A new trail near Half Moon Bay
Cowell-Purisima Coastal Trail
Neil Wiley

In July, Peninsula Open Space Trust and the State Coastal Conservancy opened the newest section of the California Coastal Trail. It took 25 years and $3 million to build the three-mile trail along the coastal bluffs between Cowell Ranch beach on the north to a vista point south at Purisima Farms. Was it worth a million dollars a mile?

The views are nice. You can see up and down the coast with high bluffs overlooking pocket beaches, offshore rocks, small islands, and a harbor seal haul-out area. Inland, you view green farm fields and gently sloping foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Except for a short distance up to the vista point, the trail is relatively flat. In fact, most of the trail is accessible to wheelchairs. Entrances at both ends of the trail, complete with parking lots and bathrooms, offer convenient access. At the north end, a well-designed stairway down to the Cowell Ranch beach appears convenient and safe. The trail features a series of interpretive panels created by our local mountain firm, Wildways Illustrated, headed by Gaye Kraeger and Holly Reed.

But the trail has its shortcomings. At either end of the trail, you must walk along a narrow, fenced road through farm fields for about a half-mile to reach the coast. It’s not very interesting.

Once you reach the coast, the vista points at the south and north ends offer great scenery, but as you walk along the southern section of the trail, high grasses and brush block the views of the bluffs and ocean. Hikers could see more from the edge of the cliffs, but signs at frequent intervals along the trail warn that the bluffs are unstable.

The trail, actually a gravel road, is not particularly comfortable for bikers or hikers. If you walk, wear heavy shoes or boots. If you ride, watch for loose gravel. Dogs and horses are not allowed.

When I walked the trail in early August, it was blocked by a gate near the north end due to a slide. (Repairs have since been completed, and the entire trail was open on August 12.) The north end of the trail can also be closed during weekdays in the fall due to agricultural chemical spraying.

Discovering a new trail is always interesting, but justifying a trip to Half Moon Bay requires more than a short trail. Fortunately, there is a lot to do in this area, including easy trails for biking, horseback riding, or walking. You can rent an easy-to-ride coaster-brake bike, a horse, surfboard, ocean-going kayak, or fishing boat. If you want to spend the night, choose from small bed-and-breakfast inns, motels, or the fancy Ritz-Carlton.

If you like history, turn east on Higgins Canyon Road. It’s just north of the Cowell-Purisima Coastal Trail, on Highway 1. On the right, you’ll see two historic buildings—the beautiful “saltbox”-style James Johnston House (built between 1853 and 1855) and the Kelly Avenue Train Depot (used from 1908 to 1920). The Johnston House is open for tours once a month.

Drive on for 1.6 miles to the Burleigh Murray State Park parking lot, and then walk through a quiet hidden valley for over a mile to see an unusual barn. Built in 1889, this long two-story dairy barn is built into the side of the hill. A ramp to the second floor enabled wagons to deliver hay to the loft without lifting. The barn also curves to fit the curvature of the hill. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this unique barn is now being restored. For more Half Moon Bay adventures, visit www.mnn.net. Click on Hikes and other adventures, and on the hikes page, click on Half Moon Bay.

To reach Half Moon Bay, drive north on Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) or Interstate 280, turn west (left) on Highway 92, then south ((left) on Highway 1. The north entrance to Cowell-Purisima Coastal Trail is located about one-half mile south of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Miramontes Point Road. The south entrance is about three miles south of the north entrance on Highway 1.