Fog is a wonderful giant air conditioner, but there are times when you want clear skies to take in the views looking up and down the coast and most importantly out over the ocean. Well, we couldn't wait any longer and decided to head out and explore our favorite walk above the Pacific Ocean on the Coastal Trail. The section of Coastal Trail that we prefer is between Pantoll and Willow Camp trail. This allows for a nice loop using Cataract and Old Mine or Easy Grade trails to get there.
When we headed out to Coastal Trail this week the fog was thick, but it was below the trail creating an ocean of fog and cool weather for hiking. Once in awhile the fog would surge and cover the trail briefly then retreat, playing a game of hide and seek with the hill along the ridge.
The trail is relatively flat and contours along the ridge through mixed forest and open grassland. At an elevation of 1,500' to 1,800' the trail is often high above the fog, but we prefer clear weather when possible for this hike. As we move into fall the coastal upwelling that causes the fog will diminish and the clear fall days will arrive. Keep this hike in mind for just such an occasion.
We prefer to do the hike starting with the inland route. From Pantoll go up Old Mine Trail, which is a bit steep, or Easy Grade Trail to Mountain Theater, which adds a nice extra destination for the loop. Then head down Cataract Trail from Rock Springs parking area until you reach the bridge heading over to Laurel Dell Fire Road. If it is windy on the coast side you can continue an extra quarter-mile to the Laurel Dell picnic area for some protection from the wind.
One of my favorite moments of the hike is when you crest the ridge from Laurel Dell and look out to sea, even if it is covered in fog. It is such a dramatic and sudden change from the sheltered forest to the windswept grasslands and sweeping views of the last coastal ridge before the Pacific Ocean.
The trail leading down to Coastal Trail is just across the street. Head down and be sure to go left on Coastal Trail, so you head back to where you parked. The next two miles are loaded with fantastic views. Be sure to turn around and look north once in awhile for a different perspective. There are numerous beautiful spots to sit and take in the view or have a romantic picnic. Because of the thermal air currents that often rise up along the bluffs you can often look down on Turkey Vultures and Hawks riding the currents just below. If it is a clear day be sure to look out to the horizon for the Farallon Islands 27 miles out to sea. Coastal Trail winds all the way back to Pantoll.
There is water available at the Pantoll parking area, but none along the route. The Coastal Trail portion is very exposed, so bring plenty of sunscreen and a hat. Also, Coastal Trail is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and does not allow dogs.