Montara Mountain makes a great training hill for vertically-minded Sierra hikers. It looms 1,898 feet above Pacifica, California, a mile south of Devils Slide. Trails to the top converge from three different directions, one of which is currently closed to the public. The other two trailheads, San Pedro Valley County Park and McNee Ranch State Park, climb from near sea level to the summit in about four miles, and so provide some of the steepest continuous trail in the bay area.
At the time of this writing, Caltrans is still working on a tunnel to bypass the unstable Devils Slide area. About a half-mile south of the mouth of the planned tunnel there is a parking lot for McNee Ranch State Park and Gray Whale Cove State Beach. If you’re looking for steep, remote, and relatively uncivilized hiking, this is the route to take. With a few shorter options, you can turn this two-thousand-foot climb into a three-mile affair.
After leaving the car, you will walk nearly a mile of relatively low grade single-track until you hit a junction. From here, you may take a right and follow a fire road for a milder, though mile-longer walk, or you may take a left and climb straight up the grassy hills toward the peak. If you decide to turn left (which I recommend), you’ll meet up with that fire road in a half-mile. you’ll turn around, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you gained all that elevation.
The fire road is much better maintained than the trail before it, but it maintains the same sort of heart-thumping steepness that a Sierra native craves. It follows the Southwest ridge of the mountain, and the views of the ocean, the South drainage, and Montara expand with every step. In a long mile you meet the trail that ascends from San Pedro Valley County Park, and it is in this area that you start to see Pacifica, San Francisco, and Mount Tamalpais to the North.
Another mile, and the scenery turns. Steep hillsides give way to a smoother landscape: the sky island of peaks that make up the top of the Montara Mountain summit area. To reach the high point, you must follow the road as it skirts the ridge. You’ll see on the way two sets of radio towers. The Southernmost set is the high point, and from there you can see many of the high hills of the bay area. This is, as far as I know, the only place anywhere that one can see Pilarcitos Lake, a small lake within the San Francisco Fish and Game Refuge. The views from here are perhaps not as iconic as Mount Tamalpais or Mount Diablo, but, in my opinion, the climb is much more spectacular.
From here, you can descend the way you came, or, if you can work out a shuttle, you can hike back down into Pacifica by turning off the San Pedro Valley County Park trail into the Linda Mar area. You can also follow fire roads out to Sweeney Ridge in San Bruno, though I have not done this myself, and at the time of this writing, the area is open only to guided hikes. Whichever way you go down, the views are much more enjoyable than up since you don’t need to turn around to see them, nor will your breathing be as labored.
This peak is one of my favorite hikes in the bay area. It’s a bit less crowded than some of the other major peaks, and the steepness is as close to High Sierra hiking as you can get out here. If you plan to run the trail, get there early to avoid the crowds. If you plan to hike it, get there really early on a weekday. Montara Mountain may not be a remote Sierra peak, but it’s certainly worth the climb.