all of about 30 seconds to reach from where I parked on Black Mtn Rd. Nothing much of interest here.

Cattle Hill/Peak 1,412ft/Sweeney Ridge

The more interesting part of the day was exploring the Sweeney Ridge area of the GGNRA by bike. There are a number of trailhead that can be used to access this area. I chose the one at the end of Sneath Lane because it was closer, started at a higher elevation and the "trail" leading up to Sweeney Ridge is paved. In a little less than 2mi the old road (now closed to motorized traffic) climbs about 600ft to Sweeney Ridge. Near this junction is the site of where Portola's Spanish overland party "discovered" the SF Bay. It was the first overland sighting of the Bay by Europeans and is commemorated by a large stone plaque. The route he took from Monterey mostly followed the coast until reaching Pilarcitos Creek. He followed this upstream, then into the San Pedro Creek drainage and then up to Sweeney Ridge. It must have been a helluva bushwhack for Portola and his Spanish colonists in tow, now sick from scurvy and undoubtedly riddled with poison oak. They were tough back in the day.

From the discovery site, I followed a series of branching trails out to Cattle Hill, a nice little overlook above Pacifica. The last part is a narrow single track trail that I don't think you're supposed to take bikes on, but I didn't find this out until perusing a map later. From the hill one can see south to San Pedro Valley, Pacifica State Beach and the new section of Highway 1 that has been tunneled through Montara Mtn to avoid the notorious Devils Slide section of road that has been trouble since it first opened almost a century ago. To the north one can see Mt. Tamalpais and the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge towers, Sutro Tower and portions of San Francisco. On clear days, one can see more than 30mi west to the Farallon Islands. This makes a great little picnic site.

Returning to Sweeney Ridge, I continued SE to one of several park boundaries. Having followed a right fork, I was brought to a boundary not with the SFWD as expected, but an old gate with a faded sign that described the other side as a Private Trail. Later I would learn that this is land owned by Park Pacifica Stables at the head of San Pedro Valley, their own private entrance to the GGNRA. I went past the sign for about a quarter mile until it started downhill. A faded firebreak/trail forked off heading steeply uphill. I locked the bike here and headed up on foot. Three minutes later I was at the boundary with the SFWD, more or less as expected. Over this fence, I was soon on the main dirt road, near the western end of Fifield-Cahill Trail I had started on in the morning. Following this road southeast, I passed by mile marker 9 and then 8, the later the site of another rest area and the Pacific Overlook area. This is the turnaround point of the bike ride that was planned for the morning. I had timed it so that they would be well on their way back before I got to this point. Uphill and about 1/3mi east of this lookout is the highpoint of the ridge, Peak 1,412ft, just off the road. Some modest bushwhacking with a surprisingly high concentration of ground-hugging poison oak is found along the way. The summit itself is lost in chest-high brush with poor views, but the hike to reach it was quite scenic, taking in Montara Mtn on one side, the Peninsula communities and the SF Bay on the other.

I returned to the GGNRA property and continued on another fork to a park boundary at the Portola Gate. I was hoping to maybe get to another summit 3mi further west along Sawyer Ridge, but the fence here was quite imposing and I didn't really have enough time to do it as a hike (not to mention if I was going to get busted for trespassing, hiking along the top of this open front ridge seemed the likely place for it to happen. Perhaps another day. I headed back to the discovery site and then another 1/2mi west to the old Nike Missle Command Center than once stood atop the open hill here. The views are some of the best on the day. The center was decommissioned in 1974 and all that remains are the concrete walls of the buildings, covered in decades-worth of grafitti. If I was a HS kid growing up in the area I'd probably have come up here to drink, too.

Pulgas Ridge

Back at the TH, I loaded the bike in the van and headed south on I280, making a last stop just north of SR92 on the northeast side of the freeway. Pulgas Ridge overlooks Belmont and San Mateo not far from the freeway, and although signed as No Trespassing it is easy to access and done frequently. The hill is surrounded with suburban homes but the highpoint is owned by the company that services a set of four water tanks, two at a lower elevation near a gate and two more at the summit. The gate keeps out vehicles, but the fence ends at the edge of the access road and it is simple to walk around. The pavement continues nearly to the summit, a use trail taking over for the last short distance to the highpoint. Walking around the summit area, I noticed at least two other use trails coming up from other directions which look to be regularly used (but almost no trash, nicely). The views to be had are mostly towards the reservoirs looking southeast to southwest, trees partly blocking views overlooking the urban areas to the north. The hike to the summit takes less than ten minutes, but I found it worthwhile - a nice little find.

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