The answer seems impossible to find. The official date on the World Surf League’s event page is a broad window from Jan 1 to Feb 28. And with so much speculation about the contest being called with just a few day’s notice, only to be called off time and time again can be discouraging to anybody trying to make the trip out to Pillar Point to witness the legendary competition.
Why is there so much uncertainty here? As you can probably imagine or may have already learned, a successful big wave surfing competition requires a lot of variables to match up perfectly; actually having big waves is an obvious requirement, but it’s only one small piece of the equation. There needs to be near-perfect visibility (read: no fog), low winds for air and watercraft to operate nominally, and the hundreds of people involved in putting on the competition need to be ready to go in what can be literally tens of hours’ notice. This perfect alignment is difficult to attain, and it often results in no competition at all. Indeed, with all the perfectly viable seasons since the first competition in 1999, only ten official contests have been held at Mavericks.
While uncertainty in timing for the contest is a big problem for spectators making plans to visit, there exists an even bigger fundamental problem for people hoping to physically watch the event: there is really no way for spectators to view the competition in person at all. This is an important detail that event organizers warn about on their website:
“Unfortunately, the permits issued to the WSL by the San Mateo County Harbor District and the California Coastal Commission prohibit spectators from observing the break from the nearby beaches or the overlooking bluff occupied by the US Air Force tracking station. In past years there have been serious accidents with widely reported injuries caused by high waves sweeping through previously dry areas and from rock falls from the crumbling cliff and these public safety concerns remain ongoing. Additionally, the adjacent marshlands of Pillar Point are recognized as environmentally sensitive wetlands that are home to a number of endangered species and are required as a condition of the event permits to be protected from large crowds passing nearby. Due to these governmental requirements there can be no public access allowed on contest day shoreward of the downtown Princeton-by-the-Sea area.”
-Statement from the World Surf League site
Unfortunately for aspiring spectators, news reports about the contest do a pretty lousy job relaying this important information. The powers that be, however, have plenty of reasons to prohibit spectators from coming. During the 2010 competition, a rogue wave swept spectators, cameras, equipment, and really everything on the beach away. This was a seriously powerful event that caused a number of serious injuries. And considering the number of people and the carnage on the scene, it’s a miracle the damage wasn’t any worse. So it’s really understandable that these rules have been established; the very same elements that make a great big wave competition (namely, huge waves) do not mix well with crowds.
What to Do?
In light of your inability to watch the contest in person, what are you to do?
Well, one thing to consider is the fact that huge waves are happening at Mavericks regularly during this time of year. I was there on Tuesday (1/16) and crowds were gathered just watching the monster waves. They were reaching 45 feet, which is huge by most any standard, but it’s really pretty typical for Mavericks in January. The best way to admire these waves from the shore is to go on a day when there’s no competition. And when a competition is in the cards, there are usually internationally-acclaimed big wave surfers in the area biding their time, which can mean that there are surfers to be seen mounting these giant waves on good days all throughout January and February.
So, if you’ve planned or are thinking about planning a trip out to Pillar Point to see the contest, there’s no reason to let uncertainty get in your way. Make your plans and come, contest or not, because there’s a great chance you’ll see something epic here.
If you do happen to be in the area for the contest, there are a number of options for viewing the contest remotely. My personal recommendation is Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, where they usually do a great viewing party and event. You can even see the monster waves crashing against the breakwater in the distance from their dog-friendly patio. The only challenge is actually getting there; on contest day, traffic can be prohibitive on the two-lane stretch of SR 1 that serves as the only means of access to the site.
In the words of Tyler Fox, Mavericks is “an absolute wonder of nature.” The honest truth is that the competition, as amazing and inspiring as it is, can actually be more of a hindrance than anything else for anybody coming to admire these waves.
Make the trip. Come see the waves and get to know the beautiful and terrifying place where the competition takes place. And when the competition is called, call in sick, go to your favorite sports bar*, and watch the competition comfortably and in good company while enjoying your drink of choice.
Growing up in the cozy town of Moss Beach, highway 1 felt to me like a tether: the fragile, thin line that connected our quiet community to the bustling Bay Area metropolis on the other side of the hill. When rockslides cut that tether, a surreal silence would settle in as usually-constant stream of through traffic suddenly disappeared.
