It used to be considered the most treacherous drive in the entire San Francisco Bay Area—Highway 1 between Pacifica and Montara on the San Mateo County coast. Locals (I was one once) called the 2-mile stretch “Devil’s Slide.” The name was apt.
There were hairpin turns. There were steep uphills. There were sharp descents. Heck, the entire road clung to the side of mountains that dropped precipitously into the Pacific.
When I lived on the Coastside from 2002-2007, I drove this road almost every day. Now I and other locals get to enjoy it from an entirely different perspective: On foot. In 2014, after a new tunnel bypass opened to the public, the roadway closed to vehicle traffic and reopened as the new Devil’s Slide Trail. Today, the 1.3-mile tromp is one of the most stunning and challenging hikes in the entire Bay Area.
It also is one of three new-ish trails near San Francisco; the other two, in Sonoma County, opened in March 2014 and offer never-seen-before access to the east and north flanks of Sonoma Mountain, one of the most panoramic peaks in the North Bay.
All three of the trails are worth exploring before summer weather heats up.
Strolling the Slide
What makes the Devil’s Slide Trail so spectacular is knowing what it once was. The road opened in 1937, and, at the time, was considered a huge accomplishment since it connected two far-flung portions of Highway 1. (For a great history, click here.)
Viewfinder Tip: Summer in the San Francisco Bay Area can be chilly; be sure to wear layers when you head out for hikes.
Still, within a few years, the road established a reputation for being notoriously dangerous. People veered off into the ocean. When it rained, landslides blocked lanes. Back in 1995, a particularly bad landslide closed the road for five months. When I lived on the Coastside, we endured our share of landslide closures, too—during those times, we joked that the southern portion of Highway 1 became the longest cul-de-sac in the world.
When the Tom Lantos Tunnels opened in 2013, local officials turned the old road into a hiking trail. The trail itself opened in early 2014.
The trail itself is open to hikers, bikers, and equestrians—technically, that means it’s “mixed-use.” It is paved, with separate lanes for hikers and directional bike traffic. Many convenient amenities are provided, such as pet waste stations, bike racks, drinking fountains and restrooms.
There even are spacious parking lots at either end.
Of course the real reason to hike the trail is the experience. Just as the road was twisty and hilly, so, too, is the trail; whether you start from the north or the south, either out-and-back will challenge your hamstrings and lungs. There are benches and interpretive signs along the way, and I recommend stopping at every one of them to catch your breath.
Another reason to stop: the view. On clear days, the panoramic vistas of the Pacific from Devil’s Slide Trail are incredible. In the foreground, look for sea lions and whales. In the distance, look for the Farallon Islands, a group of islands that look like triangles jutting out of the blue on the horizon.
Time your hike right and you might be able to witness another local phenomenon: Carl the Fog. This is what locals call the fog that blankets the San Francisco Bay Area all summer long. On the coast, it usually burns off around 10 or 11 a.m., and returns around 4 or 5 p.m. From the right vantage point on the trail, you literally can witness the fog coming in. Hikes don’t get more San Francisco than that.
The view from the top of Sonoma Mountain
Walking Wine Country
In Sonoma County (which is near my home), about 90 minutes from San Francisco by car, two other new mixed-use trails provide never-seen-before views from the east and north flanks of Sonoma Mountain.
The first of the trails, the mostly flat East Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail, travels along the eastern slope of 2,463-foot Sonoma Mountain. From one (clear) point on the trail, the entire Bay Area spreads out before you. In the distance (again, on a clear day) you can see skyscrapers in San Francisco, Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, and Mount Diablo in the East Bay. In the foreground, you can make out boats tooling around San Pablo Bay.
The 4.25-mile North Slope Ridge Trail is noteworthy for another reason: its elevation. The trailhead for this trail is at an elevation of about 1,000 feet and hikers gain about 1,000 more over the course of the hike.
Both trails connect with the network of trails in Glen Ellen’s Jack London State Historic Park, the state park that was established from the land around a home in which Jack London wrote a number of his more famous books. The East Slope Trail starts at a junction with Coon Trap Trail inside the state park; the North Slope Trail starts at the new, 820-acre North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve (located at 5297 Sonoma Mountain Road off of Bennett Valley Road, just east of Pressley Road) and ends at Hayfields Trail on the north side of Jack London park.
For years, land used for both trails was off-limits to the general public, since the ground was owned privately. Over the last 10 years or so, those private landowners donated the land in exchange for conservation easements (legal protections of the land from development). The East Slope trail in particular is part of the 238-acre Sonoma Mountain Ranch; property was acquired by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.
The experience of hiking the trails is unforgettable; both wind across hillsides of oak trees, chapparal, meadows, and more. In some spots the trails cross creeks—these stretches have been “armored” with rocks to make the crossings stronger. If you’re lucky, you might even spot deer, snakes, or woodpeckers.
As you hike, you can look out on either the Sonoma Valley or the Valley of the Moon, peering down on vineyards and more open space. The vibe is quiet, relaxed, peaceful, almost meditative. And after tastings upon tastings, the trails are a great way to spend a day (or part of a day) in Wine Country.
What kind of outdoor adventures do you enjoy when you travel?