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Sea lions enjoying a relatively quiet cove in Fitzgerald Marine Preserve
POINT MONTARA, Calif. — An early November trip to see our son in San Francisco provided a chance to check out this rugged California coastline 20 miles south of the city.
After three days of Bay-area bustle, we were ready to chill out with old friends for a long weekend in a charming house we’d rented overlooking the Pacific.
This stretch so near to the international airport was new to me. The Santa Cruz Mountains form the bony spine of the San Francisco peninsula, which separates the southern Bay area from the Pacific Ocean. Two major north/south arteries parallel the low range’s eastern slopes, linking the glittering necklace of all the Silicon Valley communities between San Francisco and San Jose.
But on the western slope of the mountains, the Cabrillo Highway (California 1) is the only option. It’s a largely two-lane black-top ribbon that snakes along the coastline connecting a loose string of towns, villages and unincorporated communities.
Most of the mountain acreage sandwiched between those extremes is a vast assemblage of surprising wilderness areas, state and county parks, game land and preserves. There are few roads and few people.
The early habitation of this area, which is prone to dense fog, centered around fishing villages like Half Moon Bay. Yet even as late as 1875, when the first fog signal station was built on the windswept Point Montara promontory after a series of shipwrecks, there wasn’t much around.
The ocean link was the only way to travel among the string of small Portuguese-settled fishing villages and farm towns along the coast. Sitting right on the San Andreas fault, the area’s sifting sands, mudslides and raging storms made road construction and maintenance difficult and costly, so the coastline remained rustic and wild, despite its proximity to San Francisco.
In the early 1900s, the Ocean Shore Railway was started to connect San Francisco and Santa Cruz along the coastline, but earthquake activity presented cost and construction problems that proved intractable. The railroad was never finished, and much of California 1 has been built on its right-of-way.
The rail project did introduce land development and tourism to the area, giving rise to beach settlements such as Moss Beach and El Granada. In fact, the railroad commissioned Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect who designed New York City’s Flatiron building and Pittsburgh’s Penn Station, to create El Granada as a seaside resort for visitors.
After World War II, the first surge of surfing interest began bringing people from around the world to ride the noted pipe-barrel waves that well up along the coastal shelf. Although many of those early visitors stayed in VW campers, towns like Half Moon Bay have grown nicely in recent decades, catering to vacation homeowners and weekend visitors.
I’d known none of this prior to my visit, virtually all of which was spent in persistent fog, ranging from lightly opalescent to dense and encompassing. Even though the broad Pacific panoramas and dark, starry nights were left much to our imagination, we were in no way deterred from exploring.
Here are brief glimpses of what we discovered.
Montara State Park: The wide beach, a mile-long rectangle of sand situated between sandstone bluffs and the 40-foot sand cliff that flank it, offers plenty of room for sun basking and volleyball. The roiling, rip-tidy, very un-Pacific waters provide nonstop challenges for wet-suited surfers and kite-boarders. Further offshore, gray whales migrate from November through April, while resident seafarers, dolphins, seals and sea lions frequent nearby coves year-round.
But there’s much more to this park than beautiful beach. The Montara Mountain section of the park is an enormous preserve. We explored some of the lower trails, but I’m told the eight-mile round-trip hike up from the beach through its McNee Ranch to the 1,901-foot north peak makes for a challenging afternoon. The reward at the top is a full 360-degree panorama of the ocean and the entire San Francisco Bay area. Mostly following old roads and cartways, the excursion involves steep grades and nonstop stunning vistas, especially on the walk back down.
Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel: Established in 1875 as a fog signal station, the 30 foot high lighthouse remains an operating aid-to-navigation station maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Installed in 1928, the current structure was built in Wellfleet, Mass., and subsequently moved west, making it America’s only lighthouse to have stood watch over both coasts and traveled through the Panama Canal.
In operation since 1980, the Point Montara Hostel offers both shared and private rooms in former Coast Guard quarters and the historic fog signal building. It’s on a secluded beach cove with tide pools and landscaped native plant gardens and offers a cozy lounge, free Wi-Fi, laundry, espresso bar and inexpensive accommodations. No wonder it’s cited as one of the world’s best hostels.
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve: This undeveloped three-mile stretch of Pacific coastline, beaches, tide pools, marshes, sandstone bluffs, and cypress/eucalyptus draped slopes extends south from Montara to Moss Beach. During Prohibition, the area was a transit spot for rum runners, and the Moss Beach Distillery has been providing travelers with libations ever since. Newly renovated, the Seal Cove Inn, a 10-room guesthouse once operated by travel-guide writer Karen Brown, still offers charming accommodations.
Pillar Point: Well known for the notorious Mavericks surfing area about two miles offshore. The Mavericks is internationally famous for the surfing competition held each winter when conditions drive deep Pacific swells over the coastal shelf a mile offshore, focusing them into pipe barrel waves up to 60 feet high.
The call has gone out this year, so anytime between now and March 31, 24 of the world’s best big wave riders will assemble almost instantly for a Titans of Mavericks competition. Thousands of spectators will come to watch them defy death.
The long beach situated around the far side of the bluff here attracts saner surfers year-round who come to enjoy the long rollers. Hiking on the cliff bluffs above the beach, dotted with wooden crosses remembering surfers who didn’t make it, offers perspectives both scenic and sober.
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