Following that vein Northward towards Daly City and San Francisco meant crossing the treacherous, cliff-clinging section of highway known as Devil’s Slide. From the backseat of the family car, I could barely see the top of the crumbling cliffs towering over us. Often, the coastal fog would be creeping its way upward toward the sunny peaks above. The place looked magical, and I always wanted to get out of the car and explore that mysterious and infamous piece of highway.
Unfortunately, the persistent traffic and lack of highway shoulders prevented us from ever stopping.
Before the highway was built, the Devil’s Slide roadbed was constructed as a part of the 1905 Ocean Shore Railroad project, an ambitious attempt to connect San Francisco to Santa Cruz with a scenic rail line. The foothills of San Pedro and Montara Mountain were too steep for the passenger locomotives of that time to handle, and a coastal train ride was the pitched draw for tourism, so Ocean Shore decided to grade a rairoad bed right into the side of the sheer cliffs between the modern towns of Linda Mar and Montara.
Grading Devil’s Slide was tough. Engineers expected most of the earth there to be similar to the silty, sandy stuff they'd worked encountered nearby. The project started with a loose type of shale that was relatively easy to move through.
About halfway across the cliffs, they hit solid granite. Getting through granite was no easy task, and required the consultation of mining engineers. In post-gold-rush San Francisco, there was no shortage of such expertise. The task would require then-state-of-the-art pneumatic rock drilling technology and high explosives. The unexpected cost of this equipment, combined with devastating losses in the 1906 earthquake, was the beginning of the ill-fated Ocean Shore Railroad’s unending financial problems.
Those grueling days grading the railroad bed would earn the site its name, as the point where shale turned to granite is actually an unstable fault line. Giant boulders and rocks would come down unpredictably on engineering crews as they worked on and moved equipment through that unstable area.
This was only the beginning of the trouble that Devil’s Slide presented for the Ocean Shore Railroad Company. When they began running passenger trains, the infamous rock slides would often delay and sometimes cancel trips. Constant rail maintenance was required to keep the tracks safe for use. The costs from this single stretch of railroad are cited as one of the fatal problems that pushed the company to failure.
Once the railroad company finally halted service in 1921, the roadbed lay unused for some years until highway one was constructed in the 1930’s. Construction of route 1 brought more blasting as highway engineers widened the passage for two lanes of traffic.
As soon as highway traffic began moving through Devil’s Slide, trouble returned. Cars would occasionally topple from that stretch of highway, and earth movements and landslides were a constant threat for the safety of motorists and the reliability of that passage. In 1995, the road was closed for several months when a part of the highway cracked as pieces of the cliff crumbled into the sea. That closure turned my father's usual twenty-minute commute to work into almost an hour, forcing him to head south to highway 92 to cross the coastal mountains.
In response, local municipalities campaigned for funding the construction of a tunnel that would bypass the slide. I remember the bright yellow pro-tunnel bumper stickers and the local enthusiasm for the project, all before my tenth birthday.
It took almost twenty years after voters approved the project to open the tunnels.
As an afterthought, a coalition of historic and nature enthusiast organizations pushed to reopen Devil’s Slide as a point of interest for tourists to come learn about that fascinating place. It was a unique opportunity to open the geology, biology, history and beauty of that once-busy stretch of highway to visitors.
The highway is still in excellent condition, providing a wonderful passage for cyclists and hikers who want to explore it.
It’s also created an opportunity for me to fulfill that childhood fantasy of mine, to walk around and explore that area without traffic. Having seen it constantly full of aggressive bay area drivers for more than twenty years of my young life, walking it today in all its tranquility is, for me, an eerie and fascinating experience.
Starting the three-mile walk from the south end, as I do, you will see the towering granite cliffs that engineers spent so much time cutting through. The quartz content of this granite gives it a sparkling appearance.
Usually, you’ll spot a biologist sitting on the other side of the ocean-side concrete barrier within a quarter mile of the parking lot. Peering through binoculars or scribbling away in a notebook, they’re studying an important colony of the endangered Common Murre that has an important colony on a tiny rock island, dubbed “Devil’s Slide Rock,” beneath the slide.
This colony shrank from 3,000 birds to just a handful of individuals in the 1980s, due to a number of environmental threats including an oil spill and net fishing activity in the area. After an extensive rehabilitation project where biologists placed mirrors and decoys (fake birds) to attract new individuals to join the Devil’s Slide Rock colony, it steadily regrew almost to its original size.
