Driving along Highway 1 just south of Pacifica in a blinding rainstorm Sunday morning seemed like a dubious idea at the time. Even in ideal weather, it’s a tricky road, navigating the coastline cliffs on the right and the mountain slopes on the left. And this was far from a sunny day.
But that’s where McNee Ranch State Park is, about four miles south of Pacifica and a mile north of Moss Beach. There’s no clear signage, no obvious park entrance, and little way to tell that you’ve just driven by a state park. The park basically entails Montara Mountain, and the sloping hills that rise up from the road are the start of a few grueling trails up to the top.
So, not letting the monsoon-like rains dissuade me, I headed to the top of the mountain with a couple of equally hardy (foolhardy?) pals. Maybe we thought the rain would let up. Maybe we thought it’d be nicer as we climbed. Maybe we weren’t thinking at all?
It’s about an elevation gain of 2,000 feet, and the total hike, round-trip from bottom to top, is approximately eight miles. Not that we lingered at the top for more than a moment. The photos are from my intrepid hiking colleagues who were willing to pull their cameras out from time to time. I’m not sure that mine will ever dry so I may be camera-shopping soon.
The views should be terrific, and despite the rain, they were actually pretty great. To the north, you can see the entire town of Pacifica, and to the south is the much smaller hamlet of Moss Beach. Also to be seen is the start of a new highway that the state is building that will cut directly through the mountain range, bringing the road inland several hundred feet from where it is now. It may not be apparent from ground level, but a whole lot of construction has occurred up in the hills. There’s lots more to be done, and from what I’ve read, CA DOT and area groups are deep into court battles over this, so who knows if the road will ever come to pass, but you can definitely see where the bypass is intended to go.
From one starting point along Highway 1, you can take a fire road-type path up to the top. It’s a popular route for mountain bikers as the tire tracks in the dirt indicated, but we encountered no bikers on the trail. In fact, we only saw three other people, who all looked about as foolish and uncomfortable as we were, except they were running, so no telling what they were thinking.
On the way up, we passed two long-abandoned cars. One is easily visible alongside the trail, the other one was clearly rolled intentionally into a ravine. Neither are much to look at, and on a nice day, the scenery of the ocean, the cliffs and the mountains is probably breathtaking, but when you’re keeping your head down to shelter your face from the pelting rain, you see what you see.
Like many state parks, the peak of Montara Mountain, which is actually the northern part of the Santa Clara mountains, has become a good place for communications towers and other electronic eyesores. Necessities in this day and age to keep us all connected around the clock no matter where we are, but not the prettiest sight to see when reaching a mountain summit.
On the way down, there’s a choice of several foot trails, a couple which lead toward Pacifica and one that heads back to another parking area along Highway 1. With all the rain Saturday and the continued onslaught on Sunday, the puddles were lakes, the mud was deep and the trail was slippery. I plan to go back to this park on a nice summer day to enjoy the views, hike with my head up and savor the climb. That wasn’t our strategy Sunday – a day where we were all soaked head to toe within five minutes of starting out.
After the hike, we headed to a tacqueria in Moss Beach for warmth and burritos.
For me, this was a serendipitious spot to stop.
Nearly 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time at a Moss Beach home that jutted out over the ocean. At the time, those were the very first nights in my life that I had ever seen a sun set over water, given that I had grown up and stayed on the East Coast. I was amazed at the horizon and how the sun dipped into it, and the dual tranquility and ferocity of the ocean. Of course, I was young, madly in love, and pretty much awed by everything about California. Didn’t think it would take me nearly two decades to get back to that town but if life were predictable, it wouldn’t be as much fun, I suppose.