Purisima Creek, Soda Gulch, and Harkins Ridge Loop,
Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve,
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District,
San Mateo County
In brief:
7 mile loop captures the best of this preserve -- redwoods, creek, chaparral, and great views.

Distance and difficulty:
This 7 mile loop hike is moderate, due to the elevation changes. You can create shorter out-and-back hikes that are easier. Trailhead elevation is around 400 feet, and the highest (trail) elevation in the park is just over 2000 feet. The featured hike climbs to about 1510 feet, then drops sharply back to the trailhead on steep Harkins Ridge Trail -- total elevation change is about 1400 feet. Unless you really like ascending steep grades, take the hike in the described direction.

Exposure:
Mostly shaded, with some sunny stretches.

Trail traffic:
Moderate.

Trail surfaces:
Dirt trails and fire roads.

Hiking time:
3 1/2 hours.

Season:
Nice any time; very pretty in autumn.

Getting there:
From the junction of CA 1 and CA 92 in San Mateo County, drive south 1.2 miles, then turn east onto Higgins Canyon Road (formerly Higgins-Purisima Road). Drive on this narrow road about 4.2 miles, to the trailhead on the left side of the road (just past the tiny white bridge).

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
http://www.transitandtrails.org/trailheads/425

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3726'15.16"N
Longitude
12222'14.20"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Pay phone, stores, gas, lodging, and restaurants back in Half Moon Bay. No camping in the preserve. Nearest camping is at Half Moon Bay State Beach. Other camping options: Butano State Park and Portola Redwoods State Park.

Trailhead details:
Parking for about 8 cars (there is some side-of-road parking outside the gate -- mind the no parking signs). No entrance or parking fees. One designated handicapped parking spot. Pit toilet less than 0.1 mile up the trail. Maps available at the information signboard, also less than 0.1 mile from the trailhead. The preserve's main trailhead is on Skyline Boulevard, about 4.5 miles south of CA 92. A smaller Skyline Boulevard Trailhead, across from Huddart Park, is about 2 miles further south. There is no direct public transportation to this trailhead.

Rules:
Most trails are multi-use. A few trails are open to hikers only. Dogs are not allowed in the preserve. Preserve is open from dawn to 1/2 hour after sunset.

The Official Story:
MROSD's Purisima page.
MROSD field office 650-691-1200

Map Choices:
This hike is described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco, by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order this book from Amazon.com.
Map from MROSD (download pdf).
Peninsula Tales and Trails, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has an overview of the preserve, descriptions of hikes, and simple maps.
Afoot and Afield: San Francisco Bay Area, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of a Purisima Creek hike.
Trail Map of the Central Peninsula, by the Trail Center (order this map from Amazon.com) is an excellent guide to the preserve.
Peninsula Trails, by Jean Rusmore, has a simple map and trail descriptions (order this book from Amazon.com).
• Tom Taber's The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book has a simple map and trail descriptions (order this book from Amazon.com).
• Jean Rusmore's The Bay Area Ridge Trail (order this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and preserve descriptions.

View 81 photos from the featured hike.



Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page


Purisima Creek Redwoods Trailhead Open Space Preserve is the first preserve west of Skyline Boulevard as you travel south from CA 92. It's justifiably popular with cyclists and hikers; Purisima is a convenient distance from San Francisco (and the Santa Clara Valley) and is a pristine showcase for the Santa Cruz Mountains' western slope. Tall (most second-growth) redwoods, year round burbling creeks, and chaparral-studded slopes with views to the ocean all can be found here.
     With elevation ranging from around 400 to 2100 feet, and over 3000 acres, there are a few challenging long loop and out-and-back hikes. Whittemore Gulch Trail, North Ridge Trail, a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment, and Harkins Ridge Trail can be combined for a 6.3 mile trek, the shortest of the loops. The longest circuit includes Whittemore Gulch Trail, North Ridge Trail, and the Bay Area Ridge Trail, but then adds Craig Britton Trail and Purisima Creek Trail, a total of around 9 miles.Purisima Creek Trail The hardest hike is probably the out-and-back trek to Bald Knob, in the most recently acquired,southwest portion of the preserve. Starting from the Higgins Canyon Trailhead, take Purisima Creek Trail, then climb on the Borden Hatch Mill Trail, and turn onto Bald Knob Trail, which is open to hikers only. If you turn back at the end of the Bald Knob Trail (you can go even further on Irish Ridge Trail), the whole trip is over 9.5 miles long, with a gain in elevation of around 1500 feet. (You can also hike to Bald Knob from a pullout on Tunitas Creek Road. The starting elevation is around 1600 feet, giving you a significant jump start. Unfortunately, there is virtually no parking on Tunitas Creek Road, and the local residents are not very amenable to naughty parking.) The opposite end of the endurance spectrum is the Redwood Trail, which is a short all-access path through the redwoods, located at the southernmost Skyline Boulevard Trailhead.Purisima Creek Trail
     Purisima is truly a preserve for all seasons. From late winter into late summer there are a variety of flowering shrubs and deep woods wildflowers. Purisima Creek Trail and the forested section of Craig Britton Trail are reliably cool when summer temperatures soar, and coastal fog often reaches all the way into the western slopes of the preserve's mountains. Although winter storms soak the fire roads and trails, creating muddy conditions, cool weather encourages long hikes that are tougher in the hot months of the year. In autumn big leaf maples are pretty along Purisima Creek, one of several year-round streams that murmur with the soothing sounds of cool water.
     For the featured hike, start at the Higgins-Purisima Trailhead on Purisima Creek Trail. After about 200 feet, there's an information signboard, and a few steps further, a pit toilet. Whittemore Gulch Trail and Harkins Ridge Trail start off to the left at a signed junction. Keep going straight on Purisima Creek Trail. Soda Gulch Trail
     This wide, multi-use trail is initially almost level, as it follows along the banks of the creek. Redwoods provide shade and habitat for many banana slugs, as well as redwood sorrel, thimbleberry, huckleberry, hazelnut, stream violet, trillium, ferns, starflower, and forget-me-not. Alder, elderberry, and big leaf maple occupy the middle ground, way below the redwoods but above the flowers and shrubs. Purisima Creek Trail stays cool on a hot day, but can be very muddy in the winter and early spring. Perhaps the peak time to hike the trail is mid June to mid July, when the berries ripen on the prolific thimbleberry plants. With so many bushes, it's acceptable to taste a berry or two (of course, large scale collecting, while tempting, is against the rules). The berries, which look a lot like raspberries, are juicy and tart, and may be the most beloved of all the bay area wild edibles. Also look for tiny wood strawberries, which ripen just before the thimbleberries, hiding beneath their distinctive club shaped leaves. Soda Gulch TrailAt about 1.05 mile, Borden Hatch Mill Trail begins on the right side of the trail at a signed junction. Continue straight on Purisima Creek Trail.
      The grade picks up a bit, but it's still an easy walk. Elk clover and stinging nettles are common in the dampest areas along the trail. After crossing a bridge, you'll reach the junction with Grabtown Gulch Trail, at about 1.42 miles. Continue straight on Purisima Creek Trail.
     The trail crosses over another bridge, and begins to climb with more purpose. Wild rose, blue witch nightshade, and iris brighten the shaded redwood forest in spring, while creambush can be seen in bloom later in summer. Tanoaks make an appearance. There's one more bridge to cross, and then Purisima Creek Trail curves left and climbs steadily to a signed junction at about 2.30 miles. Purisima Creek Trail continues uphill another 1.8 miles, to the smaller Skyline Boulevard trailhead. Turn left onto Craig Britton Trail (formerly Soda Gulch Trail), which is signed as a hiking only trail (but does get bicycle traffic, so beware).
      Narrow Craig Britton Trail winds along canyon walls through a deep redwood forest. This quiet path is a segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Chaparral on Soda Gulch TrailWater flows downhill, on the way to join Purisima Creek; the first bridge is a short distance from the junction. Look for clintonia blooming in late spring; in summer the plant's small blue berries are conspicuous. Craig Britton Trail rises to a grassy spot, where views to the south reveal the ridge with the preserve's highest elevation. The vegetation differs dramatically through this stretch, where monkeyflower, lizardtail, scorpionweed, poison oak, ceanothus, coffeeberry, creambush, strawberry, and honeysuckle accompany a few coast live oaks. As you continue to climb through the forest, look for a handful of huge tanoaks, as well as some maple, blue elderberry, and hazelnut. Soon, Craig Britton Trail dips back under the redwoods, crossing Soda Gulch Creek. In August, look for red baneberry and helleborine, a summer orchid. A landslide forced an irregular and steep trail rerouting just past the bridge, and then the grade picks up some more. A look back uphill on Harkins Ridge TrailWhen you reach the next open and grassy area, look to the west for views all the way to the ocean. On a hike through here one day in June, the trail was overgrown with grass, and California sister butterflies seemed to be present in plague proportions. Cow parsnip, fringecups, rosilla, yarrow, beeplant, and blue-eyed grass may be seen trailside. As Craig Britton Trail climbs uphill through a series of switchbacks, the vegetation shifts to chaparral. Coyote brush, toyon, yerba santa, California coffeeberry, ceanothus, and poison oak are common. The bright blossoms of Indian paintbrush and monkeyflower contrast the army green of the shrubs in spring. A patch of madrones sits off the side of the trail, across from a swath of thimbleberry bushes. Hazelnut is common through here as well. Tanoak, coast live oak, and Douglas fir gain prominence as you edge closer to the end of the trail at about 4.90 miles. View from Harkins Ridge Trail From this signed junction, Harkins Ridge Trail climbs to the right (taking the Bay Area Ridge Trail with it), on the way to the preserve's main trailhead. (If you'd like to extend this hike, turn right on Harkins Ridge, turn left onto North Ridge Trail, and then take Whittemore Gulch Trail back to the trailhead. This option adds about 2 miles, and climbs to about 1800 feet before dropping back down to 400 feet.) Turn left onto Harkins Ridge Trail.
     This wide, occasionally rocky multi-use trail signals its intentions right away, as it begins a sharp descent to the west. Douglas fir, redwood, and tanoak provide some shade, but there are numerous opportunities for views to the north (which include parts of North Ridge Trail), and to the west. In the understory you may see huckleberry, creambush, strawberry, columbine, lupines, ceanothus, gooseberry, hazelnut, and pinkflowering currant. There are a few chinquapins and even a handful of manzanita. Stay alert for cyclists descending on the trail; some sections are very steep. Harkins Ridge Trail Harkins Ridge Trail throws a few short ascents at you, but they are always followed with abrupt drops. After about a mile of rolling downhill, the trail makes a broad sweeping turn to the left and begins a final descent at a moderate grade. Broom, lizardtail, coffeeberry, coyote brush, California sagebrush, and poison hemlock line the trail. Redwoods begin to take over, and the trail enters deep shade. You might see pinkflowering currant, which puts forth bright pink blossoms in winter. At about 6.90 miles, Harkins Ridge Trail runs out of steam and ends at a signed junction with Whittemore Gulch Trail. Turn left, cross one final bridge, and then turn right to return to the trailhead.

Total distance: about 7 miles
Last hiked: July 19, 2014
Previous visit: September 25, 2003