SFPUC may ease recreational access to Crystal Springs Reservoir property

Posted by on Thu, January 28, 2010

Sawyer Camp Trail parallels Crystal Springs reservoir

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission owns a great deal of open space between Highway 280 and the Coastside, and nearly all of it is inaccessible to the public. This may change in the not too distant future.

The Chronicle’s Tom Stienstra notes that the SFPUC only has to unlock a couple of gates to connect Sweeney Ridge Trail to the Pacific, via Rancho Corral de Tierra—and that it may eventually happen.

After years of public prodding and pleading with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the Crystal Springs Watershed with the San Francisco Water Department, the water agency has a new conciliatory attitude toward public access that could eventually unlock two gates on the service road.

"There’s definitely a change," said Powell, in regard to the commission’s thoughts. "I think that trip (Sweeney-to-the-sea) could be possible in the future."

The commission has always been tight-lipped about public access, but the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s influence could open the door. That’s because of the pending addition of Rancho Corral de Tierra to the recreation area by year’s end, leaving the watershed sandwiched between two recreation area properties - Sweeney to the east and Rancho to the west.

The two locked gates between Sweeney and Rancho are on a service road. One gate is about a mile south of Sweeney Ridge and the other is just off the shoulder of the summit of Montara Mountain. This gravel and dirt road rises up the wilderness east flank of the mountain. It is bordered by chaparral, so those making the trek would be forced to stay on the road.

Meanwhile, San Mateo County may be able to eventually open a trail to connect Sawyer Camp Trail with Cañada Road, reports Julia Scott in the County Times.

The project would involve paving a three-mile stretch of existing service road that meanders along Crystal Springs Road without a car in sight, offering unimpeded views of the lush parkland owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). A former stagecoach route for traffic from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay, the trail used to overlook small towns and farmlands before they were removed to make way for Crystal Springs Reservoir.

It sounds simple enough, but the project has been beset by delays related to lack of funding. The SFPUC is planning a major, unrelated construction project to raise Crystal Springs Dam to prevent a flood hazard, which will involve rebuilding a short section of Skyline Boulevard. When that project is completed, likely in three to four years, the repaved road will include a pathway for hikers and bikers to make their way over the dam to the new trail segment.

Today the Sawyer Camp trail is nine miles long and gets 300,000 visitors per year, according to the parks department. The county leases the land from the SFPUC. Next week, county officials will present an updated design and engineering plan to the SFPUC for its approval.

Senior Parks Planner Sam Herzberg says the combined 12-mile pathway, to be renamed Crystal Springs Trail, should be completed by then. But finding grant funding for it has been difficult. The first 1.1-mile extension, from the dam to Highway 92, will cost $800,000, and the parks department only has half the money in hand so far.

Scott notes that access for equestrians is still an open question for the project.

Obviously there’s a little more involved than just unlocking a couple of gates, including but not limited to safety, access restrictions, changes to trailheads, etc. But this is a good start, being one of the “illegals” traversing the ridge in prior decades, the area between Sweeney/Lake Pilarcitos & CS Resevoir/Montara Mtn is sublime to say the least. I’m sure watershed impact will come to the forefort, especially with the equestrian question in tow.

Curious if couldn’t a POST buy the land? or foot a long-long-term lease? I hear weekly how the City & County of St Francis is amidst a budget shortfall. Given POST land acquisitions of yore, and how wired tight they are from environmental perspective, the city should find comfort in this regard. The watershed is meant to protect and support the resevoir a la “serve the ppl”, not as a long-term capital investment. A few million for them to blow with EPA-heavied projects would serve them well. I would certainly expect the employees living there to object, despite Tom’s (Stienestra) free and clear privacy mention. Some of those properties along/around the reservoir are plush.

Comment 2
Fri, January 29, 2010 3:06pm
Carl May
All my comments

Not much more to it for the Sweeney-North Peak stretch (Whiting Ridge, if memory serves) than opening it up. It’s a road, for gosh sakes. A bit of signing at the gates might be in order—the watershed is a designated Biosphere Reserve, among other things. It would be a simple matter to ban horses, but equestrians already had—may still have for all I know—special access to the watershed for years in the form of privileges given to members of the Sheriff’s mounted patrol. The main issue would be responsibility for keeping hikers and cyclists on the esisting road.

The ridge road south on Montara Mountain to Scarper Peak would be blocked in this scheme but could be considered as a separate possibility for opening, as it runs just outside what will be GGNRA property. It, too, would make a fine, ready-made stretch of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.

Any additional watershed impact due to hikers and cyclists confined to these ridgetop roads on Pilarcitos and Crystal Springs would be nil—any runoff problems are already created by the roads, themselves, and the vegetation-removing fire breaks. (Of course our local urban environmentalists would probably want to pave everything up there, a la Sawyer’s Camp Road, what they fostered on Mirada Surf West, and what they want to do in Fitzgerald. Then runoff would become more of an issue.) Even more wrong would be to cut another trail through the scrub and chaparral in addition to the existing roads. Trails sometimes need to piggyback on past developments and mistakes, but making new mistakes is not necessary.

We looked at all this in some detail on GGNRA’s Sweeney Ridge Trail Committee, which looked at access to Sweeney Ridge for all kinds of users from all directions—in addition to trails on Sweeney Ridge, itself, when the GGNRA took the property. Some cool possibilities for the public, such as hiking over the ridge from San Bruno, staying in the hostel in Montara, and hiking back the next day. That report must be around in some dusty file somewhere.

I love this bike ride.  Robert Donahue the guide who coordinates unlocking the gates is awesome and has a badass bike.  The views are spectacular.  If your lucky Robert will make the full loop.


When they open the gates permanently this trail will be paved and discovered.  Ride it now before that happens!