McNee Ranch

A steep hike up Montara Mountain and ocean views near Half Moon Bay at McNee Ranch State Park.

Hike to the summit: 8 miles; 4 hours; 1800 ft elevation gain; strenuous.

McNee Ranch, a tangle of hiking and mountain biking trails across the street from Montara Beach, feels a bit lawless. Two parking lots access the area: a tiny roughhewn pullout tucked into the north side of the Montara valley and a large, less secure, lot around the corner of the headlands by Gray Whale Cove State Beach.

Loads of connector tracks and social trails ensure you can explore the park from either parking lot and any trail, but the big decision should be made: the trek between the beaches or up the mountain?

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Beach wins? Then wander on down Gray Whale Cove Trail, a lovely journey connecting the parking lots and their respective beaches. While a sign indicates that Gray Whale Cove is a hikers-only path, the upper portion of the track is rife with bike-treaded tracks.

Jonesing for those mountaintop views (and the serious thigh burn that comes with them)? Head up North Peak Access Road from the southern trailhead or link to it using Gray Whale Cove Trail from the northern lot. This fire road passes through an enchanting moss-strewn tree corridor before coming to a three-way intersection by a lovely little green house.

As when facing most challenges in life, there is a hard way and a harder way up, and then there’s a pretty distraction. Ocean View Ranch, a working farm, lies across a well-made bridge to the south. The only trail past that point heads back into the town of Montara, but those are some good-looking horses!

Now back to the upping. Going straight amounts to going straight up, and climbing straight up an off-canter fire road isn’t much fun on foot or fat tire. May we recommend turning left and winding up the longer, more gradual way. A porta potty and a surprising number of picnic tables are just around the corner, and then it’s all uphill from here. Directions to the top of North Peak are the same no matter which of these two trails you take: follow signs for North Peak Access Road and keep climbing.

The views get marvelous in a hurry. If it’s hard for them to get much better than those first glimpses of sunlight glinting off sapphire waves or mist-shrouded shoreline, they do continue to expand, offering up more and more of a very good thing all the way to the top: the summit of Montara Mountain stands 1898 feet above sea level.

Ah, what to say about the top that isn’t like spoiling a good movie? A 360 panorama of the beach, the bay, rolling mountain ridges…just go see it.

Not to say that aimlessly charging these gorgeously textured mountain folds isn’t a worthy endeavor. According to California State Parks, Montara Mountain “features the only undisturbed Coastal Mountain Habitat found in over 100 miles of coastline.” The mountain lions, coyotes, squirrels, rabbits, hawks, kestrels, and California thrashers sure seem happy with it.

There are plenty of spurs shooting about between the main trails. And if you’re mountain biking, it can be a bit confusing which trails are off-limits. In general stay on the main roads and narrower, “nearly singletrack” trails. Much of the singletrack is marked for pedestrians only or is only a social network that may be slicing though some valuable native veg. Yeah, yeah, fun police.

Pups are allowed but must be leashed.

PERFECT FOR Challenging workouts on foot or bike; equestrians also use this trail.

EXPECT lots of sun or lots of fog on these exposed trails. So bring layers and water accordingly!

YOUR MOM WOULD TELL YOU to watch out for poison oak and mountain lions. If you’re biking it, be careful of loose sandy surfaces and a few close brushes with cliff sides. Oh, and wear a helmet, dear.

by L. Clark Tate

Highway 1, Montara, California. 831.726.8819. For more information visit the official Montara State Beach website. View a map of the McNee Ranch area.

Directions: From San Francisco, head south on Highway 101 to Highway 280. Follow 280 south to the Highway 1 exit. Follow Highway 1 south for 11 miles. After passing Gray Whale Cove on the right, keep an eye out for one of two lots on the left side of the road.

From Santa Cruz, head north on Highway 1 for 55 miles, past Half Moon Bay and Moss Beach. After passing Montara State Beach on the left, keep an eye out for two lots on the righthand side of the road. You can park in either one.

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