Once the highway closed, the sensitive Common Murre colony was disturbed again – they had become accustomed to the constant highway noise, and when it stopped, they apparently felt threatened. For that reason, biologists have been anxiously monitoring the health of the colony.
From atop these cliffs, one can stop and and catch a glimpse of the rock's rare inhabitants through binoculars.
Hundreds of feet and almost directly above Devil’s Slide rock is an abandoned WWII observation bunker, one of many that were built all along the California coast to watch for a potential Japanese invasion. This installation was also a part of a triangulation-targeting system that could locate ships around the Golden Gate with pinpoint accuracy. Though currently inaccessible, one can admire the concrete stairway that carried American sentries up that granite outcropping. At its top is a crumbling steel tower, now dwarfed by a tall and proud Monterey Cypress tree.
Continuing northward, one will encounter a sudden dip in the highway accompanied by a visible change in the character of the cliff’s rocks. This is the point where granite turns to shale, or vise-versa if you are heading south. That dip was not the doing of the Ocean Shore Railroad engineers; it is the result of over a century of erosion along that dividing line. This is the infamous location of countless slides and the place that earned this stretch its nickname.
From here, you hit a steady uphill climb, where I often catch a glimpse of soaring Red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, or the occasional Peregrine Falcon riding the updraft far above.
The top of this hill, the highest point along this scenic road, offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. On a perfectly clear day, the Farallone Islands somehow appear closer than they are. Looking upward, the shale appears in odd cube-shaped formations, appearing in sizes between that of a die and that of a Rubik's cube, and every size in between. The geometric consistency of those rock formations is mesmorizing.
Although I always take this trip on foot, I can see why it’s such a popular spot for cyclists. There is no bike lane to get cylists to the Devil's Slide trail, but one can easily tote a bike on a bike rack and park at either trailhead. From there, the road surface is perfect for a brisk 6 mile out-and-back road bike trip. This ride offers a moderately-graded section for a short climb up and a chance to enjoy the breathtaking views on the way down.
On foot or on wheels, Devil’s Slide is an excellent point of interest for those looking to learn more about the history of our coastal community and its connection with the greater San Francisco Bay Area. For wildlife enthusiasts, especially those interested in our coastal bird species, it’s a wonderful opportunity to find some rare species. Whatever your reason is for visiting our community, I highly recommend checking out Devil’s Slide.
Thanks for reading and we’ll see you here on the sunny coast!
-Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours Guide and Blogger
Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours specializes in making your trip to the San Mateo County coast the best it can be. Contact us for more information on corporate group tours, guided hiking or bike tours, team-building activities, wine tasting, and much more! Whatever it is that brings you to our community, we're happy to help you make it happen.
Princeton by the Sea, with its odd mixture of commercial, industrial, and recreational industries, feels almost like a childhood playground to me.
It was the sight of most of by childhood fourth of July celebrations. The official fireworks display over the harbor is almost always obscured by the dense summer marine layer, transforming the show into colored blobs flashing in the fog followed by the sharp sound of aerial explosions.
As a child, I was much more interested in the illegal fireworks visitors would ignite on the protected beach of the harbor. Even more interesting was the fifth of July, when a good friend of mine and I would wake up at dawn, ride our bikes to the shore, and begin combing the beach for unused fireworks.
In the early days of my childhood, Romeo’s pier was still an active loading site for the harbor’s commercial fishing activities. The pier, constructed in 1940, is now officially condemned and scheduled for demolition by local authorities. In the time between its closure and fall into disrepair, sneaking out into its mysterious abandoned offices and facilities was a popular pastime for my group of friends.
Today, the only active pier in the harbor is the youngest of the three major piers that served our community in the 20th century: Johnson pier. Amesport Wharf, constructed in the late 1860s, was the first of the three. It was built at the site of modern Miramar, and was falling apart by the time Romeo’s pier came around in 1940. By the time the breakwater was constructed in 1959, Amesport Wharf was reduced to a few lingering pilings.
With its rich and ever-evolving history, Princeton by the Sea remains one of my favorite pieces of our slice of coastline. Having the opportunity to share its hidden treasures with visitors is a delight.
I had one such opportunity today, when a couple from San Francisco decided to take our historic tour of Princeton by the Sea.
