The mountainside trail between Gray Whale Cove and Montara state beaches is a middling means to two rather spectacular ends. It’s about the beaches, not the journey. Featuring a moderate descent to and ascent from the beach into McNee Ranch State Park on each end, the bulk of the winding Gray Whale Cove Trail is carved into the side of Montara Mountain and roughly parallels Highway 1, whose sights and sounds detract from some otherwise spectacular views of the ocean meeting the shore.
You can find better hikes on Montara Mountain, but you may not find more spectacular beaches Coastside. The beach at Montara is a clean stretch of sand running for roughly a half mile beneath a bluff that shelters the beach from the bustle of Highway 1. It’s perfect for walking, surf fishing, kite flying, whale watching (in season) or reading a book on a beach chair.
Gray Whale Cove is easily the most secluded public beach along our stretch of coast, walled by rugged outcroppings of rock on three sides and accessible only via a 149-step wooden staircase. In addition to the distractions found at Montara, Gray Whale Cove also has a reputation as one of California’s few clothing optional beaches.
Distance/Difficulty: 2 miles round trip/moderate, verging on difficult if you include the stairs at Gray Whale Cove. Take your time.
Trailhead: Begin your walk at the Montara State Beach parking lot at the terminus of North Peak Access Road on the east side of Highway 1. The area is crisscrossed by several official and unofficial alternate trails, so watch closely for the Gray Whale Cove Trail signs. It’s difficult to get too lost. Just work your way back toward the ocean side of the mountain.
- Migrating whales spouting offshore. The season varies, but last year gray and humpback whales were a regular feature Coastside throughout the summer
- Expert surfers navigating big swells. These waves are not for slackers. Experts only.
- Big surf generated by winter storms, with waves as high as 20-25 feet. Enjoy the curls safely from the bluff, hillside or well back from the water.
- Cypress groves at the trailheads quickly give way to grassland and wild flowers as you trek up and along the mountainside.
- Views of passing ships, our community of Montara and Montara Mountain
- Nudity may or may not be a feature of interest for you. We’ve never spotted nudity at Gray Whale Cove, and the beach appears to be popular with appropriately clothed families in the summertime. Be sure you consider state and federal laws regulating public nudity
- The power line that runs beneath the trail along the shoulder of Highway 1 makes photography a challenge.
- Reaching either beach from the trailheads requires a sometimes harrowing dash through traffic, especially on beach weekends. Cross with caution.
- Riptides and sneaker waves have been known to ensnare surfers and even waders. Stay out of the water unless you know what you’re doing.
- This isn’t Southern California. If soaking up rays in your bikini or speedo is your thing, head for Los Angeles.
Historical note: Look for the concrete World War II triangulation and observation station, popularly known as the Devil’s Slide Bunker, that awkwardly dominates the rock promontory high above Gray Whale Cove to the north. The soil around the bunker was removed some 50 years ago for a private construction project that was never completed.