Cowell Purisima Trail

  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hiking
  • Bicycling


  • Accessible Restrooms
  • Accessible Parking
  • Wildlife viewing
  • Hiking
  • Bicycling


17500 Cabrillo Hwy, Half Moon Bay, CA, 94019
South Bay
Info: (650) 854-7696
Weekends and holidays, 8 a.m. to sunset
Not allowed, service animals OK
Last Reviewed:
April 2013
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The entire Cowell-Purisima Trail is 3.6 miles one way, but a short section through the Purisima Creek watershed, about 2 miles from the northern trailhead, is inaccessible to wheelchair riders because of the terrain.  From the northern trailhead, a three-mile out-and-back hike takes you through farmed coastal terraces and along blufftops where, on a clear day, views along the coast are exceptional. You may spot harbor seals lolling in the reserve below the bluffs. If you hike the accessible section at the southern end of the trail, you will see very similar views but miss the Cowell Ranch Beach viewpoint overlooking the harbor seal pullout.

Trails and Pathways

Cowell Purisima Trail
Trail Length:
2-4 total miles
Typical Width:
4 ft. & above
Typical Grade:
Mostly gentle
Typical Terrain:
Moderately Firm
Trailhead Location: The northern trailhead is at the Cowell Ranch Beach parking area off Hwy. 1, about a half-mile south of Miramontes Point Rd. in Half Moon Bay. The turnoff to the southern trailhead lot is just over three miles south of the first.
Trail Overview:

From the Cowell Ranch Beach parking area (northern trailhead), the trail leads west through farm fields for .5 miles, slightly downhill all the way, to a blufftop. Be sure to look for a metal sculpture in the shape of a whale on the fence to your left. Interpretive panels along the trail describe common plants and wildlife, and offer a bit of local history.

Just before you reach the blufftop viewing area, you will pass a rickety, inaccessible porta-potty next to where the Cowell-Purisima trail heads south. Continue past the trail to the bluff, where you can look down on Cowell Ranch Beach to the north, accessible only by a steep wooden staircase. To the south you can see a rocky cove where harbor seals like to haul out. They tend to be here from late winter through spring; use binoculars or the lowered telescope to look for seal pups in March and April.

When you've soaked up the views from the bluff, turn back east and enter the trail. Some wheelchair riders may require assistance to negotiate a downhill cross-slope right at the entry. From here the trail winds downhill to a bridge over a creek and heads west again toward the bluffs. The trail along the bluffs is wide and level, but there are patches of deep gravel here and there that can be difficult to negotiate. You soon come to another bridge over a creek drainage.

In spring you may see wildflowers like blue-eyed grass, sticky monkeyflower, and Indian paintbrush, and are sure to see plentiful wild mustard in bloom along the farm fences, as well as hawks hovering above, watching for a meal. On my visit in late April I saw artichokes that looked ready to harvest; you may also see brussel sprouts. In places you can see some distance down the coast, the rocky offshore waters and broad beaches backed by steep bluffs. The foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains rise in the east, and if the day is clear, look north to see Montara Mountain in the distance. After about one mile you come to an interpretive sign marking the site of an ancient Ohlone village. Shortly after, the trail narrows and heads steeply down into the Purisima Creek watershed; this was our turnaround point.

Accessibility Notes: A section of trail through the Purisima Creek watershed is impassable to wheelchairs. The trailhead gate has a 36" opening but narrows to 29" at about shoulder height. Patches of deep, loose gravel can be difficult to negotiate.


The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.
Accessible Parking:
Yes – designated accessible parking, van accessible, moderately firm, level or slope no greater than 2%;

Accessible spots are in the gravel parking lots at both the northern and southern trailheads; the southern lot has spaces designated as van accessible.

Accessible Restroom:
Yes – Accessible vault toilets are at the southern trailhead parking lot (no sink); a porta-potty at the northern parking lot is accessible except that it has a steep lip at the entry and no turnaround space inside.

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