Distance: 8.3 miles one way
Elevation gain: 550 ft
The San Francisco Peninsula has a spine running down its center. On the east side of the spine is Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, Stanford, and a crush of people. On the west side is a lot of deep, dark woods, open rolling hillsides sloping to the ocean, and the laid-back hamlets of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero. It’s one of my favorite areas of California, and the stretch of Hwy 1 along there (Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz) is second only to Mendocino in my book. There are few roads on that western slope, but what’s there is great riding. I’ll show you two rides in the area, this one and Pescadero/Tunitas Creek Road.
This is an easy, perfect little rambling climb and descent that winds sweetly through all the classic features of the region: small, hand-tended fields of row crops set off by the local black earth, unpretentious horse or dairy farms, rolling coastal hills, eucalyptus groves, and a few redwoods. The tiny road’s contour is constantly varied and interesting, the road surface is good, and there’s nothing up there except a few homes and the largely unknown Purissima Redwoods Open Space Preserve, so you should have the place to yourself. It rides equally well in either direction (a bit harder clockwise). The route is one continuous road, but it has a different name at each end—it’s Purissima Creek Rd. at the south end, Higgins Canyon Rd. at the other. Midway through the ride you pass by the Preserve, a wonderful place to hike if you brought walking shoes. It’s a little harder than Mapmyride thinks it is (I clocked 1010 ft of vert), and you’ll do one noticeable climb, but it’s still about as easy as it gets.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
(Ignore Mapmyride’s elevation profile, which is imaginary. You can see the actual profile if you follow the instructions above and open the map.)
The road is a little hard to spot at either end. If you start at the northern end, the turn from Hwy 1 onto Higgins Canyon Rd. has a fairly prominent sign (which actually reads “Higgins Purissima Road”), but you’re just leaving the greater Half Moon Bay area and the road is divided and busy there, so it’s easy to miss. Look for it as soon as you clear all town buildings. It’s just after the fire station. At the southern end, the road is unhelpfully signed “Verde Rd.” (both as you approach it on Hwy 1 and at the turn-off). Verde actually takes off from Hwy 1 in two different places. If you turn onto Verde from the south, a stone’s throw down Verde you hit a T and follow the sign to Purissima Creek Rd. to the L; if you approach it from the north, Verde runs straight onto Purissima with turning. As you ride, enjoy the various spellings of “Purissima” on the road signs: you’ll see “Purisma,” “Purisima,” and “Purissima.”
One of the delights of this ride is that you can see so clearly what’s going on with the topography. You start by riding up a flat, pretty little farming valley fed by Purissima Creek. As the valley ends, you start to climb slightly and soon find yourself riding along the south side of Purissima Creek. When the road does a 180, it crosses the creek and Purissima Redwoods Open Space Preserve is on the outside of the turn—it’s easy to miss, since it looks like little more than a large dirt parking lot, but there should be cars there and there is an information board with trail maps set back from the road (see below). Just before the 180 you pass the only redwoods on the ride—about 10—so hug them now.
Once on the north side of the creek, you do the only real climb in the ride, about 1 mile of 5-6% up the north canyon wall to the ridge between Purissima Valley and Higgins Canyon (really a valley) to the north, where you end up. You can see the road you rode in on below you, just across the canyon, as you climb. Once over the ridge, you get 1 mile of sweet serpentine descending the back side, then descend at a more relaxed pace through fine stands of eucalyptus into Higgins Valley and through it back to Hwy 1. You’re now 3 miles north of where you started.
The ride is short enough to make carrying hiking shoes in a backpack doable, so consider incorporating a walk in the Open Space Preserve into your ride. There are two routes leaving the parking lot, a singletrack to the left called Harkins Ridge Trail and a large dirt road to the right called Purissima Creek Trail. The dirt road has by far the better scenery because it follows the creek, and it’s usually in good enough shape that you could ride some of it if you’re set up for dirt.
At the end of the ride, you can turn around and ride back the way you came—easy enough to do given the distance and elevation gain, though the 1-mile climb on the north side is a notch steeper—or close the loop by riding a 3-mile stretch of Hwy 1. Normally I avoid Hwy 1, but here the highway is open, straight, and wide, with a generous shoulder, so cars aren’t a threat. It isn’t hugely rewarding, but it isn’t a burden. I have fond memories of that stretch of road, because one day doing this ride I came across hundreds of pairs of white athletic socks strewn all over the pavement—obviously the result of a lost truck load.
Adding miles: Tunitas Creek Road, part of the Pescadero/Tunitas Creek Road ride, is the next major road to the south. The little stuff in between (Lobitos Creek Rd., Lobitos Creek Cut-Off) is also good. Two cycling curiosities lie to the north:
1) The Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail runs north from Half Moon Bay along the water for over 10 miles, often with the beach and ocean on one shoulder and quaint old beach houses on the other—a completely charming stroll.
2) The Devil’s Slide section of Hwy 1 above Montara has recently been rerouted and the old highway turned into a bike path. It’s only a bit over 1 mile, and it’s very much in progress (on Oct. 2013), so google it to find out the status, but if you’re in the area, riding a cliff section of old Hwy 1 without cars is an experience not to be sneezed at.
I’m no fan of riding Hwy 1, but if you’re dead set on it, the stretch from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz is my favorite. It’s fairly bland riding for Hwy 1, but it goes by a non-stop series of spots worth exploring: the unique town of Pescadero, dozens of charming beaches and rocky outcroppings, headlands, Ano Nuevo State Beach and its elephant seals (Dec.-March), Big Basin State Park (ride the Skyline to the Sea Trail if you’re set up for gravel or hike it), Waddell Beach (kite surfing central for the West Coast—stop and gawk), Wilder Ranch State Park, a brewery, a classic lighthouse with an attached hostel if you’re looking to stop over, small row-crop farms where you can buy eggs or pies or pick your own berries, an abandoned cement plant at Davenport…the fun never stops. Always be prepared for fog and cooler weather, even on the warmest days, and expect wind, usually from the northwest.
Afterthoughts: The town of Half Moon Bay is a low-key charmer worth your time. The harbor (actually called Pillar Point, a few miles to the north) is still real, and the old main street is a classic—you have to get off the two intersecting highways to find it, so don’t make the mistake of driving the highways and thinking you’ve seen it. Since the old town is something of a get-away destination for Bay types, the hostelries and restaurants are a cut above what you’d expect. If you like gardening, the nurseries in the canyon along Hwy 92 are wonderful.