This was a return trip to the beautiful – and photogenic – Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. I had hiked a portion of this Ridge Trail segment a few months earlier, and was looking forward to a follow-up visit to revisit some of the trails and complete the segment. As noted in my previous post, I had decided that I would plan for two hikes in order to explore all of the designated trail sections: one route that is accessible to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians, and a partial alternative route that is accessible only to hikers. By making each hike a balloon, or semi-loop, configuration I would hike each section once in each direction – which corresponds to my normal hiking mode of out-and-back hikes.
This time I started at the northern trailhead, which is located at the main entrance to Purisima Creek Redwoods OSP on Skyline Blvd. Just after the trailhead a hiking-only trail splits from the full multi-use (hiking, biking, and equestrian) trail, and I decided to take the hiking-only trail, which has several very sharp switchbacks as it snakes down a steep hillside. I suspect that the switchbacks are what make the single-track trail off-limits for mountain bikes and horses. The trails rejoin after ½ mile, where the Ridge Trail route follows the Harkins Ridge Trail and the North Ridge Trail splits off. About a mile further, the Craig Britton trail (hiking only) splits off and traverses Soda Gulch and No-Name Gulch to connect with the Purisima Creek Trail. I continued down the Harkins Ridge Trail to the Higgins-Purisima Road parking area, up the Purisima Creek Trail, and across the Craig Britton Trail to complete, in a counter-clockwise direction, the same loop I hiked clockwise on my earlier hike. Then I returned up the Harkins Ridge Trail, including the upper hiking-only trail section, to the trailhead.
The first 3.7 miles down to the lower parking area is almost all downhill, with a 1500-foot elevation loss. The return route regains the same elevation, with a bit of roll along the Craig Britton Trail.
I had been looking forward to experiencing several view locations where, if the weather was clear, the Pacific Ocean would be in view. Most of these view locations are along the Harkins Ridge Trail. The first was barely 0.4 mile from the trailhead, on the upper hiking-only section. The view was slightly north of due west, and included Pillar Point Air Force Station. The coastal fog bank was several miles off-shore.
The trail was mostly in the forest, and there were many reminders of the generally cool, moist climate, including ferns along the trailside and hillsides, as well as trees draped with lichens.
Breaks in the forest provided wonderful views of Montara Mountain, here with Whittemore Gulch Trail zig-zagging up the north side of Whittemore Gulch in the foreground.
About 1.5 miles from the trailhead is the junction with Craig Britton Trail, where I would return almost 3 hours later after completing the loop down to the lower parking area. The lower section of the Harkins Ridge Trail is more open and can be warm on sunny days. There are great views both down and up the canyon. This view looks back up the canyon from a spot about 2.6 miles from the trailhead, near the big switchback next to the 850 foot elevation mark on the GPS track. The hills at the sides of the canyon are almost like interlocking fingers, with the fingertips touching the creek bed.
A short distance later I encountered a tractor parked at the side of the trail. It was interesting to note that John Deere tractors are not just used on farmland, but on recreational trails as well.
The last ½ mile or so of the Harkins Ridge Trail descends into a heavily forested area and goes along the north side of Purisima Creek. Here, in the shade and moisture, there were abundant, lush ferns. This one happened to be enjoying some mid-day sun.
While some of the upper sections, perhaps tributary creeks, were dry, the main Purisima Creek was free-flowing and burbling.
At the Higgins-Purisima Road parking area the Ridge Trail route follows the Purisima Creek Trail up the south side of Purisima Creek. Along the lower portion of the trail you can look across the creek and see the Harkins Ridge Trail barely 100 feet away on the other side of the narrow canyon. The Purisima Creek Trail climbs more gently than the Harkins Ridge Trail, as is evident in the elevation profile. The hillside along the canyon wall is steep, and several places show evidence of soil erosion. I noticed one particularly dramatic example on the far side of Grabtown Gulch, which is most likely between two of the interlocking “fingers” noted above. In this view a landslide is clearly visible. The trees on nearly firm ground above the landslide are standing upright, while the trees that had once been just below on the hillside are now upside down.
Along the Purisima Creek Trail there are, in addition to redwoods and Douglas firs, quite a few big-leaf maples. There were sections of trail with a fairly thick covering of leaves. Walking through them evoked pleasant childhood memories of East Coast Fall-season walks in the woods.
About 2.4 miles up the Purisima Creek Trail is the junction with the southeast end of the Craig Britton Trail, a hiking-only trail that connects the Purisima Creek and Harkins Ridge Trails between about 1050 and 1500 feet elevation. The Craig Britton Trail is a single-track trail. Near the Purisima Creek Trail junction there is a bench with a commemorative plaque honoring Craig Britton with the following quotation: “They aren’t making any more land, so preserve it while you can!” Not far away, a fairly large upside-down tree crosses the trail. It’s firmly in place, but the trail passageway only has about 6 feet of vertical clearance at the high side.
The Craig Britton Trail passes through a heavily forested area. In the deeper shade, some of the trees looked rather ghostly. I think this fine specimen is a tanoak.
The previous photo shows a hint of how steep the hillside is, as the trail winds around more of the interlocking fingers separated by steep gulches. Nearly midway along the Craig Britton Trail, just before the trail begins to climb, there is an area where the steepness of the hillside and the location of the trail create an interesting perspective on the trees, which are quite tall. If you look down, as in the left picture here, you can see the bases of the tree trunks at the bottom of the gulch. If you look up, as in the right picture, you see the treetops. If you look straight out, you are looking at the mid-level of the trees: an unusual perspective! These trees have to be at least 200 feet tall, perhaps much taller (it’s hard to estimate the heights).
As I proceeded along the Craig Britton Trail, intermittent glimpses of the nearby ridge tops to the southeast alerted me that some fog was beginning to form and roll inland. Actually, it was what I refer to as high fog or, perhaps more appropriately, low clouds. I wondered how this would change the ocean views. At about 8.8 miles into my hike I completed the loop and turned right (uphill) on Harkins Ridge Trail. And what a difference had taken place in the ocean views! Here is a picture, taken about 5 minutes after I turned onto the Harkins Ridge Trail and about 1.3 miles from the trailhead. It again shows Pillar Point Air Force Station, but now under a dark grey cloud layer with marine fog in the background.
The rapidity with which the cloud/fog layer formed and arrived in the canyons and gulches was a vivid reminder that this is precisely why the redwoods (and other prevalent trees and plants) thrive in this microclimate.
Since it was Fall I had not expected to see wildflowers, but I was pleased to find a few yellow sticky monkey flowers, as well is this delicate pink-purple beauty.
This was a very enjoyable return visit to a beautiful Open Space Preserve. No wonder this was one of the first two segments to be dedicated as Bay Area Ridge Trail!