The North Peak Access Road in McNee Ranch State Park is a challenging hike, but the 360° views at the top of Montara Mountain are well worth the effort. Layer appropriately as drastic changes in weather can occur quickly. I began the hike in sweltering sunshine and ended it in a dense shroud of fog (just three hours later). On a weekday, the trail was quiet with only a handful of hikers and mountain bikers.
From the small parking lot, begin following the dirt road away from the coast. When you approach the ranger residence stay to the left and follow signs for the North Peak Access Road. On a nice day, you’ll be exposed to plentiful sunshine throughout the majority of the hike so be prepared with a hat and sunscreen. The gradual incline of the road gets progressively steeper as you climb up through the coastal scrub. Be on the lookout for plenty of butterflies, lizards, rabbits, and hummingbirds along the way. Bright orange California Poppies and red Pacific Stonecrop are just two types of the numerous wildflowers you’ll spot lining the road.
Throughout the trail you’ll pass multiple turnoffs for the Old Pedro Mountain road or Gray Whale Cove trail, but stay on the North Peak Access road the whole way to the top. Although the road rarely levels out completely, the incline lessens as you walk through a forested section. Around the bend you’ll get your first northern glimpse of the coast. [Here you’ll see a marker for a small footpath shortcut that leads to the Gray Whale Cove trail. It is possible to park at the Gray Whale Cove beach parking lot and use this steep, but efficient route to reduce hiking time.] At this point, the road steepens once more. Be alert for service vehicles coming around the bends. You’ll soon pass by a flat area that provides a nice place to sit down and rest while admiring the scenic vistas all around you. Looking out to the left of the road on a clear day you’ll be able to see Pacifica, San Francisco (including the two towers of the Golden Gate), the Marin Headlands, Mount Diablo, and the outline of the Farallon Islands. The view on the south side of the road extends to Half Moon Bay and the Santa Cruz mountains. The road continues along the northern side of Montara Mountain as it passes through Montara Manzanita, a species endemic to the area. At the summit there are two clusters of electrical towers from the bottom of which you’ll have a 360° view of the area. The road forks, so feel free to explore the area on both sides. If there’s fog rolling in from the ocean, you’ll be sure to see it from here.
The descent is all downhill and somewhat tough on the knees. Three quarters of the way down take a right onto the Old Pedro Mountain road in order to connect to the Gray Whale Cove trail. Look out for the washed out sections of trail as you gradually wind down the mountain. Take a right onto the marked dirt footpath that leads to the Gray Whale Cove trail. When you reach the GWC trail on the bluff go left to make your way back down to the parking lot.