Thursday, November 12, 2020

Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail

Coastal bluffs along the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail
6.8 miles round trip, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee, weekend and holiday access only

The Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail is an easy, flat hike along scenic coastal bluffs south of Half Moon Bay on the Pacific coast of California's San Francisco Peninsula. This pretty hike- which is sandwiched between the coast and San Mateo County farmland the entire way- is well-graded for the most part and has not yet become overrun with visitors, making it a wonderful spot to enjoy a gentle seaside stroll without dealing with the crowds that overrun most of the beaches in nearby Half Moon Bay. The trail can be accessed by two trailheads at either end of the trail; I'll describe a round trip hike from the southern trailhead along the coast to Cowell Ranch Beach, at the northern end of the trail. The hike can be shortened to just 3.5 miles for hikers who are able to arrange cars at both trailheads. Currently, the Cowell Purisima Trail is only open on weekends and holidays, due to limited funding for the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), which helped acquire, preserve, and manage this property.

Although unpaved, the trail has a good gravel surface and is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers except for the descent into Purisima Creek's canyon, about a mile north of the southern end of the trail. Visitors wanting to stick to the gentler, accessible stretches of the trail should hike the trail from the northern end, as the best views of the hike come north of Purisima Creek. The trail was quite buggy when we visited in late summer but that might be less of an issue during colder months. POST provides a useful map of the hike.

I hiked the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail with Anna on a roasting, hot Labor Day weekend when California was engulfed in wildfire smoke and temperatures in the Bay Area were topping 105 degrees. The only respite was the coast- but knowing that everyone else would have the same idea, I knew we had to choose some place more quiet. From Half Moon Bay, follow California Highway 1 south for 5 miles and then turn right (west) into a parking lot for the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail. There is no explicit signage directly along Highway 1 but there is a large sign for the trail at the entrance of the parking area. The gate for the parking lot is only open from 8 AM to sunset on weekends and holidays, until POST is able to negotiate with San Mateo County Parks to have the area opened to the public daily. There is a vault toilet and room for about 20 cars and I found a spot without trouble on an afternoon on Labor Day weekend (the northern trailhead, which is closer to Cowell Ranch Beach, is much more crowded).

From the trailhead, the Cowell Purisima Trail- a wide gravel path- headed west through farmland towards the coast. The fields on each side were cordoned off from the trail by barbed wire fence. After 0.3 miles and a very slight downhill grade, we reached the trail running along the bluffs along the coast. The trail to the right headed north towards Cowell Ranch Beach, while the trail to the left led out to a viewpoint of the coast. We followed the trail to the left first, following it a fifth of a mile to a viewpoint at the southern end of the trail before we headed north towards Cowell Ranch Beach. The viewpoint had a bench and sweeping views towards the north of the yellow bluffs that defined the California Coast here. Montara Mountain rose to the north and the Pillar Point golf ball- a large, round Air Force tracking station north of Half Moon Bay- was visible as well. Empty beaches stretched along the base of the bluffs, beaches that are off limits to protect harbor seals that haul ashore here. Eel Rock, a popular spot for harbor seals and seabirds, lay just offshore.

View from southern viewpoint
We had company from a few other visitors near the southern viewpoint but once we returned to the junction and started our trip north along the coast on the Cowell Purisima Trail, we largely had the trail and the landscape to ourselves. The trail covered 0.7 miles between the southern junction by the coast and the descent into Purisima Creek Canyon. This stretch of trail (like the rest of the trail) was sandwiched between the coast and farmland, although brush on the coastal side of the trail largely precluded views. At a few spots, we were able to capture glimpses of Eel Rock and the coastal bluffs, although signs warning of unstable cliff edges kept us off social paths leading to presumably nicer views.

At one mile from the trailhead, the trail dropped into Purisima Creek's small canyon, the only stretch of notable elevation gain and loss on the hike. The lusher vegetation of the canyon was a welcome change from the arid surroundings in late summer. The trail crossed high over Purisima Creek on a well-built bridge and then ascended up the other side of the canyon via switchbacks. Although slightly narrower here, the trail remained smooth and the grade was gentle despite being a bit too steep to be wheelchair or stroller accessible.

