Hiking Harkins Ridge at Purisima Creek Redwoods

Purisima Creek Redwoods. Photo by C.G.

When winter turns to spring and creeks are flowing, Purisima Creek Redwoods hides one of the best fair weather hikes east of Half Moon Bay. Spreading from the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains at Skyline Blvd down to a lush redwood canyon, the preserve offers easy and moderate trails if you start at Higgins Canyon Road. The concept is simple: brace for 1,200 feet of elevation gain over 2.2 miles on open ridges, get a sun tan, take in views of the Pacific Ocean as you munch on your picnic lunch, and enjoy a pleasant downhill 5-mile shaded stroll through redwoods, ferns and mosses.

Though it sounds like a lot, we had three girls from 5 to 7 years of age with us and they finished the hike in less than 4 hours, running down the path and us adults running close behind to catch up with them. “They’re not tired,” a man remarked at the entrance gate when we dropped our bags for a final snack before hopping in the car. You betcha. For a 7+ mile hike, it was surprisingly smooth.

Yes, mountain lion habitat. Like the entire Bay Area.
Photo by Frog Mom

The trail
From Half Moon Bay on Highway 1, we followed Higgins Purisima Rd 4 winding miles up the road to the entrance for Purisima Creek Redwoods. The parking lot is small and the day we went, others had gotten up before us so we parked on the side of the road. I was afraid that the trails would be muddy after the recent rains but the beauty of hiking in redwood country is the needle cover on the ground. It may be spongy and wet but it’s not stick-to-your-shoes clay.

Next to the porta-potty and interpretive panel with maps (we already had one dated 03/2010 so we didn’t take the 09/2010 version – figured trails were the same), we turned left to cross the bridge over Purisima Creek and made a right to follow Harkins Ridge. The initial trail, probably an old logging road, was wide and smooth, undulating nicely underneath redwoods along the creek. The real effort came after we left the creek. Suddenly the trail started going up, up, up, emerging of the forest canopy onto sunny hills. At the first bend, I heard a grating sound and quickly found that it came from a chaotic pile of sticks right above the trail. Woodrat for sure! It’s the first time I positively hear a woodrat going about its business in a nest so that was exciting.

Out of the redwoods. Photo by Frog Mom

We continued the climb and our group of five spread out in three units, each focusing on their own interests. My husband was discussing with my 5-year old at the front, the two 7-year olds were talking music, and I was taking notes, looking for wildflowers and photographing random stuff at the back. I was rewarded with the first sticky monkey flowers of the season and various white blooms I could not identify. Though there were two steep inclines, the grade was overall quite moderate and gentle on little legs getting hungry.

Once on the actual ridge, we got great views on the opposite ridge looking south towards Bald Knob. What a relief for our girls when at 2.2 miles, we finally reached the junction with the sign pointing to Purisima Creek Trail. This was the start of the Craig Britton Trail that would take us down to the creek. Finally, they were starving!

Lunch time! Photo by Frog Mom

Lunch was in order and lunch was had, though in the sun as temps in the shade were on the brisk side. We distributed cheese, bread, salami and cucumber around and secretly wished we were eating a steaming hot bowl of chili because of the fresh air. Blame that on the altitude! We were at 1,536 feet (468 meters). As we were quietly enjoying our break, a black insect full of legs crossed my daughter’s hand. I had been carrying my youngest daughter’s bug box all the way up and quick as a flash, opened it. The insect walked right inside and I screwed the lid on, I realized it was a tick. Everybody up!

Caught before the blood bath. Photo by Frog Mom

Now that bug box, I got it at Trailmix.net in Sacramento where they carry an impressive selection of bug boxes (and a ladybug playground – no joke). It was great because it was clear all around, had a magnifying lid, and allowed us all a good look on the evil beast from all angles. For $3, no more. How repulsive, finding a tick at lunch time.

I was so shocked that we had found a tick without any of us getting their blood drawn (we checked, believe me), that I kept the tick in the bug box and it ended up at school the next day for show-and-tell.

Creek running through the woods. Photo by C.G.

