8 mile partial loop starts with a killer climb to the top of Montara Mountain,
but the return is all downhill.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 8 mile partial loop hike is moderately strenuous, climbing
from the trailhead to North Peak on steep trails, with about 1800 feet in
elevation change. Trailhead elevation is about 100 feet. The park's highest
(accessible) elevation is about 1840 feet. Shorter loops are available.
Almost totally exposed.
Dirt fire roads and trails.
Nice any time.
From CA 1 in San Mateo County, drive about 4 miles south of the last
Pacifica traffic signal (Linda Mar). Turn left into the small parking lot
(or park a little further south in the lot on the right side of the road).
The trailhead is not well signed, and is easier to find coming north.
A couple of Pacifica locals recommend starting hikes into McNee Ranch
from Higgins Way, a dead-end street on the north slope of the mountain.
Get there from CA 1 by turning east onto Linda Mar, right onto Adobe, and
finally, left onto Higgins Way. From here a fire road ascends 3.2 miles
into McNee Ranch, joining North Peak Access Road about 2 miles from the
summit. I haven't yet tried this, but hope to soon.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth
data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, restaurants, and stores back in Pacifica. No camping.
Parking for about 6 cars (more in two other lots; one further south a few
hundred feet, on the right, and the other, with lots of parking, about 0.5
mile north on the left, or west side of the road). No entrance or parking
fees. Maps available at the information signboard. There's a portable toilet
about 0.3 mile from the trailhead, near the picnic area. There is no direct
public transportation to the park, but SamTrans bus #294 stops in nearby
Most trails are multi-use. Two trails are designated hiking only. Dogs are
permitted, on leash only.
The Official Story:
State Beach page (of which McNee Ranch is part).
Half Moon Bay State Beach (Ranger Station for McNee Ranch) 650-726-8820.
Map choices/more info:
A variation of this hike is
described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco,
by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com.
Hiking, Bicycling, and Equestrian Trail Map of Pacifica, or
Trails of the Coastside and Northern Peninsula (map) are the best
map guides to the park (available from Pease
Afoot and Afield: San Francisco Bay Area, by David Weintraub
this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of a Montara
Tom Taber's The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book has a simple
map and park descriptions (order
this book from Amazon.com).
of Montara Mountain includes many photos of plants, and a few overhead
shots of the park.
Ted Konigsmark's Geologic Trips: San Francisco and the Bay Area
includes a section on the geology of Devil's Slide/Montara Mountain (order
this book from Amazon.com).
Peninsula Trails, by Jean Rusmore, (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and trail descriptions.
View 85 photos from the
featured hike (short version: due to fog no photos of the last mile
to the summit are available)
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Ranch State Park is a beautiful, scenic, and
surprising park. Comprised almost entirely of wide, multi-use fire roads,
McNee Ranch lacks the facilities we expect from most state parks. No visitor
center, signposts, or restrooms (although there is one portable toilet).
It's even tough to park here! Instead of these niceties you will find
steep, tough fire roads winding through a spectacular assortment of bay
area plants, leading to a nearly 1900 foot peak with wonderful views.
Accompanying the park's rugged character is unpredictable
weather. Fog and cold temperatures blow in from the ocean with little
warning. If you go, keep an eye on the fog and bring layers of clothing.
Be prepared to cut your hike short if the weather changes.
McNee Ranch is a favorite of bay area mountain
bikers. Expect to share the trails, and stay alert for bikes blasting
downhill as you climb. Equestrians are also often seen on the trails,
but usually only on weekends.
This is a park that shines in every season. Spring
brings a cavalcade of wildflowers. Connecting trails allow you to hike
into neighboring San Pedro Valley Park, where winter puts on a knockout
waterfall show. During breaks between winter storms, the views are often
clear, with none of the fog typical encountered in summer months. In summer
and autumn, McNee Ranch is one of the best bay area parks to visit if
you're in the mood for a cool climb. Ocean breezes keep things temperate,
permitting the strenuous ascent to Montara Mountain's summit, while in
the bay area's inland region temperatures push 100 degrees.
The somewhat tough climb to North Peak gets
top billing, but there's one other hike I'll recommend at McNee Ranch.
Take Gray Whale Cove Trail north from the trailhead to the incredibly
scenic rest bench facing west. This short and easy hike is a wonderful
choice when you just need a short break from the world. Bring binoculars
in the winter for whale watching.
For the featured hike, start out on the
gated (but unsigned) fire road. The wide flat gravel road (which is
used as a road, so be alert for vehicles), lined with cypress,
runs parallel to Martini Creek. At 0.21 mile, the road splits at an undersigned
junction in front of the ranger's residence. Stay to the right on North
Peak Access Road.
After a few yards, the road, open to cyclists,
equestrians, and hikers, leaves a few tall eucalyptus trees behind and
enters grassland. Coyote brush, California sagebrush, bush lupine, poison
oak, and fennel are abundant. As the steep ascent begins, the views
east to the peaks greet you. Pampas grass, an invasive non-native,
rustles if there is a breeze. A few more cypress provide occasional shade,
along with some Monterey pine. Bush monkeyflower, with its cheerful orange
flowers, can been seen almost everywhere on this hike. At 0.75 mile, the
grade slacks off a bit, and Old Pedro Mountain Road heads back downhill
on the left side of the road. There is no sign, but it's an obvious
junction. Continue straight on North Peak Access Road.
