So you’re looking for a hike in the Bay Area that’s great for any time of the year? Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve has been a crowd favourite to hike in and I’m going to let you in on the best trail!
After seeing many recommendations to hike in Purisima Creek, I finally went to check it out for myself. I wanted to see if there’s much difference between this hike and others nearby, since they all offer peaceful trails through the coastal redwood forest.
Spoiler alert – this hike was better than expected and I saw 30+ banana slugs! Hiking along a creek while winding through the fern and moss-covered redwood forest, and trying to count banana slugs are some of the things you can look forward to.
In this article, I’ll share more about my hike on the most popular trail in Purisima Creek so that you’ll know what to expect. In fact, I prepared and researched a lot because it was my first solo hike! Watch my vlog to journey along and navigate the trail together with me.
Where is Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve
Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve overlooks Half Moon Bay, on the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s excellent ocean view makes it a Bay Area gem, and you can easily combine it with a day trip to Half Moon Bay. Most people refer to the Purisima Creek Canyon when they talk about Purisima Creek, which is also where we’ll be hiking.
It is roughly 30 miles away from San Francisco (35 minutes), or 40 miles from San Jose (40 minutes). Once you’re done with your hike, lunch in Half Moon Bay is just 10 miles (15 minutes) away – how convenient!
What’s the best trail to hike in Purisima Creek?
Among the myriad of trails, the Whittermore Gulch to Harkins Ridge Trail is probably the best loop trail that you must try. It is a favorite among locals and seasoned hikers for its breathtaking views, diverse ecosystems, and a perfect balance of challenge and reward.
Whittermore Gulch to Harkins Ridge Loop Trail
This trail goes in a counter-clockwise direction, starting with a gentler downhill hike before ascending back up. Some people prefer this because it’s gentler on the knees, but it comes with the slightly steeper uphill journey back.
This beautiful loop trail descends from Skyline Boulevard into the Purisima Creek Canyon where you’ll meet the peaceful creek that runs through it. As you walk along the ridge, you’ll be treated to amazing views of Half Moon Bay and the ocean. While you’re near the creek, keep your eyes peeled for mushrooms, banana slugs, and listen to the natural sounds of the forest. Finally, hike back up the same amount of elevation to get back to the parking lot.
There are 2 restrooms along this route – one at the parking lot, and another at the Purisima Creek Road parking area which is almost at the halfway point of this trail.
Distance: 6.5 miles (10.5 km)
Duration: 4 hours
Elevation gain: 1,745 ft (530 m)
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
Enjoy breathtaking ocean views on North Ridge Trail
The trail begins on North Ridge Trail as you enter via the parking lot. There are a few junctions where you need to choose which way to go. You should stay on North Ridge Trail all the way till the last junction connecting it with Whittemore Gulch Trail. This will be a sharp left turn that leads downhill.
The views from the North Ridge Trail are absolutely stunning as you get to see Half Moon Bay as well as the ocean. Pillar Point Bluff was the most prominent sight here, and you could even see the white outline of the waves near Mavericks Beach.
It was amazing! I’ve never seen this kind of sweeping vista views of Half Moon Bay and the surrounding hills. Even on Windy Hill you only get to see a small part of the ocean from the peak.
Descend into the canyon via Whittemore Gulch Trail
If you took a wrong turn and turned left into Whittemore Gulch Trail at the first fork, it should lead you to the same point, just that you’ll be taking a slightly longer route. Whittemore Gulch Trail takes you all the way into the bottom of the canyon where you’ll see Purisima Creek.
Fun fact: Gulch is a v-shaped valley formed by erosion, but is shallower than a canyon.
There are some slightly muddy parts of the trail after a rainy week, but it was mostly easy to avoid. I also had a lot of fun counting banana slugs and watching the sun rays shine through the forest layers. It is significantly cooler in the gulch, which makes it a great hike even during summer.
So far it’s been a very relaxing downhill hike, with many picturesque moments with the way the trees frame the trail. I especially loved walking along the creek, pausing every now and then to appreciate the serenity.
