Weekend Wayfarer: Devil’s Slide Coast

Situated halfway between Montara and Pacifica is a piece of highway, entirely free of cars, yet awash with traffic— foot traffic, that is. Devil’s Slide, the repossessed strip of Highway One in question, provides a great, albeit largely unchallenging, walk. With extensive views of the Pacific Ocean, as well as of the characteristically crinkly central California coastline, it is all one could hope for in a coastal hike. Moreover, at just under three miles round trip, even the most pedestrian of hikers should find it of a reasonable difficulty.

Both bike and walking lanes stretch the length of the walk.

The trail itself was converted to a walker-friendly path only five years ago, leaving it in relatively good condition, when compared to the pothole-ridden roads that cover most of the coast. Of course, that isn’t the source of the magnetism of the hike– unsurprisingly, most walkers seem much more interested in everything besides the road. The craggy green and brown cliffs on one side, and the boundless blue-greens of the ocean on the other: two opposites, in complete and utter contrast, with honestly dramatic results. 

Arguably equally as fascinating as the views is the actual history of the piece of land that the walk is on: it has been a siren’s song, of sorts, for those looking to connect San Francisco with the rest of the coastal peninsula. As a relatively flat way around an otherwise apparently hilly region, it has been an enticing workaround for those attempting to build roads, or at first, railroads in the area.

The first to fall prey to the allure of Devil’s Slide was the Ocean Shore Railway Company, a venture seeking to connect Santa Cruz and South San Francisco. They were well aware of the danger of building along the avalanche-prone coastline, and took precautions accordingly, but the one thing they couldn’t prepare for was their timing.

Originally planned route of the Ocean Shore Railroad.

Construction for the railroad began in October of 1905, and by early April 1906, tracks had been laid from Santa Cruz up to Pacifica. The future was, undoubtedly, looking up for the company: they would have a monopoly on transportation up and down the coast of the peninsula. This, paired with the emergence of Santa Cruz as a major tourist destination at the turn of the century, created the false sense of security that would unwittingly lead to disaster.

Unfortunately, this high was, by no one’s standards, long-lived. It lasted about a half a month, a wholly unimpressive length when considering the Ocean Shore Railway Company planned on constructing resorts and housing alongside the tracks, which at this point, cut through mostly uninhabited territory. The earthquake of 1906 succeeded in both maiming much of the track and infrastructure already set in place by the company, as well as the checkbooks of its investors. 

A piece of North Shore Railroad in Marin which, unlike much of Ocean Shore Railroad, managed to stay above water.

After a couple attempts to rebuild and cut their losses, the Ocean Shore Railway Company, much like land it had purchased for the railway at Devil’s Slide, went under.

The second part of this land’s story is not nearly as dramatic as its former, but is nonetheless significant. As stated earlier, up until 2013, the road that now makes up Devil’s Slide trail was part of Highway One. What has replaced this strip of road is a pair of tunnels, which run through the mountain that Devil’s Slide goes around. A pair of $439 million tunnels. An unreasonable price surely, perhaps part of some bureaucratic scheme to further siphon money away from the taxpayer? is likely how that comes across. And, while that initial reaction is warranted, for the alternative of keeping the old section of highway open, so is the price.

The wrecked remains of a car, crashed just ahead of the pass to Devil’s Slide.

From 1937, when the Devil’s Slide portion of Highway One was first constructed, up until its closure in 2013, there were eight major damaging, road-rebuilding tier landslides, not to mention a countless number of smaller-scale slides. From 1955 to 1983, police officer Cal Hinton of the Pacifica P.D. alone worked on 50 separate incidents regarding Devil’s Slide. For a more direct visualization of the sheer damage and loss of life wrought upon the Bay Area by Devil’s Slide, simply search up “Devil’s Slide accident” or “Car crash Devil’s Slide,” and you will be bombarded by articles from the last 15 years consisting of crunched Camrys and smashed Suburbans. A little morbid? Perhaps. But, there is no way to truly understate the damage this short portion of road has caused in the last century or so.

Devil’s Slide bunker.

The inarguably problematic history of this strip of road can give the impression that the potential drawbacks (loss of life, limb, road bike) greatly outweigh any sort of value or self-satisfaction that can come from hiking it. No view could possibly make up for the clearly present danger assumed when on Devil’s slide, one might think. But that simply isn’t true, for two reasons. The first, and much more obvious of the two: preventative measures have been taken against landslides, including rock netting and other such rock-stopping mechanisms. The latter, and something only conceivable after having been there, is that the landscape is worth every bit of the (admittedly now defunct) risk.

McNee Ranch State Park.

The coastal sage scrub, in the direct sunlight, becomes an an aromatic, and when paired with the seawater-laden air, results in that distinctly coastal bouquet that coats the surrounding area. Further inland sit the sharply ridged, dark green hills of McNee Ranch State Park and Montara mountain, somehow paralleling the waviness of the water below. [8] The occasional isolated coastal fir or cypress only seems to heighten the feelings of vastness washed upon the observer by the Pacific.

The Earth-smut doesn’t end there, though. To the northwest, the faint outline of the Farallon Islands is visible against the hazy blue sky; the typical slew of coastal birds fly overhead: hawks, cormorants, and pelicans, with the surprising addition of a group of ravens. 

A raven is one of many kinds of wildlife found along Devil’s Slide.

In the distance, the low hum of cars driving through the tunnel: not irritating, yet ever present. As the sun nears the horizon, the shimmering water becomes almost blinding. Much, at this point, is cloaked in shadow, but that which is not is only further highlighted by the little light that is left. And, the normally pale-orange, freshly exposed sandstone at the base of the cliffs takes on a fiery, almost red color.

It is so rare to find a hike right on the ocean in this area. With Pacifica and Montara directly above and below, much of the local waterfront real estate is consumed by beaches. But, Devil’s Slide has been spared of this fate. Attempts to develop it, as evidenced by its chancy past, have been either in vain, or negated by the damage it caused. In this way, its natural splendor remains untouched. Save, of course, the piece of road dividing it in half.

Nathaniel Gerhard

Nat Gerhard is a senior and second-year journalist with the Chronicle. He enjoys writing about hiking and nature, along with art and other local interests.

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