Unlike most California coastal locales, San Francisco Bay was discovered by walkers, not sailors. The bay’s infamous fog and narrow opening had concealed it from passing ships for two centuries before Capt. Gaspar de Portola sighted it on Nov. 4, 1769. The actual discovery site is atop Sweeney Ridge, above the town of Pacifica.
The ridge is often cloaked in morning fog, and in the afternoon, the wind really kicks up. When it’s foggy, the coastal scrub and grasslands are bathed in a strange, sharp light. In spring, lupine, poppies, cream cups and gold fields color the slopes.
And the view is magnificent: Mt. Tamalpais and Mt. Diablo, the Golden Gate, the Farallon Islands, the communities around the bay.
Sweeney Ridge is the name of the trail you’ll use while walking the ridge itself. Four trails lead to Sweeney Ridge: Baquiano Trail and Mori Ridge Trail lead eastward to Portola’s discovery site, while Sneath Lane Trail and Sweeney Ridge Trail climb southward to the ridge top.
I prefer the two southward approaches; they offer more of a feeling of surprise when you behold San Francisco Bay.
Directions to trail head: To start this hike at Skyline College, take California 35 to San Bruno. Turn west on College Drive, following it to the south side of campus. Look for parking area No. 2.
To begin this jaunt at Sneath Lane, take California 280 or 35 to the Sneath Lane exit in San Bruno. Follow the lane westbound to its end at a small parking area. Paved Sneath Lane (closed to vehicle traffic) climbs Sweeney Ridge.
The hike: From Skyline College, you’ll join a fire road that rounds a coastal hill and in 0.75 mile reaches the foundations of an old missile site. The trail drops steeply into a ravine, then begins an equally steep climb out of it.
At the one-mile mark, Sweeney Ridge Trail is joined by Mori Ridge Trail coming in from the right. You’ll keep to the left with a wide fire road, which travels 0.5 mile to an old radar station that was linked with the Nike missile site. From here, the now paved fire road leads a mellow 0.5 mile to the San Francisco Bay Discovery Site.
Return the same way or descend via paved Sneath Lane Trail. If you choose Sneath Lane, you’ll need to continue 0.25 mile beyond the trail head on Sneath Lane, then make a left on Riverside Drive. After another 0.25 mile, make a right on the road near the parking area for the county jail, and soon you’ll reach parking lot No. 2 at the Skyline College trail head.
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Sweeney Ridge Trail
WHERE: Sweeney Ridge, Golden Gate National Recreation Area. DISTANCE: From Skyline College Trail head to Discovery Site is 4 miles round trip with 600-foot elevation gain.
TERRAIN: Ridges and ravines on outskirts of Pacifica.
HIGHLIGHTS: Panoramic and historic views from San Francisco Bay Discovery Site.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Golden Gate National Recreation Area; tel. (415) 556-0560