Montara Mountain is a challenging oceanside hike on the northern edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, mixing Hawaii-like greenery with beautiful coastal views. Climbing Montara via San Pedro Valley County Park, 20 miles south of San Francisco, gives you the option to see a waterfall in the rainy season, and a great hiking experience on a well-maintained single track to Montara Mountain’s North Peak, elevation 1898 feet. Well … technically just below it as of summer 2019. More on that below.
Montara Mountain has three main trailheads: a tiny parking lot at the Martini Creek entrance, the Grey Whale Cove parking area, and San Pedro Valley County Park. If you start from the Martini Creek or Grey Whale Cove parking areas on the western side of Montara, you will see a maze of social trails from hikers taking shortcuts. California State Parks discourages hiking on these social trails because they harm the park’s plants, animals, and soil, and they simply weren’t built with the park’s environmental health and sustainability in mind. Whatever your approach, please stick to official trails when approaching Montara: the Gray Whale Cove Trail, Old Pedro Mountain Road, the North Peak Access Road, and the Montara Mountain Trail.
Begin your hike in San Pedro Valley County Park’s main parking lot, picking up the Montara Mountain Trail next to a grey building with restrooms. In 165 feet, turn right at a junction with the Brooks Creek Trail and cross a paved road, staying straight on the Montara Mountain Trail.
Zigzag up the clear single track through Douglas fir and blue gum eucalyptus. Helpful mileage signs are posted every 0.25 miles, a nice way to check your progress. The trail has a family-friendly and community vibe; you may see families out exploring with children, parents toting babies in carriers, and girlfriends having an afternoon out. At 0.75 miles, the trail emerges into the sun with a view of the radio towers atop North Peak and Middle Peak.
At 1.3 miles, reach the Brooks Creek Trail junction. You will stay straight on the sunny Montara Mountain Trail, but make a mental note. The Brooks Creek Trail leads to Brooks Falls, a 175-foot-tall waterfall with three tiers, and is actually a slightly shorter route back to the trailhead than the Montara Mountain Trail. It’s a great option for your return in the rainy season when the water is flowing.
Staying straight, climb the ridgeline between thick, dense coyote brush, manzanita, and golden chinquapin. At 1.8 miles, cross over the border of the county park and officially enter McNee Ranch, part of Montara State Beach. The trail becomes rougher past this point, with loose rocks and a rocky tread. After a series of switchbacks, an Overlook sign leads to a 180-degree vista to the north of Devil’s Slide, the Pacific Ocean, Pacifica, Mori Point, and San Pedro Valley. When ready, continue up the Montara Mountain Trail.
At 2.5 miles, make a sharp left onto the North Peak Access Road towards Montara Mountain. The wide, sandy road weaves southeast, gaining 500 feet over the next 1.2 miles. Pass a social trail to Peak Mountain on your right, continuing towards the radio towers on top of Middle Peak and North Peak.
Middle Peak, at 3.6 miles, is the best spot for a picnic break, but keep going for another 0.1 miles, reaching a barbed wire fence at North Peak, Montara’s summit. Wait, what? You can’t tag the peak? I was confused too, dear Modern Hiker reader, until I found out that in summer 2019, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, who owns the land, fenced-off the summit to the public. The official reasons are the installation of a new radio tower and weather station and because the summit was found to be a habitat for the endangered San Bruno elfin butterfly.
Speaking from personal experience, having tagged the summit on my birthday in 2018, it is a shame that the 360-degree views of the Bay Area and the accomplishment of reaching a high peak so close to San Francisco are closed to hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers who have been enjoying them for decades. As of this writing, SFPUC does not appear to be considering restoring public access; however, SFPUC Natural Resources and Lands Management Director Tim Ramirez is hopeful the vista from North Peak will be restored in some fashion, if not at the original summit.
So you can’t tag the peak, but you can be a citizen scientist. Follow the fire road past North Peak to a gate at the boundary of the Rancho Corral de Tierra, managed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Next to it is a rain gauge designed to measure rainfall on the mountain. Snap a picture of the water level and follow the instructions on how to send the data. The information helps CoCoRaHS “learn more about rainfall patterns and the natural water supply of the SF Peninsula.”
Retrace your steps back to Middle Peak, taking the spur just under 0.2 miles to a clearing. While not the same as the 360 degree views from North Peak, you still have a decent 270 degree vista. To the northeast, you can see Mount Diablo, the East Bay Hills, the San Francisco Bay, the South San Francisco sign, San Bruno Mountain, and Sutro Tower. On a clear day, the Golden Gate Bridge towers poke up above the horizon to the north, as well as the distinct outline of Mount Tamalpais. Below the mountain to the southwest are Pillar Point, the Pillar Point Harbor, and Half Moon Bay.
When ready, retrace your steps on the North Peak Access Road, rejoining the Montara Mountain Trail to San Pedro Valley Park.
The Montara Mountain trail is partly shady and well graded single-track for 2.5 miles, then joins a sunny fire road for 1.2 miles to North Peak. The summit is on private property and as of summer 2019 is closed to public. The peak area is exposed to the sun and there are no restrooms or water sources.
There is one youth camping area in San Pedro Valley County Park for up to 35 people. The camping area is a flat, dirt area with access to restrooms, picnic tables, and water. Fees are $3.00 per person per night with a $75.00 minimum. The $6.00 vehicle fee also applies. Contact the park for reservations and questions.
From Highway 1 and Linda Mar Boulevard in Pacifica, take Linda Mar Boulevard southeast. In 1.9 miles, turn right onto Oddstad Boulevard, and then in 0.1 miles, turn left into the San Pedro Valley County Park entrance. Pick up the Montara Mountain Trail next to the grey building with restrooms in the main parking lot.
With recent wildfire damage and ongoing waves of COVID-19 infections and restrictions, National Forest, National Park, and other public land closures, restrictions, or social distancing guidelines may be in-effect.
If infection rates are on the rise, please do your best to remain local for your hikes. If you do travel, please be mindful of small gateway communities and avoid as much interaction as you can. Also remember to be extra prepared with supplies so you don't have to stop somewhere outside your local community for gas, food, or anything else.
Please be sure to contact the local land management agency BEFORE you head out, as these conditions are likely to change without enough notice for us to fully stay on top of them. Thanks, and stay safe!
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