Getting Out: Take in view, history at Sweeney Ridge

Sweeney Ridge

In June 1769, a Spanish expedition led by Gaspar de Portola left San Diego in search of Monterey Bay. On the way north, the expedition passed by the bay, failing to recognize it.

On Nov. 3, 1769, from their camp near present-day Pacifica, a party of scouts climbed a 1,200-foot ridge and looked out across “a large arm of the sea, or extremely large estuary.” They were standing on Sweeney Ridge, and they had discovered San Francisco Bay.

I have wanted to hike Sweeney Ridge for some time, not only because of its historical significance, but also because of the great views it must command. Last week, my wife needed a lift to the San Francisco airport. There was my opportunity.

Sweeney Ridge is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the northern tip of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the peninsula hills begin to peter out and drop down into San Francisco. Four different trails lead to the ridge, two from Pacifica, two from San Bruno. The most accessible, and apparently the most popular, is in San Bruno at the end of Sneath Lane (take the Sneath Lane exit off Interstate 280).

Like many parks adjacent to an urban setting, the path up Sweeney Ridge is a regular walking site for nearby residents. I stepped through the gate onto the paved access road that eases gently down a creek drainage toward San Andreas Lake. After a quarter mile, the road crossed the creek bed, and the climb up Sweeney Ridge began.

If you have ever been to a game at Candlestick Park, you have an idea of likely weather conditions on this ridge. Even as I climbed the leeward side of the ridge, I was glad to have my knit cap and all the layers I wore. No members of the coastal scrub community I walked past – coyotebrush, coffeeberry, sagebrush, Ceanothus – grew higher than my head. The only trees were groves of eucalyptus nestled in the mountain creases.

Up, up, steadily up. During the climb, the outlook is over the reservoir toward Millbrae and Coyote Point. After nearly 2 miles and 500 feet of climbing, I reached the crest of the ridge, and the world fell away. I zipped-up, buttoned-up, and tightened every drawstring on my clothing against what was now and unobstructed wind, but what a spacious setting.

At the top, the road turns both right and left as it traces the long ridge crest. A short distance to the left, I visited the monuments that mark the San Francisco Bay Discovery Site, but the other direction called too loudly to ignore. A gentle rise still blocked the northern views of San Francisco and Marin that I knew had to be there.

After a half mile stroll, I was at the highest point on the Sweeney Ridge Trail in the midst of abandoned buildings of a Cold War missile site. High clouds covered most of the sky, so I could only imagine the fabulous view on a clear day. I could see the outline of Mt. Tamalpais and the East Bay hills, but in better conditions I would have been able to see Mt. Hamilton, Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais, Point Reyes and the Farallons.

You will share this trail with walkers of every description, but of all the Bay Area viewpoints, this must surely be the best. Pick a crystalline day, and go.

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