Leaving the creek and heading uphill on Harkins Ridge Trail
If you need a toilet break, make a small detour and head out to the Purisima Creek Road parking area which is just past a small bridge. I was actually impressed by the motion-sensor lights here – such a luxury!
From here, you’ll take on the Harkins Ridge Trail which gradually takes you uphill. You’ll probably want to remove your warm layers and get ready to sweat! There are clear signs telling you where the trail is, though it still helps to refer to offline maps (e.g. Google Maps) to see if you’re going the right way.
You’ll still be able to see parts of Half Moon Bay as you head further up. However, this time you’ll be facing away from it so it won’t be the same experience as when you first started the trail. It’s also warmer now (if you started the trail in the morning), so the uphill sections might feel a little bit more tiring.
Although AllTrails has this hike rated as hard, it’s actually quite manageable if you take it slow. This uphill section will take 1.5-2 hours and it’s on broad and relatively good condition trails. Some of the signs will show you how long more it will take to reach North Ridge Parking, just make sure to keep left to stay the Harkins Ridge Trail.
Finally, we’ll be back at the same junction connecting the Harkins Ridge with North Ridge Trails. At this point, make a right to get back to the parking lot which ends our hiking adventure.
How do I get to Purisima Creek
Location and Map
Our journey begins at the North Ridge Parking Area, called “Purisima Creek North Ridge Trailhead” on Google Maps. There is actually another entrance at “Purisima Creek Trail, Purisima Creek Road Trailhead” but parking may be still be unavailable there due to storm damage from 2023.
For detailed trail information, refer to the map from the official website.
From San Francisco
Take Highway 280 south, continue to Highway 92 which crosses the Crystal Springs Reservoir. After that, turn south onto Highway 35 which is also the Skyline Boulevard for about 4.4 miles. You’ll see North Ridge Parking on the right.
From San Jose
Take Highway 280 north, continue to Highway 84 and then turn right to Kings Mountain Road. After that, make a sharp right turn onto Highway 35 which takes you north for about 2.5 miles. Look out for the parking on your left.
Best time to hike in Purisima Creek
While Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve is open year-round, I highly recommend hiking during winter through spring. During this time, you get to enjoy the cool weather in both the exposed parts of the trail as well as in the forest.
If you go earlier in the morning, you might even get to enjoy the mysterious fog-filled forest. The rain in these cooler seasons also helps the mushrooms, ferns and moss to flourish. In addition, it’s prime time to look for banana slugs which typically prefer moist environements.
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What to bring along for the hike
To make the most of your adventure, it’s essential to come prepared. Here’s a checklist to ensure you have everything you need.
Hiking essentials and comfort items
- Hiking boots or shoes: Comfortable and supportive footwear is a must so you’ll have the best experience. Waterproof boots can be useful for muddy trails.
- Hiking day pack: It should have enough space to store snacks, water, and any extra clothing. Here are some affordable hiking backpacks below $100 to consider.
- Water: Stay hydrated, especially during warmer months. Water reservoirs with up to 3-litre capacity are useful for longer hikes. In general, bring at least 0.5 litres for every hour of hiking.
- Map and navigation: Having a map adds an extra layer of security. Offline Google Maps also helps.
- Snacks: Pack energy-boosting snacks to keep you fueled throughout the hike. These could be energy bars, nuts, or some sweets.
- Sunscreen and cap: Protect yourself from the sun, especially during the open sections of the trail.
- Layered clothing: For example, bring a fleece sweater and wear a sweat-wicking base layer. Rain jackets can also act as a windbreaker.
- Phone tripod: If you’re hiking alone, having a phone tripod is great for filming shots of yourself.
- Trekking poles: Provide extra stability on uneven terrain and downhill sections.
More of my travel guides to help you plan your classic California experience
Lassen Volcanic | Lake Tahoe | Yosemite | Point Reyes | San Francisco Day Trips | Half Moon Bay | Pescadero | Big Sur | Santa Cruz | Monterey | Carmel-by-the-Sea | Catalina Island | Death Valley | 10-day California Road Trip | Rental car tips
Not sure where to start? I have some ideas for your California trip!