From Railroad to Interstate Highway to Coastal Hiking Trail…
After 28 years of service for the Pacifica Fire Department, Cal Hinton had responded to over fifty incidents at Devils Slide. A majority of the calls were for cars off the roadway or climbers in jeopardy. Hinton responded to a call in 1955 where a couple had perished, a San Francisco Firefighter and his family. The memory stuck with Hal, and he was able to share it years later with the San Mateo Historical Association. The Devil’s Slide area of Highway 1 was a short part of a narrow passage connecting Pacifica to Montara. It had been a hazard since the beginning. The Association cites a San Francisco Newspaper article in 1912, which described the strip of road “As treacherous a piece of road as can be found. Death stalks in front and lurks behind in every foot of the climb to the summit.”
That is no longer true. In 2013, the Tom Lantos Tunnel opened, bypassing the Devil’s Slide area, removing the hazard, and turning Devil’s Slide into a scenic recreational trail that is now part of the California Coastal Trail.
The question remains why would anyone open such a dangerous road, and why did it take so long to rectify the hazard since it had reached public awareness in 1912? The answer is frustrating and confusing but, more importantly, the solution offers a lesson in civic compromise. The resolution has transformed the problem into a community victory and created a trail that restores and redeems the area for generations to come.
Running from Rails to Wheels
The Ocean Shore Railroad began operation in 1907, one year after the historic earthquake in San Francisco. The railroad would be the first path through Devil’s Slide. After a major setback due to serious damage as a result of the earthquake, the train was working, taking passengers and freight from the coastal farms—from Santa Cruz to the tip of the Peninsula. After initial success, the railroad began to fail and ended operation in 1920.
By 1937, Caltrans had turned the railroad route into part of Highway 1, nearly following the same path as the railway. A major landslide only one year later would lead to the road’s first closure. This dilemma would be repeated often over the rest of the century. The infamy associated began to develop over those early years.
This led the California Highway Commission 1960 to propose construction of a 7.5-mile highway from Pacifica to the Half Moon Bay Airport with four to six lanes. Many members of the local community opposed to the new road and suggested a tunnel instead, but Caltrans rejected it due to cost and other factors. This led to miscommunication and resentments between sections of the local community and CalTrans.
Negotiation and lobbying would continue for decades until a settlement was finally reached in 1996 with the passing of Measure T. With the help of Barbara Boxer and Tom Lantos, construction began in 2007 and the bypass tunnel finally opened in 2013.
Devil’s Slide Trail
The San Mateo County Parks took over the Devil’s Slide route soon after the bypass tunnel opened and a new trail, which is now part of the California Coastal Trail, opened on March 27, 2014. The new trail is unlike it’s predecessor in many ways.
You can find the northern trailhead on Highway 1, just before the tunnel. Likewise, heading northbound from Montara, you can find the exit for the southern trailhead just before the bypass tunnel. Restrooms are located in both trailheads, along with pet waste stations.
There is some steep terrain; however, the trail is only 1.3 miles. The trail is open to hikers, bicyclist, and dog walkers. The trail features a nice bike lane and, in fact, has retained the concrete road making it a paved trail.
A journey through the trail will reveal numerous birds perching through the hillside, along with an excellent view of the shale and sandstone, which has been the source of the rockslide over the years.
Peering over the trail cliff, one may be overwhelmed with ocean and surrounding coastal view. Several beaches mark the region and are excellent to venture towards. It is said there is a 250 foot elevation difference on the trail.
The most spectacular site for many people walking the trail would be the World War II bunker, which was used by observers during the war to detect enemy vessels approaching the coast and triangulate coordinates for attack. These days the bunkers are gated off and covered with graffiti. But they are still readily viewable from the trail.
Tunnel into the Future
Passing traffic now cuts through past Devil’s Slide. The high-tech design make the trip much quicker and safer. The finished tunnel is the longest in California, measuring 4,300 feet long and 30 feet wide. Featuring the latest technology, the tunnel uses heat and carbon monoxide sensors along with 16 jet fans for ventilation. The tunnels are constantly monitored 24 hours a day from a facility near the southern portal.
Traveling through the tunnel is quick and painless. More importantly, it is quick. Meanwhile, Devil’s Slide can be earmarked for a sunny afternoon with family or a friend. One can now focus their attention and enjoy all the wonder that Devil’s Slide offers, without any dangers involved from driving through it. It took nearly a three-quarters of a century to realize this vision. Now, in the 21st Century, visitors and travelers will have a very different experience with the area, relaying the hazards of the past to history.
Here is some more photos:
Want to Visit? Here is some maps to get you started:
- The Turns and Twists of the Devil’s Slide Tunnel
- Devil’s Slide, once hellish, opens Thursday as heavenly trail
- Find Dramatic Coastal Views on the New Devil’s Slide Trail
- Devil’s Slide Bunker
- Mercury News: Devils Slide History
- Geology of the Devil’s Slide Area
- Devil’s Slide Coast History
- San Mateo County Parks: Devil’s Slide Trail
- A Brief History of the Ocean Shore Railroad