History & a Hike: Sweeney Ridge

Sweeney Ridge is a large outdoor recreation area (a.k.a. park), located just south of San Francisco. It is sandwiched between the sleepy and often foggy, ocean-side town of Pacifica and the less adjective-friendly Peninsula city of San Bruno. Home to the San Francisco Bay Discovery SiteSweeney Ridge is where European explorers, as part of the Portolá Expedition, first laid eyes on San Francisco Bay. There are several trails and trailheads scattered around the ridge, that lead hikers to this historic destination.

To celebrate the survival of another Thanksgiving holiday, my roommate Austin and I spent Black Friday hiking up Mori Ridge Trail, the trailhead nearest to Pacifica (near Shelldance Nursery).

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Alternative trails start from Skyline College and Sneath Lane in San Bruno. These routes are equal in climb and distance, and offer different views and landscape. Our hike had the Pacific Ocean at our backs on the way up, and then front and center on the way down. (See the official park map for more details on the other trails.)

From the Mori Ridge Trailhead, it’s about 1.3 steep miles up to an abandoned Nike Missile Control Site left over from the Cold War days. If you’ve hiked in the Marin Headlands you’ve likely encountered one of these sites, which used to house nuclear warhead missiles pointed at Russia — crazy and interesting. The one at Sweeney Ridge is plastered with wall-to-wall graffiti.  Colorful, impressive, and – it turns out –photo-friendly.

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From the missile site, it’s about another mile to the actual discovery site, where you’ll find a commemorative stone marker. It’s a fun place to pause and daydream about what that day must have been like as the explorers bush-whacked their way up the ridge and laid eyes on the beautiful Bay for the first time. From the top, on a clear(ish) day you can see all the notable and impressive peaks around the Bay including Tamalpais, Diablo and Hamilton. 

It’s a quick trip back down, with beautiful views of the ocean the entire way. If it’s clear you’ll likely be able to see the Farralon Islands and Point Reyes.

Another noteworthy aspect of Sweeney Ridge is that it’s situated just a few miles from San Francisco International airport. This makes for busy air space above you as you hike, with lots of planes taking off and landing. You may find this a nuisance or, like we did, or a point of fantasy. Seeing jumbo jets taking off, heading straight out over the Pacific Ocean, fueled our imagination about where they were going and what they were hauling.

I recommend this hike to anyone looking for a quick and solid workout or who wants a 2-hour hike that’s easy to get to from San Francisco (only 20 minutes drive south). The history is a fantastic added bonus, as are the amazing views of the Pacific, and the opportunities for exploring at the missile site.

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