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Above Half Moon Bay, Redwoods in the Mist

November 04, 2001|JOHN McKINNEY

Perched on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the redwood forest above Half Moon Bay beckons hikers with enchanting trails and, when the curtain of fog parts, glorious views.

More than 20 miles of trails weave through the 3,100-acre Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, which boasts Douglas fir, tan oak and madrono besides redwoods.

The park's centerpiece is Purisima Creek, which tumbles with smaller streams from Skyline Ridge through the preserve year-round. Tall second-growth redwoods line the creek and an adjoining canyon. The trees, accompanied by ferns, blackberry bushes and flowering plants, are in the northernmost groves of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In the 1850s, loggers found the first-growth redwoods here too big to haul up the steep canyon walls. Instead, the logs were sliced into shingles at steam-powered mills and hauled out of the mountains by pack animals.

A half-dozen mills were constructed in Purisima Canyon, but they were expensive to run and operated only when lumber prices were high. Because of the small lumber market in Half Moon Bay and difficulties transporting the wood to customers, the last of the first-growth redwoods was not logged until the early 1900s.

Today the forest has grown back, and the old dirt roads have been turned into hiking trails. The loop I am featuring this week incorporates sections of a few trails for a 7.4-mile journey.

The preserve's main trail sticks close to the creek. The Purisima Creek Trail starts at the preserve's west entry on Higgins Purisima Road and ascends to Skyline Boulevard, though the loop I'm discussing won't go that far. Instead, you will turn onto the Soda Gulch Trail (part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail), which extends from the bottom of Purisima Canyon to the top of Harkins Ridge. On my last two visits to this preserve, I encountered mountain bikers speeding down slopes, but cyclists are forbidden on this section of trail.

Directions to trail head: From California Highway 1 on the southern outskirts of Half Moon Bay (about 11/2 miles south of California Highway 92), turn east on Higgins Purisima Road and drive 41/2 miles to the small parking lot for the Purisima preserve.

The hike: At the signed trail head, join Purisima Creek Trail, on the south side of the creek. (Don't take Harkins Ridge Trail, which follows the north side.) The first mile of trail is an easy stroll past inspiring redwoods. Then the hiking gets steeper.

At about 11/4 miles, you'll cross a bridge and pass a junction with the Grabtown Gulch Trail, which has been closed for repairs for years.

Stay on the Purisima Creek Trail and climb among towering redwoods and magnificent maples to intersect signed Soda Gulch Trail 21/2 miles from the trail head. Join this lovely path on a moderate ascent through more redwoods. Soda Gulch Trail angles west, then north, then southwest; it leaves the redwoods at the four-mile mark and enters a landscape of thick coastal scrub.

Approaching the ridge top, you'll gain superb views of the Santa Cruz Mountains unfolding toward the Pacific and Half Moon Bay. After more climbing, you'll join Harkins Ridge Trail, a fire road, at the five-mile mark. Begin a steep descent and enjoy views framed by ceanothus and madrono for another mile or so before the trail angles toward Purisima Creek and plunges through the forest back to your starting point.


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