Fifield-Cahill Ridge Trail

We almost hiked on the correct trail!

On 17 March 2007, we did a 13.31 mile hike on San Francisco Water Department watershed land west of San Andreas Lake

This watershed land, just south of San Francisco, is the location of the first significant potable water supply for the City of San Francisco. The infrastructure was built, owned, and operated by the Spring Valley Water Company; the first reservoir was constructed in 1858. A redwood flume carried the water supply approximately 13 miles north to the Laguna Honda reservoir, located on Seventh Avenue in San Francisco.

San Francisco, in the late 19th century, with its steadily increasing population, looked to the future, and knew it would eventually need more potable water than was currently available at the Spring Valley Water Company location. Thus began one of the largest and most complex construction projects of its day. Between 1913 and 1923, with the approval of the United States Congress, San Francisco built the O'Shaughnessy Dam in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The dam stood 364 feet high (The dam head was subsequently raised, and its present height is 430 feet) and created the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which has a current capacity of 360,000 acre-feet. A 167 mile aqueduct was constructed simultaneously as the dam was being built, to bring the pure snow-fed water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir to the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco, in 1930, purchased all the assets of the Spring Valley Water Company, and Spring Valley ceased operation. When this watershed land was owned by the Spring Valley Water Company, people were allowed to use the watershed land for recreation. After San Francisco acquired the Spring Valley Water Company, it immediately closed the watershed land to all public access.

I lived in San Mateo in 1978, about 5 miles from the former Spring Valley Water Company watershed location. After reviewing a U.S. Geological Survey topographic map of the area, I decided that to increase my knowledge of the history of the San Mateo area, I should explore the watershed terrain and see what historical artifacts remained from the time of the Spring Valley Water Company's ownership of the land. I was a fairly good recreational runner 29 years ago, and so, one sunny day, I ran up the dirt roads that led to the location of Pilarcitos Reservoir, which was constructed in 1861 and enlarged in 1867. As I continued running uphill to the reservoir, I started to pass buildings that were constructed when the land was owned by Spring Valley Water Company. What an amazing sight; everything was left in situ since the 1920's! I finally arrived at the main Pilarcitos Reservoir, and after a look around I headed to the original, and much smaller, Pilarcitos stone dam reservoir located on Pilarcitos Creek about 2 miles south of the main reservoir.

Pilarcitos Reservoir. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission

After viewing the smaller reservoir I started to run back down the trail to my car. Alas, a San Francisco Water Company employee drove up to me in his pick up truck and suggested that I stop running and then told me to get in the open pick up bed of his truck. He then proceeded to drive me down to the gate where my car was parked. I noticed that as we were heading down the dirt road he was talking on his radio. Hmm, whom could he be communicating with? When we arrived at the gate, it became all too clear. At the gate was a San Mateo County law enforcement officer waiting for me. The officer gave me a summons to appear in court regarding my trespass on San Francisco Water Company property. I appeared in San Mateo County court, a month or so later, on the prescribed day, and I was prepared to defend my actions. Luckily that was unnecessary. The officer who issued the summons was not at the court, and the charges were dropped.

After many decades of public outcry regarding the public's inability to access the watershed land, San Francisco Water Company reluctantly agreed in 2004 to open the watershed land to the public, but with significant restrictions. The only way to access the land is by prior reservation, and you can only traverse the land in a group of people with a docent as the leader. There are specific trails that you can hike, or bicycle ride, and San Francisco Water Company employees are ever vigilant that you stay on the allowed trails and exit the watershed by a certain time. So, 29 years after my summons for trespassing, I was about to again enter the watershed, and this time it would be a legal entry.

On the morning of the hike, a group of 14 hikers met at 8:00 a.m. at a secured parking area off Highway 92, just west of Crystal Springs Reservoir. This locale was to be the finishing location of the planned 13 mile hike. The hiking group car-pooled north to the starting point of the hike, which was at the end of Sneath Lane in San Bruno. By 9:15 a.m., we were moving up the trail. Catherine, the leader of the hike, is an employee of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and she was recruited as the docent of the hike at the last moment. She is familiar with the area but had never traversed the route that we were allowed to hike.

It was cold, windy, and foggy at the northern portion of the hiking route, and our range of sight was significantly limited. Eventually, we came to a locked gate, and Catherine used the key given to her to open the gate, and we passed through. Shortly thereafter there was yet another locked gate, and try as we might, the key did not open the lock that was securing the second gate. We all thought that the lock was jammed, and so, after careful consideration, the people in the group either climbed over, or crawled under the fence to continue the hike. After going 2 or 3 more miles we slowly came to the realization that we may be off the authorized route. We continued hiking south on the trail assuming that the trail would eventually bring us to a connecting trail that would allow us to finish the hike at the location where we originally left our cars.

