MONTARA -- The views on Highway 1 at Devils Slide were spectacular, but to admire them while driving was to blow a kiss at death.
From the time the twisting coastal artery opened in 1937 until its closure last year, cars plunged with disturbing frequency into the surf several hundred feet below. So the opportunity to savor the vista is a welcome change, said Jon Zilber, one of two dozen volunteers who have gotten a sneak peek at the abandoned roadway's reincarnation: the Devils Slide Trail.
"It's nice to be able to stop and take in the view," said Zilber, of Montara, "without fearing that you'll drive off a cliff."
The rest of the Bay Area will soon discover what these volunteers have already experienced: a jaw-dropping addition to the San Mateo County parks system that offers extraordinary new access to the rugged Northern California coast. The 1.3-mile paved path for walking, biking and horse-riding is slated to open to the public by the end of the month, one year after Caltrans unveiled a pair of 4,200-foot-long tunnels that rendered the dangerous segment of Highway 1 obsolete.
Volunteers who have driven along Devils Slide hundreds of times say walking there offers an entirely new perspective. Cars have yielded to nature in a way that feels post-apocalyptic.
"When you're walking on that road, it's dramatically different from driving it," said Don Horsley, a county supervisor whose district includes the coast. "You see all these soaring birds overhead and hear the waves crashing down below."
Decades in the making
Besides taking lives, the highway at Devils Slide caused headaches for people who lived and worked on the coast. The unstable cliffs of San Pedro Mountain often damaged the vital link between Pacifica to the north and Montara, Half Moon Bay and other rural communities to the south. Lengthy closures turned short commutes into brutal slogs.
Caltrans proposed replacing Highway 1 at Devils Slide in the 1960s with a freeway bypass to the east over Montara Mountain, touching off a decades-long battle with locals and environmentalists who favored a more costly but less visible tunnel. Caltrans ultimately acquiesced, and the Tom Lantos Tunnels opened last March.
Caltrans has since built parking lots on either side of the trail, with a total of 44 spaces. The county has undertaken $2 million in improvements, most of which are complete. The trail will have benches, spotting scopes and restrooms. The pavement will be smoothed out for bicyclists, who will be advised not to exceed 15 mph.
Zilber and his fellow volunteers will serve as trail ambassadors, assisting visitors with information and giving park rangers a heads up if they see people stepping off the trail. The county has hired two new rangers at a cost of $209,262 a year to ensure there's a ranger at Devils Slide every day.
The county has not settled on an opening date for the trail, but plans to do so before April.
For the past couple months the ambassadors have been taking regular walks on the trail. Their job is to acclimate a pair of resident peregrine falcons, which had grown accustomed to vehicle traffic, to people and their dogs, which will be allowed on-leash.
A half-dozen volunteers strolled the unfinished trail on a recent sunny morning, basking in unseasonable warmth. The Pacific Ocean rolled and sloshed into the distance.
The falcons weren't around that day. But the volunteers said the birds, a protected species, seemed to be adjusting well.
"The first time, the male kind of circled around and was noisy, like he was concerned," said Don Traeger, an ambassador from Woodside. "But lately he's been sitting on his perch, just chilling. He doesn't seem worried."
Raptors aren't the only wildlife visible from the trail. Volunteers saw a gray whale in December, and black-and-white seabirds known as common murres roost on a rock just offshore. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently re-established a breeding colony that had been wiped out by an oil spill in 1986.
The county has budgeted about $492,000 a year for maintenance of Devils Slide Trail, but county officials say a major rock slide would be too expensive to fix, potentially splitting the trail in two forever. Horsley said he is confident that Caltrans' last effort to stabilize the cliffs in 2006 will last a long time.
Despite its somewhat isolated location, Devils Slide Trail will be fairly accessible. The city of Pacifica will run weekend shuttles to the northern trail head. There will be stops on SamTrans bus route 17. The trail will be wheelchair-accessible, though a short stretch in the middle will be too steep for people in wheelchairs to navigate without assistance.
From the trail visitors will be able to look down at Pedro Point to the north and see the old path of the Ocean Shore Railroad, a coastal railway that was abandoned in the years after the 1906 earthquake. It was one of many failed efforts to tame Devils Slide. There may come a time when it's as hard to imagine cars on these cliffs as it is to picture trains.
"I think everybody who walks along the old road, the first reaction is to be shocked at how narrow it is," Zilber said, "and to think that there were two lanes of traffic whizzing along such a precarious road."