When I asked if they’d been there before, they told me, “We’ve driven past here probably a hundred times. We never stopped!”
With the sun shining and the fishermen bustling about the harbor, it was a perfect day to visit. I could understand why the two seemed so pleased with the tour before it had even begun.
We started the tour with a look around Johnson pier. Crab pots piled high on the pier, most of the fishing boats are outfitted for squid harvesting this time of year. Until crab season returns in November, the crab pots will sit unused on the streets, docks, and parking lots of Princeton.
Now the epicenter of the harbor’s economic activity, this area houses a number of historic buildings. Hazel’s, open today as Barbara’s Fishtrap, was a favorite stop for Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio when they were in town. The Princeton Inn, today the site of the Italian restaurant Mezzaluna, was the namesake of this harbor town. The strip of buildings that now house a few local bars and restaurants was once a bustling open fish market.
The sight of fishing boats and the smell of freshly fried calamari wafting from Barbara’s fish trap is evidence that the seafood industry is alive and strong here. The enormous surfboards and the number of surf shops (including Jeff Clark’s Mavericks Surf Shop) are evidence of Princeton’s modern incarnation as a surf town.
Indeed, during most of its history, Princeton by the Sea was largely off the map for surfers. That all changed when Jeff Clark, then a student at Half Moon Bay High School, discovered the unbelievably huge waves breaking just off Pillar Point. That he paddled out and mounted these giants alone at age 17 is a feat in and of itself; the surf spot has claimed the lives of many professional surfers since its surge to popularity in the early nineties. Clark would keep the spot to himself for fifteen years before sharing it with the big wave surfing community. Today, it’s the site of one of the most important big wave surf competitions in the world.
I took my tour group for a walk out to the end of Pillar Point to take a look at the surf spot. Its waves were breaking at the relatively unimpressive size of about ten feet (the big wave season in early to mid winter), but the chance to see the place was impressive enough for these visitors.
“We’ve known about the competition for years and watched it on TV, but we never really realized it was right here in our own backyard,” commented the husband on the tour.
They appreciated the opportunity to discover the best viewing points for the competition, resolving to come watch at the next Mavericks event.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this tour is my inability to share every piece of history that I’ve learned about over the years. With so many anecdotes, historic buildings, and colorful historical characters, I could probably spend more than a day touring Princeton by the Sea.
For now, I need to appreciate the opportunity I have to share this little gem on the coastside with the visitors who come seeking a little insight from a local.
Thanks for reading and we’ll see you here on the coast!
-Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours Guide and Blogger
The Half Moon Bay coastside offers a surprising number of hiking opportunities. From easy paved walks with almost no elevation change to Montara’s impressive peak towering almost 2,000 feet above the sea, there is a trail for hikers of every ability level.
While the longest and highest trails always piqued my interest growing up in this area, years of exploration have lead me to deep appreciation for some of the shorter trails tucked away in the quieter corners of our community.
One of these hidden gems is located just a few miles south of Half Moon Bay proper. Cowell Ranch beach and access trail is a quiet escape. An easy half-mile path leads visitors from an ample parking lot directly to a beautiful beach.
After descending the steps to Cowell Ranch beach, yellow sandstone cliffs tower above beach goers and offer the sensation of near-isolation. Cut off from the noise of highway-1 traffic and out of view of any buildings, one almost feels transported to a place with no people at all.
This is an easy walk with ample free parking, but for those looking to venture further, the trail system extends south along the clifftops and connects to another trailhead, the Cowell-Purisima trail head, just over 2 miles away. Just beyond that trailhead and parking lot is Seal Rock (not to be confused with the Seal Rocks of San Francisco). Lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of the famous harbor seals, the rock’s namesake.
The wonderful thing about this trail system is its versatility. It offers an easy path to the beach with convenient parking and a longer adventure for those who’d like to see more of this quiet stretch of coast. With two trailheads and parking lots, there’s even the possibility for a one-way 2.5 mile hike from the Cowell Ranch beach access parking lot to the Cowell-Purisima parking lot, provided hikers make the proper arrangements for drop-off and pickup.
As a guide at Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours, I’m excited and honored by the opportunity to share this sliver of tranquility just south of our town. After all, the best adventures are those taken in good company.
Thanks for reading and we'll see you here on the coast!
Michael Klear, Half Moon Bay Coastside Tours guide and Blogger