Then, all of a sudden, a posse of four San Francisco Water Department employees, driving trucks, quickly rolled up to the group and stopped. The Water Department people were unhappy with the hiking group's actions. We were off the authorized route plus we entered an area that was closed to the public. The water department supervisor told us that we should turn around, and head back up the trail to the starting location of the hike. Instead of finishing the 13 mile point-to-point hike which we all anticipated completing, the group turned around and headed back on the route we just hiked. Yes, at the conclusion of the hike we achieved the same 13 mile distance...but it just wasn't quite the same as doing the point-to-point route!

UPDATE: I went back and did the right trail on 4 April: GO HERE TO SEE THE 4 APRIL PICTURES

See the Google-Earth map below, for an illustrated comparsion of both hiking routes.

I do not fault San Francisco Water Department for any of its restrictive watershed access policies. Rather, I am grateful that San Francisco Water Department has, for the last 77 years, taken its watershed land stewardship responsibility very seriously and has kept the watershed pristine, as it should be.

Photographs by Neil Mishalov

Photographs were taken with a Canon SD-700is camera

Copyright © Neil Mishalov


Google Earth satellite/aerial photo map of the area with two GPS tracked routes, of two different hikes, superimposed on the satellite/aerial image. The 17 March 2007 route shown in yellow was an unsuccessful attempt. The 4 April 2007 route shown in red was the successfully completed hike. This is a view looking west-northwest.

Hiking data gathered with a Garmin Forerunner 205 GPS Receiver.

GPS data converter for Macintosh OSX by Load-My-Tracks.

Scroll to the right to see the complete map ======>

Topographic depiction of the 17 March 2007 hiking route. GPS tracked route of the hike superimposed on the map. Hike data gathered with a Garmin Forerunner 205 GPS receiver. Topographic mapping program for Macintosh OSX by National Geograghic.

Looking west from the Sweeney Ridge Trail. Fog from the Pacific Ocean, rolling in over the hills. Six separate digital photographs were "stitched together" to produce this panoramic image.

Scroll to the right to see the complete image ======>

Looking northeast from the Sweeney Ridge Trail. San Andreas Reservoir and part of San Francisco airport are visible. Eight separate digital photographs were "stitched together" to produce this panoramic image.

Scroll to the right to see the complete image ======>

Looking east from the Sawyer Ridge Trail. San Francisco Airport, Mount Diablo, Coyote Point in San Mateo, part of the western portion of the San Mateo-Hayward Bay Bridge, part of upper Crystal Springs Reservoir and parts of the city of Millbrae, the city of Burlingame and the city of San Mateo are visible.Ten separate digital photographs were "stitched together" to produce this panoramic image.

Scroll to the right to see the complete image ======>

Click on an image to see the full size picture

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This was suppose to be a point-to-point hike. The group met at this location, the finishing point of the hike, and then car pooled north, to the start of the hike. This picture was taken prior to the start of the hike. Little did we know at that time that we would never make it back to this location on foot. The actual starting point of the hike Catherine Carroll, the leader of this hike.
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It was a cold and foggy day The ridgetop where the Portola expedition "discovered" San Francisco Bay in 1769. If it was as foggy on 4 November 1769 as it was on 17 March 2007, Portola and his hearty group of explorers would never have seen San Francisco Bay!
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Another Portola expedition marker on the ridge top The land we hiked on is part of the San Francisco Water Department watershed. The water district is very protective of all of their watershed land. This is a ranger ensuring we are hiking on the correct trail Heading south on our point to point 13 mile hike
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Fog city The location of OUR BIG MISTAKE. Although Catherine was our leader, neither she or anyone else on the hike had done this route previously. We came to this locked gate, and the key didn't open the locked gate. We though the lock was broken...Wrong!
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The group thought there was a defective lock; we climbed over the locked gate...bad decision! Onward, through the fog As we headed south the fog started to lift and we could see more of the terrain.
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Aaron, a math teacher at City College of San Francisco, is really a botanist at heart, and he shared his knowledge of the many different plants that we saw on the hike. Here is a California Coastal Oak tree
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We slowly came to the realization that we were on the wrong trail We continued hiking south, thinking that we would eventually be able to get on to the Fifield Ridge Trail...Not!
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Stopped by a motorized posse of San Francisco Water Department law enforcement personnel
We were chastised for climbing over the locked gate, and were told to hike back on the trail we used to reach this point. Thus we were not able to finish the point-to-point hike

Go to: My 4 April 2007 gallery of pictures regarding the same trail

Go to: My Digital Photo Collection

Go to: Photos from Korea and Japan: 1968 and 1969

Go to: My Return to Korea: October 2003

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Go to: Medal of Honor Citation page

This page created on 18 March 2007. All photographs copyright 2007 by NEIL MISHALOV