It’s maybe that discovery that had the girls quicken the pace on the way down. I may be wrong, but I assumed there would be more ticks in sunny and grassy areas and less in colder redwood groves. Whatever the case, as soon as lunch was over – the tick helped cut our appetite short, we headed downhill at a brisk pace.

Much to our relief, the redwoods were soon above our heads and a gurgling creek by our side. There was our occasion to hunt another specimen of the  slimiest inhabitant of the redwoods: the banana slug. We didn’t have to wait long. They just love it there: cold, damp, dark – it’s heaven.

Banana slug. Photo by C.G.

The girls got on their hands and knees to each see the double pair of antennas on the banana slug’s head and oohed and aahed when they found them. “Where are her eyes?” asked the 5-year old. Look closer, they are at the end of the biggest tentacles. Isn’t that a fun fact? Even more daring fact: did you know banana slugs were the official mollusk of the state of California? With such a pedigree, we were happily looking for them in mossy areas and photographing them on all sides. These slugs got style.

Soda Gulch? Photo by C.G.

In the realm of the redwoods, banana slugs are as frequent as creek tributaries and impromptu waterfalls. We crossed 3 to 4 bridges, some over narrow gullies, and were in awe in front of the abundance of ferns. The trail was now a roller-coaster type with ups and downs that had the girls run downhill like mad bees and wait for us patiently at the next “hill.”

They had a great time pushing imaginary “tree knobs” and asking each other”Are you ready for a funky ride?” before darting away down the trail with arms spread out like planes. At the end of the Craig Britton Trail, we made a break by a rock bench so the girls could enjoy some hot chocolate. When we go hiking in the winter, we always pack a 0.5 quart hot water thermos and packets of powdered hot chocolate. Once again, it was a hit.

Playing by Purisima Creek. Photo by Frog Mom

Right after the bench, we found the wide Purisima Creek Trail (a choice trail for bikers) and turned right to head downhill. Roughly 400 yards farther, the trail crosses over Purisima Creek at a point where ferns and greeneries lend the whole area a lush primeval atmosphere.

It’s too pretty to pass up and our trio of girls didn’t resist playing by the creek before continuing. It’s convenient with an easy access to the rushing (and cold) waters and one of the few places where kids can dip their hand in the creek.

Was it fog? Photo by C.G.

The rest of the hike on Purisima Creek Trail was more of the same “let’s go on a funky ride” type, with occasional puddles and a mist that looked like fog. Was it fog? I don’t know, it was sunny by the ocean. Fog here was unlikely but even so, fog is the normal local climate. After barely 4 hours including the lunch break, we were back at the entrance gate. That’s how a tick took his first car ride up the coast to fulfill educational duties for young masses.

Details
Hike length: 7.5 miles
Total elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Time: 4 hours (at moderate pace)
Clothing: wear layers, cold under the redwoods.
Ticks: avoid tall grasses and always check everybody from head to toe after the hike.
Water: none at the trailhead.
Restrooms: portapotty at trailhead.
Maps: free maps at trailhead but if you prefer, you can download it online here.
Parking fee/park use fee: none. FREE.

End of the hike. Photo by C.G.

Trash: pack it out.
Dogs: not allowed.
Directions (from MROSD website): From the Highway 92 and Highway 1 intersection in Half Moon Bay, travel on Highway 1 south approximately 4.3 miles. Turn left on Verde Road. After turning on to Verde Road and traveling 1/4-mile, continue straight to remain on what becomes Purisima Creek Road. (Verde Road splits off to the right.) Travel approximately 3.7 miles on Purisima Creek Road to reach the Preserve. Parking is available for approximately 5 cars.

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

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One Response to “Hiking Harkins Ridge at Purisima Creek Redwoods”

  1. March 04, 2011 at 1:39 pm, About Last Weekend said:

    What a wonderful hike. love the pics of the ferns. Always love seeing those slugs and so do my kids. Also the Mountain Lion signs make you always feel so intrepid, don’t they. Mind you I wouldn’t have a clue what to do if I met one. Our yoga teacher saw one six ft away on Mt Tamalpais and she said it was so surreal, First she thought it was a deer, then a giant cat.

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