Purisima Creek Redwood Open Space Preserve is well-loved for its shady, second-growth coast redwoods, trickling creeks, and broad, forested canyons. Just a few miles inland from Half Moon Bay, on the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the preserve is a reliable respite from hot summer temperatures. This moderately steep hike connects five trails, circling the preserve’s conifers, ridgelines, gulches, and streams.
Begin at the wide gate next to the parking area, hiking east towards the Whittemore Gulch Trail. There are generally two approaches to hiking Purisima—top-down from Skyline Boulevard near Woodside or bottom-up from Higgins Canyon Road in Half Moon Bay. Skyline Boulevard is a shorter drive for many Bay Area hikers, and there is more parking available. Higgins Canyon Road puts you right at the pretty, shady creeks at the start, but has limited parking. This description follows a bottom-up, clockwise approach from Higgins Canyon Road, attacking the steepest climbing on Whittemore Gulch and North Ridge Trails first and then gradually descending on the Harkins Ridge, Craig Britton, and Purisima Creek Trails.
Hiking east, reach the restrooms in 300 feet. To your left are signboards with free maps and preserve information. Pick up a map and turn left, crossing Purisima Creek on a wooden bridge.
Make another quick left onto the Whittmore Gulch Trail, ascending 1100 feet northeast over the next 2.4 miles. Almost immediately, you are enveloped in a hushed coast redwood forest with bigleaf maple, sword fern, redwood sorrel, and trillium. These second growth redwoods are roughly 100 years old. Huge stumps are all that remains of the original redwoods, logged in the 1800s and early 1900s for building materials in Half Moon Bay and San Francisco. Peering down Whittemore Gulch on your left, look carefully for “family circles,” a phenomenon unique to coast redwoods where sprouts grow in a circle around the base of a “papa” coast redwood tree. If papa tree gets stressed, it can stimulate the growth of its descendants. They are called family circles because they are all related to each other.
At 1.8 miles, switchback out of Whittemore Gulch onto North Ridge, with views of loping, tree-covered valleys to the west. Zip through two signed junctions in quick succession: a left to stay on the Whittemore Gulch Trail, and then a right onto the North Ridge Trail towards the North Ridge parking lot. At this second junction, you can see a trail dipping down west towards a knoll–this is the western end of the North Ridge Trail, an optional side trip that adds an extra 2.0 miles round-trip.
Heading northeast on the North Ridge Trail, climb steeply on the wide dirt road towards the North Ridge parking lot, gaining 350 feet over the next 0.8 miles. Looking west, you have a beautiful leading line of the North Ridge Trail dividing the ridge between Arroyo León (Spanish for “Lion Stream”) to the north and Whittemore Gulch to the south. Now hiking into a partially sunny Douglas fir forest, the trail flattens near the North Ridge parking lot junction, the high point of your hike at 1750 feet.
At 3.3 miles, turn right onto the Harkins Ridge Trail, heading south towards the Craig Britton Trail. Climb a gentle 100 feet, rounding the head of Whittemore Gulch. Aromatic California bay wafts into the air as you brush past thimbleberry, blackberry, and horsetail fern.
At 4.3 miles, turn left onto the Craig Britton Trail, hiking south towards the Purisima Creek Trail. Originally the Soda Gulch Trail, it was renamed in 2009 to honor Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District manager Craig Britton. This hiker-only trail descends a sunny stretch of shrubby orange bush monkey flower, coffeeberry, coyote brush, and poison oak. Out of all the trails on this hike, this may be the one where you will need to pull out your sunglasses and hat.
At just over the half-way point is a modest log bench, a nice spot to pull out your snack and take a rest. Descending into the familiar coast redwood forest, cross multiple wooden bridges over tributaries of Purisima Creek. Your next rest opportunity is at 7.0 miles, at a stone bench commemorating Craig Britton.
500 feet past the bench, turn right onto the Purisima Creek Trail, descending northwest beside Purisima Creek for 2.4 miles. The gentle, sun-dappled descent traces an old logging road beside an understory of maidenhair fern, sword fern, foamflower, and sorrel. At the trail’s end, arrive back at the restrooms, finishing your loop at the parking area straight ahead.
Trails are well-signed, clear, and easy to follow. The hike is mostly shady, with some extended sunny stretches on the Craig Britton Trail. Trails can be muddy in winter and spring after heavy rains. The preserve is a favorite of mountain bikers; keep a sharp eye and ear out for them—they can come around a corner quickly.
From downtown Half Moon Bay, drive south on Highway 1 to Higgins Canyon Road. Turn left and drive 4.5 miles east to the Purisima Creek Trailhead and small parking area on your left. The road is paved to the trailhead, but narrows in the last mile to the trailhead—please drive carefully. There is room for about 6 cars at the trailhead. Once it fills up, folks squeeze onto the shoulder on the northern side of the road. Please park respectfully of the surrounding neighborhood.
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