Spectacular New Devil’s Slide Trail Difficult to Reach Without a Car

A 1.3-mile section of abandoned Highway 1 south of Pacifica was converted into the new Devil’s Slide Trail, seen here just before its grand opening to the public on March 27. Photo: Andrew Boone

The 1.3-mile “Devil’s Slide” segment of Highway 1 just south of Pacifica is the latest addition to San Mateo County’s 20 parks. The freshly-paved walking and biking trail offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and its coastal cliffs, and it’s by far the widest trail in the San Francisco Bay Area, with 12 feet striped for walking and 12 feet for bicycling.

“This is inarguably one of the most beautiful segments of the California Coastal Trail,” said Coastal Conservancy Executive Officer Samual Schuchat at the trail’s ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday. “It’s incredibly exciting to open it, after years of driving through here and wanting to take in these views but being afraid that you would crash.”

The geologically hazardous section of highway was closed to cars in March of last year with the opening of the twin Tom Lantos tunnels, which Caltrans constructed to bypass this stretch. As Deidra Kennedy of the Pacifica Historical Society told the SF Chronicle last week, Caltrans originally planned to build an inland bypass and bury the Devil’s Slide highway, but local activists persuaded them to instead build a tunnel and re-purpose the coastal road.

Construction included re-paving the road, building parking lots, bus stops, and public restrooms at both ends, and adding three overlooks, 12 benches, and a variety of educational panels alongside the trail to help visitors learn about the area’s geology and ecology. The San Mateo County Parks Department spent $2 million on the highway-to-trail project, and will invest another $492,000 per year to maintain it, or roughly 5 percent of the department’s annual budget.

Getting to the new trail without a car, however, is a challenge. Since the trail was carved from Highway 1, the highway remains the only way to get there.

Few visitors to the Devil’s Slide trail are willing to brave walking and biking on the shoulder of Highway 1. Photo: Matt Hansen, Peninsula Press

On the weekends, a free shuttle runs only once an hour from Pacifica State Beach, and SamTrans bus 17 runs only once every two hours from Half Moon Bay or Pacifica. A one-way trip using transit takes at least 1.5 hours from San Mateo and over two hours from San Francisco.

The 44 available car parking spaces were packed as soon as the trail opened to public at 1 p.m. last Thursday. Visitors who can’t find an available parking spot at Devil’s Slide are expected to park instead at Gray Whale Cove 1/2 mile to the south or Pacifica State Beach 1.2 miles to the north, and walk or bike back along the highway. In both directions, the striped shoulder narrows to less than one foot wide along the highway’s steepest sections, approaching Devil’s Slide.

“People will be walking along [the highway]. That’s the scary part,” Midcoast Parks and Recreation Committee Member Patrick Tierney told the Half Moon Review earlier this month before the trail opened. The “missing piece” for visitors, he said, is the proposed Green Valley Trail leading to the Devil’s Slide from Montara.

The shoulder of Highway 1 narrows to less than one foot approaching Devil’s Slide. No other access for walking or bicycling to the new trail exists yet. Photos: Google Maps

The Green Valley Trail would wind northwards from the Gray Whale Cove parking lot, one mile up the hill and well above Highway 1, then head back down to the southern entrance of the Devil’s Slide Trail. It would offer beautiful views of the ocean for people walking and bicycling, who also wouldn’t have to share the road with the busy highway’s traffic. Another proposed 1.5-mile long trail would connect the north end of Devil’s Slide to Pacifica, winding roughly parallel to and above Highway 1 through the Pedro Point Headlands.

But neither of the trail projects are funded yet, and the Pacifica trail project is on hold because the county hasn’t yet purchased a parcel of private property needed to construct it. County officials are confident the trails will someday be built, but haven’t set any target dates or sought funds for their construction, since they remain in preliminary stages.

Caltrans spent $439 million on the Devil’s Slide twin bridges and tunnels but no money to make walking or bicycling to the tunnels safer. Photo: Michal Cialowicz, CE News

San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, who helped secure funds for the Devil’s Slide highway-to-trail project, said, he’s “committed to the eventual completion of both of these access trails.”

“The future trails will help to alleviate the parking congestion at what is surely to become an increasingly popular Devil’s Slide Trail Park,” he said.

The $439 million twin bridges and tunnels completed in March 2013 by Caltrans to bypass the hazardous Devil’s Slide provided a safer route and saved a few minutes for drivers, but the project included no measures to mitigate the increased noise, air pollution, and dangerous conditions for people walking and bicycling to where the entrances to the Devil’s Slide Park are now located.

Caltrans’ 2006 Complete Streets Policy requires the agency to include safe accommodations for all modes of transportation in their projects, but the agency only did so on the bridges and the tunnels themselves — not on the one-mile long highway approaches to Devil’s Slide. San Mateo County officials didn’t request such mitigation measures, which would have reduced the impacts on residents’ health and safety, when the tunnel project was being planned more than ten years ago; it’s unknown whether or not Caltrans would have been granted such a request anyway.

Until safe and convenient access is provided to the Devil’s Slide Trail by foot, bike, and transit, this great new walking and biking improvement could ironically make weekend traffic worse.