Up the San Mateo Coast
Hiking Pescadero Marsh and Sam McDonald Park
Neil Wiley

In April 2004, the San Mateo LAFCO commission approved a new coastside protection plan that increases the size of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District from 230,000 acres, primarily in Santa Clara County, to 370,000 acres through the annexation of the coastal area of San Mateo County. Although there is some opposition from local landowners, the San Mateo County Farm Bureau endorsed the annexation when Midpen gave up its power of eminent domain on the coast.

This should be good news for hikers, bicyclists, horse riders, and others who want to protect the natural environment. Craig Britton, general manager of Midpen, says that his goal is to preserve 11,800 acres over the next 15 years. This could mean adding connections among many existing Midpen, county, and state parks. It could mean participation in support of Pigeon Point Light Station and the surrounding beach area. It could mean protecting more redwood forest around La Honda. And it could mean protecting existing farms from urban sprawl.

Although it sounds good, there may be some downsides for us. But before raising any caution flags, letís visit the San Mateo Coast.

The drive up Highway 1 from Santa Cruz offers lots of scenery and some great stopovers, including seeing living history at Wilder Ranch, breakfast at Davenportís New Cash Store, watching the kiteboarders at Waddell Beach, visiting the Nature and History Center at Rancho del Oso, or walking up Waddell Creek to Big Basinís Berry Creek Falls.

Shortly after entering San Mateo County, we pass AŮo Nuevo, part-time home for elephant seals and other pinnipeds, Gazos Creek, and the southern entrance to the excellent but under-utilized Butano State Park.

Although tours are no longer available, we stop at the Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park. (In December 2001, two sections of brick and iron cornice, each weighing about 300 pounds, fell. Extensive corrosion in the upper iron work made it unsafe. Restoration is estimated to cost about $3 million.)

The U.S. Coast Guard intends to sell the light station, and California State Parks is applying for ownership. Peninsula Open Space Trust also helped to protect the area by buying three acres of Whalerís Cove at Pigeon Point. The plan includes adding a public seating area, viewing platform, beach access, and a trail, supposedly this year.

You can walk around the station, eat at the picnic tables, or walk out on a platform to view the rugged coastline, ocean waves, and an occasional whale. Graphic interpretive panels present information about the light station and passing whales. Newspaper articles have suggested that Midpen may participate in supporting this area.

Our next stop is the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. You can park on Pescadero Road at two locations: one just past the intersection with Highway 1 (preferred) and one poorly marked area a few hundred yards up the road. Three additional parking areas are available on Highway 1.

The one square-mile preserve, the largest coastal marsh between Monterey Bay and the Golden Gate, is formed by Pescadero and Butano Creeks. Several short trails offer access through the marsh. I followed a trail from the parking area to the Butano Trail that took me across a little bridge to Pescadero Creek. The trail then looped around to take me back to the parking area. Although I didnít see large flocks of birds, I got close to many waterfowl and a few rabbits. Elkhorn Slough offers more trails, and perhaps more bird watching opportunities, but mountain trail expert Tom Taber says that more than 160 species of birds have been sighted in this marsh. The preserve needs more signage and better trail maintenance. For more information, call 650-879-2170.

After hiking in the foggy marsh, I was ready for lunch. I drove up Pescadero Road for a bowl of homemade vegetable soup at the town of Pescaderoís famous Duarteís Tavern. Established in 1894, the tavern is still run by the Duarte family. They claim to serve an average of 13,000 people a month in the tiny restaurant. They specialize in artichoke dishes, fresh fish, and a wine list of over two hundred labels. Itís not fancy, but the food is good.

Now it was on to some serious hiking. I drove up Pescadero Road past San Mateo Memorial County Park and Pescadero Creek County Park to Sam McDonald County Park. I chose Sam McDonald because it offers the beautiful Heritage Grove, a relaxing stopover at the Sierra Clubís Hikerís Hut, and a loop trail that involves very little backtracking.

I chose a trailhead immediately across from the visitorís center. This Big Tree Trail loop merges with the Towne Fire Road a few times, passes the "big tree" (Youíll know it when you see it.), then connects with the Heritage Grove Trail. This fine trail runs high up on a ridge through the heavy shade of giant Douglas firs and a few redwoods. The ups and downs are relatively gentle, making for easy going. You walk east 1.2 miles to the Heritage Grove turnoff. Itís a short walk down into 37 acres of large redwoods. Perhaps these trees arenít as impressive as those in Big Basin or Henry Cowell, but they are still beautiful. (I have to tell you that you could drive to this same grove via Alpine Road, but whatís the fun in that?)

You walk back up to the main Heritage Grove Trail, and then walk up the hill to the Hikerís Hut. This is a steep climb up and around many, many switchbacks. Iíll admit I was glad when I got to the ridge. A small sign and a barely discernable trail take you 150 yards to the Hikerís Hut.

What a relief. Although the hut was closed, the big picnic table was a good place to rest, eat lunch, and enjoy the view of Pescadero Canyon and the coast. (The hut holds up to 14 people, and offers a full kitchen, complete with electricity and a wood stove. To reserve the hut, call 650-390-8411.)

Rather than retracing my steps down Heritage Grove Trail, I completed the five-mile loop by walking through large, green meadows on the Towne Fire Road. I passed by a herd of watchful but bold deer and a horse camp (650-879-0212) on my way down to the parking lot and home.

Entrance fee to the park is five dollars, but seniors get in free Monday through Friday.

San Mateoís Win, our Loss?

The San Mateo Coast is a beautiful area that deserves more protection, but I have some concerns. According to an article in the San Jose Mercury News, Midpen will not raise taxes for coastal residents. Instead, it plans to preserve coastal land by spending about $2 million a year from its $20 million annual budget. Where will this money come from? And will this delay access to the open space in our back yard, especially Sierra Azul and Bear Creek?

Much of these two local open space preserves are off limits. Midpen appears to be in no hurry to open them. In a July 7, 1999 Los Gatos Weekly-Times article, Midpen general manager Britton said that the Bear Creek property might not be open to the public for as long as five years. Well, the five years is up, and Bear Creek is still not open, except by special permit, and almost half of the property is completely closed to the public. Perhaps they are embarrassed by four years of Bear Creek logging. Although they inherited the logging agreement, critics say that they had several opportunities to buy back the logging rights. They didnít. Isnít forest worth preserving?

Sierra Azul development has been blocked by squabbles with neighbors, problems with legal access, and failure to clean up hazards at the old radar site. Although Midpen continues to add land to this giant 15,000-acre+ preserve, much of it is inaccessible to the public.

Midpen may also be lacking the resources to manage the property they already have. They havenít developed master plans for these two parks. They donít have enough rangers to protect the open space areas. They arenít maintaining existing buildings and historical sites that are worth saving, and they arenít demolishing the buildings and other safety hazards in Bear Creek and Sierra Azul.

Certainly, Midpenís prime objective is to preserve a regional greenbelt of open space land, but their mission statement also includes "providing opportunities for ecologically sensitive public enjoyment and education."

In their eagerness to protect land in San Mateo, they may be neglecting their responsibilities to existing open space areas in Santa Clara County. Itís not enough to simply buy land. Preservation includes better management of building and forest resources. It also includes better access for the citizens paying the bills.

The San Jose Mercury News says that "the owner of a home assessed at $500,000 pays about $85 a year" in property taxes to finance Midpen. Itís worth it, but we deserve better facilities management, more citizen participation, and improved access.

If you agree, tell general manager Craig Britton to not forget us. You can write him via email (info@openspace.org) or regular mail to Craig Britton, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, 330 Distel Circle, Los Altos, California 94022-1404.


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