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