The Relentless Uphill Climb was Worth the Ocean View

June 2018 Hiking


The tale

The weather forecast said San Jose would reach 95°F on Saturday, and I hesitated to plan a local hike. So when Yvonne, a friend from work, invited me to join a regional meetup near San Francisco (high 70°F), I jumped at the chance.

Pacifica, California, is a popular surfing destination just south of San Francisco and Daly City. A little further along Highway 1, you’ll find Half Moon Bay. Between the two lies Montara Mountain State Park, also called McNee Ranch.

The two of us left San Jose before 7am to make the hour-long drive. But Google Maps overestimated the time, and we arrived 15 minutes early. About 20 people were milling around the dirt-and-gravel parking area. Haze obscured the western horizon, and tall hills shielded us from the eastern sunrise. Nonetheless, I had a feeling about the weather, and unzipped my pant legs in preparation for the trail.

By 8:30am, about 40 people filled the parking lot. One of the meetup’s leaders asked us to stay together until reaching a certain photo op, and informed us that they had marked our planned route with chalk arrows at major forks. That was a great idea which spoke of the planners’ experience with group hikes.

Warm day for a climb

Twenty-nine years to the day after I left the trailhead at Philmont, we set out on the 1600-foot climb to Montara Mountain. The trail began with a narrow path hacked through dense, five-foot-tall brush that forced us to walk single-file. But after a few switchbacks, the path opened up until three or four people could stand abreast.

We all stopped for a photo at an overlook facing the ocean. After that, the group tended to spread out. This event attracted people of many skill levels, so there was no pressure to keep up or stay behind.

Lower elevations had once been paved. Higher up, the route was sand and dirt. I was sure that would be slippery on the way down. I was right. But first I had to deal with the heat.

Accuweather and Dark Sky had promised sun, breeze, and cool temperatures. We got one out of three. The air was still, and as we climbed, so did the sun. I went through my two-liter reservoir faster than expected. Though the trail was rated as “moderate,” I wasn’t alone in puffing for breath by the half-way point.

Cooler going down

After a few hours, the trail ended at the top of a tall hill (or small mountain, depending on who I talked to). To the north, the Golden Gate Bridge’s towers rose through the city’s famous fog. To the south, I the town of Half Moon Bay stretched along the coast. The western haze had burned off, revealing a pencil-straight line of blue ocean under an even bluer sky.

Yvonne gave me electrolyte tablets for my reservoir, and I borrowed a hiking pole from someone I met along the way. We were all in for a surprise. The wind picked up, granting us a pleasantly cool ocean breeze. In fact, it was kinda chilly. Cold, even. Made me appreciate my vented shirt.

Spread out as we were, the event had no formal ending. I met Yvonne in the parking lot around noon, and we agreed to seek lunch before driving home. We found something resembling Mexican food in Pacifica. By that time, the seaside town was crowded with surfers and beach-goers, and traffic going south looked miserable.

But the way back to San Jose was easy. The hike was worth the effort.


Dawn approaches a beach near the parking area.
Dawn approaches a beach near the parking area.
Wide, hot, dusty road leading up the hill.
Wide, hot, dusty road leading up the hill.
Distant view of San Francisco from the summit.
Distant view of San Francisco from the summit.
Hikers on the way down to the sea.
Hikers on the way down to the sea.
HEAT group photo.
HEAT group photo.

For next time

  • Weather forecasts for the adjacent towns do not equate to weather in the park.
  • The dirt trail is often steep and treacherous. Bring hiking poles to avoid sliding on the way down.
  • Signage is minimal. On-site maps are nonexistent.
  • Traffic between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay looks rough, especially going south on Saturday. Allow extra time after 8am.
  • Though the park reputedly sees a lot of fog, there is little shade along the way. Bring sun protection.