There are lots of hiking trails that give you beautiful views across Pacifica and into Half Moon Bay, but if you’re looking for a bit of a challenge to go along with it, you need to try the Montara Mountain hike next time you visit. 

You’ll find a few different access points to begin this hike in McNee Ranch State Park or San Pedro Valley County Park (more on that later).

We hiked The Montara Mountain North Peak Loop from the Grey Whale Cove parking area, up to an elevation of almost 1,898 feet (578 metres) above sea level. Can you tell I’m proud I made it to the top? 

Looking for more hikes in the area? Why not check out our favorite Half Moon Bay hikes while you’re here?

Montara Mountain Hike FAQs 

Lone tree on a hill in Pacifica

With sweeping panoramic views like these, you can see why this hike is so popular.

We planned on writing this hike into a list of the best trails in Pacifica, but after getting out and experiencing it, we decided that the stunning views meant that it deserved it’s very own post. 

So before we jump into the hike itself, let’s answer some questions about this popular trail.

Is Montara Mountain Trail open?

Pacific Ocean views over grassy hills

The trails remain open during the pandemic, but don’t forget your mask!

The Montara Mountain Trail, and the surrounding access trails remain open despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, it is important to note that you will need to bring a mask with you to wear while passing other hikers, runners, and cyclists on this popular trail. 

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The version of the Montara Mountain hike that we did, includes the Grey Whale Cove Trail, which is extremely narrow in parts.

Maintaining six-feet of social distance isn’t possible when there are oncoming hikers or runners. Keep this in mind if you are at higher-risk of COVID-19 and are trying to avoid others as much as possible.

Where should I park for a Montara Mountain hike?

Gray Whale Cove State Beach Parking Lot

The Gray Whale Cove State Beach parking lot just before 8AM on a Sunday.

There are three separate trailheads where you can begin this hike, so if you can’t find parking at one, it doesn’t hurt to try one of the others.

We parked at Gray Whale Cove State Beach and took the Gray Whale Cove trail to begin. You can also use the parking lot on the Martini Creek entrance and start from North Peak Access Road. Both of these parking lots are accessible from Highway 1, about 20 miles south of San Francisco.

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Both parking areas are open from 8AM to sunset, however there is no gate at the Gray Whale Cove State Beach parking lot so you can arrive a little earlier, in theory. Both parking areas are free, so they are very popular and I’d recommend arriving earlier in the day for the best chance of finding a parking space.

If you prefer to start this hike in San Pedro Valley County Park, you’ll pay a $6 parking fee. Veterans with proof of their status, seniors over 62+, and vehicles displaying disabled placards may be exempt. See the San Pedro Valley County Park website for details.

When is the best time to hike Montara Mountain?

You’re bound to come across a few cyclists on this hike, but most of the trails are wide enough that you won’t have to worry about them whizzing past your ears.

This is a popular hike, no matter where you start it, so be prepared to come across other hikers, trail runners, and even some cyclists along the way. 

It also traverses other popular trails (Gray Whale Cove trail, for example), so it is best to begin early in the morning. We visited just before 8AM on a Sunday morning and while there was still plenty of parking left, there were a few people on the trails.

Depending on where you start this hike, you won’t get a lot of shade from trees or shrubs, so visiting in the middle of the day during the summer is not advised. We hiked this trail in early February and while the sea breeze was chilly in the morning, the climb warmed us up pretty quickly.

What should I wear while hiking Montara Mountain?

Rolling green hills covered in fog and cloud

Dress in layers that you can remove as the day gets hotter or as you warm up on the hike. As mentioned above, there isn’t a lot of tree cover on large parts of this hike, so you won’t be protected from the sea breeze, which can be quite cold in Pacifica.

Wear a warmer jacket that you can remove as you warm up, but ensure you have a top made from sweat-wicking materials so that you don’t soak through it and make yourself cold again later on. 

You’ll also need shoes with very good grip. You’ll be hiking on a steep fire trail (N Peak Access Road), which isn’t too bad for grip on the way up, but on the return leg you’ll be slipping and sliding on the gravel a lot more if you don’t have some good hiking shoes or boots on.

Honestly, hike in whatever pants you’re most comfortable in and that allow the most freedom of movement. 

What should I bring on a Montara Mountain hike?

