This was a return visit to the Fifield Cahill Ridge Trail segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which passes through watershed lands of the San Francisco Public Utility District . All public visits in the watershed are led by docents and require advance signup on the web site. My first visit was a standard through hike, which goes from north to south. For my return visit it was a special treat to hike the trail in reverse, from south to north, as noted by the directional arrows on my GPS track.
Because the south end of the hike is at lower elevation than the north end, hiking northbound means that there is a little more elevation gain than hiking southbound. The elevation difference between trailheads is about 200 feet.
The hike includes 3 sections. The first section begins at Quarry Gate, climbs along Quarry Road to Cahill Ridge, and passes along the ridge to Five Points. The quarry hasn’t been active in some time, but our docent mentioned that it was used for location footage for a James Bond movie. The forest includes quite a few introduced Monterey cypress trees, like this one.
There are mile marker posts along the way, which help with keeping track of the distance. Shortly after mile marker 1 there is a break in the forest with a great view of Crystal Springs Reservoir, one of the three primary reservoirs on the watershed property. I-280 winds through the foothills, with the major junction with CA-92 in the center of the photo.
Cemetery Gate is at approximately mile 1.7. Currently this gate is the access point for wheelchair hikes, which proceed roughly 1.4 miles north along Cahill Ridge, where the grade is relatively flat. External access to this gate is through Skylawn Cemetery, hence the name of the gate. Soon there will be a new segment of Ridge Trail from CA-92 through the cemetery and the edge of the watershed property leading to Cemetery Gate.
Cahill Ridge Road goes along Cahill Ridge, mostly in forest areas with occasional sunny areas. In one of the sunny areas there was a beautiful carpet of forget-me-nots. It seemed especially exciting since it was my first wildflower carpet sighting of the season.
A bit farther along we found a banana slug right in the middle of the trail. It was longer and skinnier than many, and seemed a darker color. It also seemed to have a little cluster of pine needles attached to its tail end – at least, the needles seemed to move with the slug.
In the forest along Cahill Ridge there were numerous candelabra-like trees, which I believe are bay trees. This one has at least six trunks; I’ve seen bay trees with up to a dozen, and the shapes fascinate me.
Five Points is a distinctive junction at about mile 5.6, at the dip on the elevation profile. Five different fire roads come together here, and the hike route transitions from Cahill Ridge Rd to Fifield Ridge Rd, the second section of the hike. The trail climbs for the next 2 miles, gaining about 550 feet of elevation. Near Five Points there is a glimpse of Pilarcitos Reservoir through the trees, but there is a better view perhaps ¼ mile farther. Pilarcitos is the second of the three primary reservoirs on the watershed property.
The trail emerges from the forested area into open chaparral along Fifield Ridge. Here we found a field of goldfields and poppies basking in the sunshine.
I thought it was interesting that there were quite a few ferns along this section of the trail. Normally I think of ferns as thriving in moist, shady habitat. The only “shade” in this area would be fog!
Just before mile marker 7 we had our first view of San Francisco Bay, including the San Francisco Airport. On a clearer (less hazy) day, Mt Diablo would be visible in the East Bay.
Behind us, Montara Mountain began to dominate the skyline to the southwest and remained in view until nearly the end of the hike.
Along the sunny ridge top I began to notice new-season poison oak, with its characteristic shiny leaves-of-three. There were also quite a few Douglas irises; here is one pretty example.
It turns out that there are two picnic tables along the trail. One is near mile 5.75, with the view of Pilarcitos Reservoir already mentioned, and the other is just before mile 8. We stopped for lunch at the second picnic table.
The trail descends about 400 feet from the highest point, then climbs back up 200 feet before leaving the watershed. Here is a good view of the trail during the last part of the descent, showing the upcoming ascent. It seems that the trail went down just in order to go back up again.
Just after the 10-mile marker is Portola Gate, where the trail leaves the SFPUD watershed and enters the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on Sweeney Ridge Trail, the third section of the hike. I happened to notice that the Douglas irises were even more prevalent along Sweeney Ridge than they had been earlier in the hike.
A little more than 1 mile along the Sweeney Ridge Trail is the junction with the access trail from Sneath Lane, where the hike would end. Near the junction is the San Francisco Discovery Site, where San Francisco Bay was actually discovered – not by sea, but by land. Apparently the Golden Gate was socked in by fog when the Portola Expedition’s exploration ships came by! A nearby monument depicts major landmarks that can be seen on exceptionally clear days. The day of the hike was beautiful, but was not clear enough to see more than half of the landmarks. Sweeney Ridge is a great place to, on a clear day, see the Pacific Ocean on one side and San Francisco Bay on the other.
At the junction with the access trail there are great views of the Pacific Ocean across Pacifica, including the new Devil’s Slide bypass highway and San Pedro Rock.
Coming down the Sneath Lane access trail there are nice views of San Andreas Lake, the third major reservoir on the watershed property. One thing I like about this view is that it’s evident that the lake is higher than the Bay. I think it’s a neat perspective.
I have noted on other occasions that an interesting characteristic of out-and-back hikes is getting to see the views in both directions without needing to look behind you. In this case, I did two one-way hikes on different days – actually, about 13 months apart. I found that it was interesting to experience this trail with somewhat different weather conditions. Especially within view of the coast, the weather can be quite different on different days. This is an especially nice hike under a wide range of conditions.