Golden Gate National Recreation Area: Sweeney Ridge

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The Sweeney Ridge Trail in Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) is one of my favorite local trails with – in clear weather – spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean from the top of Sweeney Ridge. I’ve hiked part of this route before, both as part of guided hikes (both northbound and southbound) through the San Francisco Peninsula Watershed and as a segment hike on the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Today I was planning to explore a couple of side trails, including one intriguingly labeled Farallon View Trail, and I was rewarded with exceptional views on the ocean side of the ridge.

The GPS track shows my route, with the trailhead at the top of Sneath Lane in San Bruno denoted by an orange dot. The first part of my hike was basically an up-and-over route: the Sneath Lane Trail climbs up to Sweeney Ridge, and the Baquiano Trail departs down the west side of the ridge just a short distance away. After the 1.6-mile hike down to an overlook I returned to Sweeney Ridge and hiked south to the Portola Gate of the Watershed property. Along the way I took the Sweeney Horse Trail and Sweeney Meadow Trail to make a small loop. After reaching Portola Gate I returned along the ridge and down the Sneath Lane Trail to the trailhead.

GPS track

GPS track

The total distance was 9.5 miles and the total elevation gain was just under 1700 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

The weather was excellent: not quite what I call a Farallon day, in which the Farallon Islands can be definitively seen, but certainly clearer than most days. The marine haze was just a little too dense for the Farallons to be clearly visible, but see more about this below.

On the way up Sneath Lane Trail, views of the San Francisco Bay literally open up before your eyes as the trail winds around the hillside. I particularly noted that there were several cargo ships in the Bay, with the East Bay Hills skyline, including distinctive Round Top, behind.

image of cargo ships on San Francisco Bay

Cargo ships on San Francisco Bay

Ahead and to the southeast, the San Andreas Lake is in a narrow valley precisely along the San Andreas Fault.

photo of San Andreas Lake

San Andreas Lake

Almost immediately at the top of Sneath Lane Trail is the Discovery Site, where the Portola expedition discovered (from the point of view of the European explorers) San Francisco Bay in November, 1769. Actually, the precise location of the discovery is not known, so the location of the monument is somewhat arbitrary. Adjacent to the Discovery Site monument there is a beautiful marble column indicating several notable landmarks that are visible either from the site or from nearby locations on the ridge. For example, the landmark indicated in the center of this picture is Mt Diablo, which rises above the East Bay Hills across the Bay.

picture of Discovery Site landmark guide

Discovery Site landmark guide

Sweeney Ridge also overlooks San Francisco Airport, and several planes took off and turned west toward Pacific or Asian destinations while I was on the ridge.

About 0.1 mile from the Sneath Lane Trail – Sweeney Ridge Trail junction the Baquiano Trail descends the west side of the ridge toward Pacifica. All along the trail there are wonderful views of Montara Mountain, which has several designated peaks (North Peak, South Peak, Montara Knob, etc). Today wispy mist partly surrounded Montara.

image of Montara Mountain with wispy mist

Montara Mountain with wispy mist

As I descended the trail there were a few low spots with puddles and a bit of mud. I was mindful of a brief conversation I’d had with a man at the ridgetop junction: he was excited to share with someone that he’d just seen a mountain lion, I thought on the west side of the ridge on watershed property and a ways away from the trail. In any case, I noticed several fairly sizeable paw prints in the mud next to a couple of the puddles, and wondered if there had been wildlife visitors to the puddles for a drink. I decided to continue hiking, but paying special attention to my surroundings. (I didn’t see any wildlife.)