This is a longer day hike and you’ll want to have a few essentials with you while you’re out on the trails:

  • Sunscreen 
  • Hat 
  • Refillable water bottle
  • A picnic lunch or a snack at the very least
  • Download your maps – we didn’t have phone reception at Gray Whale Cove so be prepared for this
  • Mask 
  • Backpack – make sure you have a comfortable backpack that won’t dig into your shoulders
  • Camera – you’ll want to snap these views

Montara Mountain Hike

This guide begins from Gray Whale Cove State Beach parking lot, climbs up through McMcNee Ranch State Park to (almost) the summit of Montara Mountain, and then returns down Pedro Mountain Road Trail.

  • Distance: 7.8 miles loop
  • Difficulty: Medium to difficult
  • Elevation: 1898 ft (578 metres) 
  • Starting point: Gray Whale Cove Trail parking lot, Pacific Coast Highway, Pacifica

The Initial Climb

Beach and Pacific Ocean blanketed in fog

The fog makes for a moody view as the sun rises.

The Gray Whale Cove Trailhead is in the parking lot, on the right hand side as you’re facing away from the ocean. The initial trail is narrow and is very popular so if you start later in the day, you’ll come across lots of other people enjoying it. 

Follow Gray Whale Cove Trail along the Pacific Ocean, and enjoy the views of the water and the Pacific Coast Highway. The trail ends at North Peak Access Road, where you’ll turn left to start the climb up Montara Mountain.

Narrow dirt trail surrounded by shrubs

Be prepared for the narrowness of the trail here.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to stop a few times to catch your breath on the way up, but just turn around and use the beautiful views of the ocean below you as an excuse and you’ll be golden.

Hang out at the top and watch the rest of the sunrise if you’re visiting early in the day, before taking the dirt trail to the right up Old Pedro Mountain Road and eventually back to North Peak Access Road.

Gorgeous views

Fog covering green hillsides

Even if it’s foggy, you’ll still experience some dramatic scenery.

This section of North Peak Access Road is where you’ll start to see cyclists slogging up the loose gravel, but the fire trail is really wide so there’s plenty of room for everyone.

The bad news is that the climbing doesn’t let up. But the good news is the views are amazing. Depending on the weather and time of day you visit, you’ll see Pacifica blanketed in a fog that lets the hills and ridges peak out from under its fluffy embrace.

View of Bay Area from Montara Mountain, Pacifica

Don’t forget to look back at the beach you started from.

The panoramic views on this trail are too stunning to properly describe, suffice to say you need to see them yourself to really get it. 

On clear days you’ll get to drink in a large swathe of the Bay Area with views of the Pacific Ocean out to the Farallon Islands and up the coast to Mt Tamalpais and Point Reyes. To the south you’ll see Pillar Point and Half Moon Bay.

Red Indian Paintbrush flowers

Even in early February, we saw Indian Paintbrush in bloom.

Visit in the spring months to see California poppy, lupine, California lilac and other wildflowers blooming along the trail. Take plenty of breaks to drink in the views on your way up to break up the steep climb.

North Peak (almost) Summit

Radio tower and weather station on Montara Mountain

The summit is fenced off by the landowner, but you can almost make it to the peak.

Here’s the slightly disappointing part that I learned when I made it to Montara Mountain’s North Peak – you can’t climb all the way to the very peak.

Why not? The landowner, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, erected a radio tower and weather station on the summit and fenced it off to the public.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll still be saying that I climbed to the peak of Montara Mountain, because being a few feet off still feels like I earned the accomplishment.

While you’re up here, you may as well visit the rain gauge, located along the trail, past the radio and weather towers. Scan the QR code on the rain gauge and report how much water is in the gauge. You’re a citizen scientist now, nice work. 

The Descent 

Rolling green hillsides of Middle Peak, Montara Mountain

Middle Peak is a great place to stop for a picnic on the way back.

Retrace your steps down North Peak Access Road. For a change of scenery, take a left on the narrow dirt trail into the valley about three quarters of the way down North Peak Access Road.

This trail winds you through dense, low shrubs, and through some welcome shade from trees and eventually meets up with Old San Pedro Mountain Road again. Be warned that there is a short, steep section of descent to get to Old San Pedro Mountain Road, that I (not very gracefully) crawled down.

Green hillsides on Montara Mountain Hike

The trail widens significantly here, and you’ll start to come across more hikers and cyclists again. Finally, take a right on Gray Whale Cove Trail to head back to the parking lot where you began. This is where the trail becomes a narrow one-person pathway again.

This part of the trail is a popular one because it gives great views of the Pacific Ocean, without the steep climbs. So you’ll see lots of families and dog walkers enjoying the fresh ocean air.

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