Devils Slide, one of the Bay Area's most notorious stretches of road, is on the verge of a family-friendly transformation.
This landslide-prone section of Highway 1 that has claimed at least 12 lives in car crashes since 1990 will become a bicycle and pedestrian trail as early as 2013. Locals envision the new park as a jewel that will outshine virtually every other recreation spot on the Peninsula.
With the completion of twin bypass tunnels in late 2012, Caltrans will hand over the treacherous ribbon of asphalt to the San Mateo County Parks Department, which will embark on a yearlong project to turn it into a park offering breathtaking views of the ocean and coastline.
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It's a once-a-generation addition to the county parks system. The problem is, the department already is strapped for cash. "The timing couldn't be worse," said Dave Holland, the former head of parks who is now assistant county manager.
The park will have multiple draws for outdoors enthusiasts. It will provide a link between McNee Ranch State Park and Gray Whale Cove State Beach to the south and the Pedro Point Headlands to the north. The headlands, a rugged promontory on the southern boundary of Pacifica, will be accessible to the public as never before.
But with Caltrans out of the picture, the county likely will not have enough money to clear the new trail in the event of a major slide, meaning it could ultimately be cleaved in two, barring north-south access. If that occurs, the full glory of Devils Slide may turn out to be a spectacular but temporary experience.
Devils Slide is renowned for its treachery. Perhaps the worst accident in recent memory occurred in 1992, when a van plunged over a cliff, killing six people.
But the highway is closing for a different reason. Ever since the coastal road was completed in 1937, it has been subject to regular closures due to landslides, which tend to occur during the winter, when rain saturates and destabilizes the bluffs. Major slides closed the road for weeks in 1995 and 2006.
"You could depend on it being closed at least once a year on the average," said Jerry Crow, archivist for the Pacifica Historical Society.
Now, after decades of wrangling between Caltrans and environmentalists, years of planning, and one major construction delay, the bypass tunnels are scheduled to open late next year. Once that occurs, Caltrans and the country will begin a year's worth of improvements to prepare the park for opening.
Caltrans will build parking lots and bus stops on the northern and southern ends of the new trail, while the county will spend almost $2 million preparing the trail itself. The concrete barriers on the western side of the road will stay, and they'll be topped with 4 feet of cable fencing that allows visitors to enjoy the coastal vistas, which on a clear day include the Farallon Islands.
Barriers will be erected on the eastern side of the trail as well, along with cyclone fencing, to keep rocks that tumble off the bluffs from reaching the road. County workers will also fix potholes, build restrooms, eradicate non-native pampas grass that lines the cliff, and erect informational signs and kiosks.
Where the money for these improvements will come from remains unknown, but the work is required as part of the original agreement to build the bypass tunnels, so the county will have to find it somehow, Holland said. The money likely will come in the form of state and federal grants, he said, and it will be worth the effort.
"It's stunning," he said of the property. "It's probably one of the most dramatic pieces of coastline on the whole San Mateo County coast."
No one is happier about the opening of Devils Slide park than the volunteers who have spent hundreds of hours restoring the Pedro Point Headlands to their natural state.
The headlands, a sprawling mass of land that towers roughly 700 feet above the sea, are open to the public, but there's no easy way to get to them. With the installation of a parking lot and bus stop at the northern end of Devils Slide, that will change.
On a sunny, mild afternoon last week, Lynn Adams of the Pacifica Land Trust led a hike to the top of the promontory from Highway 1. The trust manages the restoration of the headlands for the property's owners, the city of Pacifica and the California Coastal Conservancy. Samuel Casillas, president of the land trust, said the groups hope eventually to turn the management of the 246-acre property over to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
As she climbed a steep dirt trail, rutted by motorcycle use decades ago, Adams pointed out the areas where volunteers have yanked hundreds of bunches of pampas grass and other non-native species out of the ground.
As she reached a ridge offering a particularly expansive view to the north, she paused to drink it in. Pacifica State Beach lay directly below. Farther in the distance, the view stretched to San Francisco's iconic Sutro Tower and the Marin Headlands.
"When you come up here and it's like this, there's no better place to be in the world," Adams said.
Devils Slide park will open up new worlds for exploration, but it will come at a price.
The Parks Department will need to spend nearly $700,000 a year maintaining the trail, including clearing out debris from minor rock slides. Major slides would be a different story. The work Caltrans conducted to stabilize the cliffs after the 2006 slide has held up nicely, Holland said. But nature tends to run its course.
"Anything like the 2005-06 slide and it's done," Holland said.
If that happens, the area surrounding the slide would likely be fenced off, and the trail would be rerouted. People still would be able to reach the coastal route, but it would not be possible to get from one end to the other.
Even in diminished form, the park would provide visitors of all ages and abilities with easy access to the majesty of the California coast.
"That's the incredible part," Holland said. "You don't have to have the skill to hike up somewhere -- you can just go see it."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357.