About 1 mile down Baquiano Trail there is a gate across the trail, with a small pedestrian path around the gate. (The trail itself is like a fire road, so the gate is usually closed.) This gate may denote the GGNRA boundary. From the area around the gate – and from many other places along the trail – there was a great view up the coast and into Marin County, including Mt Tamalpais, across the Golden Gate. I think the point at the left in this picture is Bolinas Point rather than more distant Point Reyes, but there was just enough haze that I couldn’t determine how many “rows” of land I could see.

photo of Mt Tamalpais and the Marin Coast from Baquiano Trail

Mt Tamalpais and the Marin Coast from Baquiano Trail

About 0.1 mile farther the trail forks, and I took the right fork, which is denoted the Cattle Hill Trail on some maps. I think it’s also the Farallones View Trail, though there isn’t signage about that designation. Along this trail I came upon a teasel plant, with three pretty, spiky seed heads.

picture of teasel seed heads

Teasel seed heads

Although the trail continued a little farther, I stopped at an overlook on what I presume to be Cattle Hill, 1.6 miles from the top of Baquiano Trail. Here the 360-degree views were terrific. Behind were, of course, the ridges from which I had descended. Ahead was the Pacific Ocean, here shown slightly to the north with Bolinas Pt in the background.

image of Pacific Ocean from Cattle Hill

Pacific Ocean from Cattle Hill

I actually did not know exactly which direction to look for the Farallons, and determined after-the-fact that they should be virtually straight ahead, along the main direction of the trail, from the overlook. My previous experience had been that they are either visible or not, pretty definitively. However, a close look at one of my pictures does suggest that they are just barely visible in the right direction.

I enjoyed getting some close-up views of the waves rolling in to the beach next to the Pacifica Municipal Pier.

photo of waves near the Pacifica Municipal Pier

Waves near the Pacifica Municipal Pier

Looking south along the coastline there was a very nice view of San Pedro Point with San Pedro Rock behind and Pacifica State Beach in the foreground. There was a bit more marine haze to the south than to the north. It was rather fortuitous that the overlook happened to be between these different environments on this day.

picgture of San Pedro Rock and Pacifica State Beach from Cattle Hill

San Pedro Rock and Pacifica State Beach from Cattle Hill

After taking my time to enjoy the views, I started back up the trail toward Sweeney Ridge. As I reached the gate I passed a man who had paused to enjoy the view before jogging back up the trail to Sweeney Ridge. After he passed me I was able to capture his reflection in one of the puddles.

image of jogger and his reflection on the Baquiano Trail

Jogger and his reflection on the Baquiano Trail

A bit farther up the Baquiano Trail I noticed this pretty wildflower. I was quite startled to find any wildflowers that appeared to be in a primary blooming period in December. If I can find out what it is, I’ll identify it here later.

photo of pretty wildflower, blooming in December

Pretty wildflower, blooming in December

After reaching Sweeney Ridge Trail, I thought I had enough time, i.e., daylight, to continue south to the Portola Gate via the Sweeney Horse and Meadow Trails which I’d noticed on my previous hikes. The Horse Trail descends about 100 feet down the west side of the ridge and passes through an area designated as a meadow. It was a bit of a surprise to find a meadow in the hills, but signage indicates the sensitivity of the environment and the importance to endangered species such as the red-legged frog. Parts of the single-track trail had small rivulets running down them, and I tried to keep my feet relatively dry while staying on the intended trail. When I had climbed back nearly to Sweeney Ridge Trail I took this picture looking down across the meadow area. I believe that the road snaking up the hill in the background is part of the Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail, accessible only with a docent guide. (Unfortunately, the late afternoon sun highlighted a small bit of dust on my camera’s lens.)

picture of Sweeney Meadow

Sweeney Meadow

After returning to Sweeney Ridge Trail I continued just 0.1 mile or so to Portola Gate, and then turned around and directly hiked the 2.9 miles back to the trailhead. The views on Sneath Lane Trail were different on the return trip, since the shade line from the setting sun was between San Andreas Lake and San Francisco Bay. Shortly before I reached the trailhead a bunny hopped across the trail, paused long enough for me to snap a few photos, and then scurried into the chaparral as I cautiously approached. It was a nice end to a very enjoyable hike.

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3 Responses to Golden Gate National Recreation Area: Sweeney Ridge

  1. Pingback: Golden Gate National Recreation Area – Milagra Ridge and Sweeney Ridge | trailhiker

  2. Pingback: Golden Gate National Recreation Area – Milagra Ridge | trailhiker

  3. Pingback: Bay Area Ridge Trail – Milagra Gate to Mussel Rock through Pacifica | trailhiker

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