Golden Gate National Recreation Area – Milagra Ridge and Sweeney Ridge

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I had previously hiked a short stretch of the Bay Area Ridge Trail on Sweeney Ridge as part of a guided hike through San Francisco PUC watershed land atop Fifield and Cahill Ridges. I was looking forward to returning to Sweeney Ridge for a more extensive hike along the Bay Area Ridge Trail and a reprise of the wonderful views. This Ridge Trail segment hike started at the Milagra Ridge portion of Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), passed through the campus of Skyline College, and continued via the Notch Trail into the Sweeney Ridge portion of GGNRA until reaching the Portola Gate entrance to San Francisco PUC watershed land. The weather can be quite variable, and on the day of this hike there was patchy marine fog throughout the hike, adding a touch of mystery to the beauty.

As usual this was an out-and-back hike, starting at the north end of the GPS track and traveling roughly southeast along the peninsula.

GPS track

GPS track

The total length was 9 miles, with nearly 1500 feet of climbing. The Notch Trail is easy to identify on the elevation profile, at about mile 2 and again around mile 7. Sweeney Ridge is pretty much the region above 1000 feet elevation.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The north end of the Ridge Trail segment begins at the edge of the Milagra Ridge parcel of GGNRA. The first mile or so goes along city streets and through the campus of Skyline College. At the south side of the campus there is a very small parking area where the trail continues uphill past a yellow gate. There is a sign indicating the beginning of the Notch Trail at an elevation of about 700 feet. Particularly at the beginning of the hike there was quite a bit of mist, even though I didn’t start hiking until shortly after noon. I hoped it would clear up for at least a couple of hours before closing in again later in the afternoon.

True to its name, the Notch Trail drops down to cross a small canyon and then climbs up the other side.   Steps have been constructed to make it easier to negotiate the canyon slope. The steps and the mist combined to create an interesting vision of the notch in the terrain.

photo of Notch Trail on a misty day

Notch Trail on a misty day

In this area of the trail there were many patches of yellow sticky monkeyflower intermixed with poison oak. About 2.3 miles from the trailhead and after 1 mile on the Notch Trail, there is a junction with Sweeney Ridge Rd and Mori Ridge Rd. The Bay Area Ridge Trail segment continues on Sweeney Ridge Rd. At 1000 feet elevation, the San Francisco Bay is below, but it was still hazy on the outbound part of the hike. After another 0.4 miles there is a former Nike Missile control site, now covered with elaborate graffiti both on the outside and the inside. In this picture, taken on my return hike, the view is somewhat to the north and Mt Tamalpais floats above the fog nearly 25 miles away.

image of former Nike Missile control site

Former Nike Missile control site

Along Sweeney Ridge there were some wildflowers, including some beautiful thistles; it is too bad that these plants are considered to be invasive weeds in so many areas. This one is being pollinated by a visiting bee.

picture of thistle with a visiting bee

Thistle with a visiting bee

About 3.1 miles from the trailhead there were interesting views both toward the Pacific Ocean and toward San Francisco Bay. To the ocean side, remnants of the considerable marine fog layer extended inland in the small canyons.

photo of fog to the ocean side of Sweeney Ridge

Fog to the ocean side of Sweeney Ridge

Toward the Bay, there was a pretty view of San Andreas Lake, one of a series of reservoirs along the peninsula belonging to the San Francisco water company. The Bay is visible behind and below the lake.

image of San Andreas Lake

San Andreas Lake

About 3.3 miles from the trailhead and 1 mile along Sweeney Ridge Rd an access trail comes in from the Sneath Lane trailhead, which is the north end of the guided hikes along Fifield and Cahill Ridges. Just south of this junction is the San Francisco Bay Discovery Site, which commemorates the discovery of the Bay by Juan Gaspar de Portola in November, 1769. From this area there is a great view of Mt Diablo across San Francisco Bay about 35 miles away.

picture of Mt Diablo across San Francisco Bay

Mt Diablo across San Francisco Bay

A little farther along the trail, looking ahead (southeast) there is a nice view of the trail as it winds across the rolling hills. The ridge in the right background is the eastern portion of Montara Mountain, a notable landmark that was mostly fogged in the day of my hike.

photo of Sweeney Ridge Road winding across the hills

Sweeney Ridge Road winding across the hills

After hiking about 1.2 miles on Sweeney Ridge Rd the trail comes to the locked Portola Gate of the San Francisco PUC watershed land, and there I turned around. Immediately upon turning around there was a wonderful view of Mt Tamalpais peeking up through the fog layer.

image of Mt Tamalpais above the fog

Mt Tamalpais above the fog

Perhaps ½ mile later there was a nice view partly backward toward Pacifica, with the fog layer just above the CA-1 highway heading toward the new tunnel near Devil’s Slide.

picture of fog layer over CA-1 near Devil’s Slide

Fog layer over CA-1 near Devil’s Slide

Along this section of Sweeney Ridge Rd there are a couple of side trails that go out toward the ocean. I would like to return another time to explore them. One is called Farallons View Trail and should certainly be experienced in clear weather!

On my return hike, approaching the Nike Missile Control Site the views of Mt Diablo and the San Francisco Airport returned. I paused for a few minutes and was able to catch a shot of an airplane during its takeoff climb as it passed directly in front of Mt Diablo.

photo of airplane passing in front of Mt Diablo

Airplane passing in front of Mt Diablo

Later, on the Notch Trail, I noticed some pretty Indian paintbrush next to the trail.

image of Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush

After traversing the notch I returned through the Skyline College campus and via city streets to the north trailhead at Milagra Ridge. Although this particular day was partly foggy, the fog made some of the views pretty. It can be interesting to return to the same trail area under different weather/viewing conditions.

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