Canyon of Purisima Creek
Climbing out the north side of the canyon, we returned to the wide gravel path and flat hiking along the coastal bluffs. The farmland next to us grew brussel sprouts and pumpkins; the stems of the harvested brussel sprouts had a distinctly alien look. Interpretive signage along the trail indicated that Italian immigrants to the area brought artichoke, pumpkin, and brussel sprout farming to the coastal areas of San Mateo and Santa Clara County, which are now responsible for much of America's brussel sprout production.

Brussel sprout fields north of Purisima Creek
Views along the coast also opened up along this stretch of trail: the brush on the ocean side of the trail was less overgrown and provided better views. We had occasional views of the many small islands off the coast.

Coastal views north of Purisima Creek
The trail was particularly idyllic and enjoyable here, wandering between the ocean and the farmland towards Montara Mountain in the north with almost no elevation gain. We spotted hawks flying overhead, numerous seabirds on the rocks offshore, lizards catching sun in the grass, and rabbits bounding in and out of the pumpkins fields.

Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail winding between farmland and the ocean
The trail crossed two more creek canyons en route to Cowell Ranch Beach, but each of these times rather than descending into the canyons the trail utilized impressively well-built truss arch bridges. The southerly bridge of the two had a span over 170 feet- some extremely impressive engineering for a hiking trail! While we enjoyed having the trail largely to ourselves (we saw less than 15 other hikes over 3 hours while hiking in between the southern and northern access points for the trail), it seemed a shame that such a well-maintained path for which so many resources had been dedicated wasn't visited more frequently or even open to the public on weekdays.

Truss arch bridge along the trail
The best view of the hike came about 200 meters past the first truss arch bridge. Although signs here did indicate that cliff edges were unstable, we followed a spur trail branching off to the left that led out to a protruding bluff overlooking Seal Rock, another large rock along the coast. From this point, there were gorgeous views up and down the coast: to the south, we could see the bluffs forming the stretch of coast that we had just hiked along, with the San Francisco Peninsula's coast reaching farther to the south beyond that below the hills near Pescadero and La Honda. To the north, Seal Beach lay below us and stretched to the rocky headland that rises above Cowell Ranch Beach. Beyond that we could see the Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay, the big golf ball of Pillar Point, and Montara Mountain rising above it all.

View south along the coast from near Seal Rock
This was the best view of the hike, but we chose to continue all the way to the overlook at Cowell Ranch Beach. The headland above the beach soon came into view, although the trail took a convoluted path to reach it, crossing another truss arch bridge and winding around the head of another small canyon before joining up with the wide gravel path that led out to Cowell Ranch Beach from the northern trailhead, 3.1 miles from the trailhead. Along the way, we spotted a majestic hawk perched on a fence post near the trail.

Hawk on the fence along the trail
Turning left at the junction with the Cowell Beach Ranch Trail, we quickly arrived at the top of a flight of stairs that led down to Cowell Ranch Beach. We had a view of the beach from the top of the stairs: a swath of sand at the base of yellow cliffs, washed gently by the waves of Pacific. We chose to walk out to the end of the headland rather than going down to the beach itself as there were a good number of visitors on the beach and we wanted to avoid crowds during the pandemic. If you chose to visit the beach, it will add a fifth of a mile and 100 feet of elevation gain to the hike.

Cowell Ranch Beach and Montara Mountain
This end of the hike was a bit crowded, so we didn't stick around too long, choosing to head back and enjoy the views along the trail without too many crowds. We fought off the bugs en route to the southern trailhead and enjoyed a sunset made dramatic by wildfire haze at the southern junction along the coast before we returned to our car.

Sunset from the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail
While not the most spectacular stretch of the California coast, the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail provides uncrowded access to a flat and enjoyable hike along oceanside bluffs close to Half Moon Bay and the population centers of the San Francisco Bay Area. Locals who come here will be surprised they can find wildlife and ocean views with few other hikers so close to the city.

No comments:

Post a Comment