Walk in the footsteps of the first Europeans to “discover” San Francisco Bay. For them the discovery didn’t come so easily. Today the path is paved, but it’s still a climb up to Sweeney Ridge. The 360-degree views from the ridgeline make the trek well worth the effort.
From the 1500s to the 1700s, Spanish seamen sailed along the Pacific Coast but never saw the great bay beyond the mouth of the Golden Gate. Not surprisingly, fog often obscured the view. Even on clear days, the men on offshore ships couldn’t tell that Angel Island, Alcatraz and the Berkeley hills weren’t just part of an unbroken, rugged coastline.
It was in 1769 that Gaspar de Portolá and a small band of explorers were traveling overland in search of Monterey Bay, where they hoped to establish a Spanish colony. Having come too far north, they climbed the hills inland from Pacifica and pulled out their spyglasses to check the horizon. What they beheld was a “wondrous sight”: the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes and a vast inland estuary.
Sneath Lane Trail
Start your hike at the end of Sneath Lane in San Bruno. Pass through the V in the gate, and take the paved roadway (Sneath Lane Trail). It climbs gradually at first past eucalyptus trees and watershed lands. To your left is San Andreas Lake and the San Francisco airport. Beyond that, of course, is the bay.
Climb uphill for about 1 3/4 miles. Distract yourself by watching for the rabbits, birds, butterflies, lizards and other creatures that inhabit this coastal scrubland. In springtime, the wildflowers are glorious, and even in late summer, the fog keeps some in bloom.
Portolá’s discovery site
When you reach the ridge and signs indicating Sweeney Ridge, leave the paved road and turn left on the gravel path. Follow the signs for a few hundred feet up to the European Discovery Site. Use the granite post there to help identify the mountains that ring the bay.
Sweeney Ridge Trail
Backtrack to the paved road. Instead of turning downhill (the way you came), continue north along the ridge (Sweeney Ridge Trail). You will pass a water tank off the road to your right. In about half a mile, you reach the remains of an old Nike missile site. It is now a collection of run-down buildings with cement-block walls and falling-in roofs.
From here, you can backtrack to the Sneath Lane Trail, and take it downhill to your starting point. Alternatively, from the Nike site, you can follow the Sweeney Ridge Trail north. The trail becomes a gravel path after the Nike site. Continue for about 1 1/2 miles until you get to Skyline College. There’s a bus stop at the bottom of the parking lot.
Good to know
Choose a clear day for this hike – the same fog that obscured the views from Spanish sailors will also obscure your view (and sometimes the trail, too). Wear layers. Bring plenty of water and your binoculars to watch hawks soaring on the updrafts. There are no facilities except a chemical toilet at the Nike missile site. Poison oak is common off the trails. Also, this is a popular trail, especially on weekends, so be sure to arrive early.
From the San Bruno BART Station, take the No. 140 SamTrans bus toward Palmetto & West Manor. Get off at Sneath Lane and Mendocino Court, and continue walking along Sneath to the Sneath Lane Trail. At the end of the hike, if you continue on to Skyline College, just walk down through the parking lot to the nearest bus stop, and take the No. 140 or 121 back to BART.
By car from San Francisco, drive south on Interstate 280 and exit at Sneath Lane/San Bruno Avenue. Take the Sneath Lane ramp, and follow Sneath Lane as it curves through a residential neighborhood to the end. There are about a dozen parking spaces here (they fill up quickly on weekends). If you are in a group, you might leave one car at Skyline College in one of the GGNRA-reserved spaces in lots B or C.
Photo: Rasmus Andersson via Flickr