fire road curves to the right and sweeps uphill. Poison oak accompanies
California coffeeberry on the sides of the road. A unmarked path shoots
downhill as the fire road switchbacks left. The path, which is not shown
on the map, seems to be used primarily by cyclists. As you turn the corner
on the fire road, another bike cut is visible to the left. Occasionally
paved, North Peak Access Road climbs easily. Cypress and pines are left
behind as you enter drier chaparral. A crashed car can be seen uphill
on the right side of the road. At 1.32 miles, the fire road meets an unsigned
(and not on the official map) trail. Marked by "no bikes on trail,"
signposts, the path connects to Gray Whale Cove Trail. Remain on the
Views of the ocean, and north toward San Pedro
Mountain and Devil's Slide, are awesome. Traffic noise is still audible;
it will abate as you continue uphill on the steepest portion of North
Peak Access Road. You may seen hummingbirds zipping through the sky or
perched on branches of coyote brush. Sagebrush and monkeyflower line the
road, which turns to dirt
for good. An unsigned path breaks off to the north on the left side of
the trail at 1.41 miles. Continue on the fire road. A few steps
later, Old Pedro Mountain Road sets out to the left at an unsigned junction.
Continue straight on North Peak Access Road.
There's no sugarcoating the climb: it is a relentless
grade. On the way uphill, notice the rocks exposed by the roadcut. The
light tan brown-colored sparkly stuff is granite. This section of the
park is Montara Mountain Granite, while the rocks to the north are Paleocene
sediments. The two meet at (guess where?) Devil's Slide, which is why
every winter landslides occur at this contact zone. Just before the road
crosses from the south side of the ridge to the north side, take a moment
(or 5) to gaze at the peaks, and the dramatic crease of Martini Creek
dropping downhill from the ridge. The fire road levels out a bit as you
climb along the ridge. Ceanothus shrubs appear, along with California
coffeeberry, and poison oak. An unsigned path sets out on the left side
of the fire road. This overgrown and apparently
unsanctioned trail heads north and connects with Old Pedro Mountain Road.
Continue on the fire road. San Pedro Mountain is visible to the
west, and to the north if it's clear you'll catch a view of Mount Tamalpais.
On the sides of the fire road, ferns, poison oak, creambush, coyote brush,
hazelnut, thimbleberry, huckleberry, and currant flourish. The distinctive
silktassel shrub makes an occasional appearance. The grade picks up again
and manzanitas, yerba santa, and chinquapin usher you along. At 2.53 miles,
Montara Mountain Trail begins at a (finally!) signed junction on
the left side of the road. The trail heads downhill into San
Pedro Valley Park, but there is no corresponding uphill trail
to create a loop. If you happen to be hiking in late winter, a side visit
to view Brooks Falls is recommended. Continue to ascend on North Peak
Rock formations loom off the sides of
the fire road. On two consecutive August hikes in 2000 and 2001, paintbrush,
one the last lingering "spring" wildflowers along the coast,
bloomed in the chaparral. The fire road continues to wind uphill
toward the peaks. Mount Diablo, Sweeney Ridge, and San Francisco Bay may
be visible to the east. On my first hike here, at about 1500 feet, right
at the border with San Pedro Valley County Park, I turned around and headed
back. The fog was quickly blowing east and I didn't fancy a descent through
it. (Okay, to be honest I forgot my jacket. But by the time I descended
to the picnic area, fog obscured everything above 300 feet. You probably
won't get lost in the fog, but it'll be cold and you won't see much.)
On my second visit, I was prepared for the fog; good thing, because the
cold wind thickened as I continued to ascend. The grade is moderate, with
a few short steep bits, but nothing as harsh as the previous hills. Vegetation
clings to the ground, hunkered down but still surviving on the wind-whipped
exposed mountain slopes. Bare patches of granite are visible. There's
another wrecked car just off the trail on the right. At 3.54 miles, the
fire road heads right, while another access road veers left. Continue
to the right. As the fire roads draws near the park boundary,
you might notice telephone poles and a few small buildings. When the weather
permits lingering and clear views, some clear spots along the trail make
nice lunch destinations. Of course, when it's foggy, as it was on my last
hike, all views are obstructed. At 3.71 miles, the fire road ends at a
locked gate to the peninsula watershed. Retrace your steps back to
the junction with Old Pedro Mountain Road at 6.68 miles (the branch
you passed way back at 0.75 mile, not the one near the ranger residence
that heads north toward San Pedro Mountain). Turn right onto Old Pedro
Pampas grass chokes the sides of the paved
multi-use trail, and watch out for poison oak, which grows with utter
abandon throughout. Landslides have eroded the trail in sections, which
winds downhill almost imperceptibly. Yet another old crashed car can be
seen uphill to the right. Cypress trees line the trail in stretches. You
may see deer in the valley to the left. At 7.67 miles, Old San Pedro Mountain
Road continues downhill to the left, while a connector
to Gray Whale Cove Trail heads uphill to the right. This junction is unsigned.
(You can continue on Old Pedro Mountain Road if you want to use the primitive
picnic area or portable toilet. Remain on the trail to the previously
encountered junction with North Peak Access Road, then turn right to return
to the trailhead.) Turn right and hike uphill, and at 7.74 miles,
turn left onto Gray Whale Cove Trail. Closed to bicycles, Gray
Whale Cove Trail hugs the bluff as it descends to the south, offering
sweeping views of the ocean. Fences protect against shortcuts as the path
curves downhill. Gray Whale Cove Trail reaches level ground, then turns
west and runs within a few feet of the access road. At 8.04 miles, the
trail ends at the trailhead.
Total distance: 8.04 miles
Last hiked: Monday, August 20,