San Mateo County is blessed with so many scenic places to run, walk and bike including the Bay Trail, Shoreline Park, Sawyer Creek Trail, the Coast Trail and now Devil’s Slide Park. All faced bumps in the road and financial hurdles before they were built but none faced the challenges of Devil’s Slide, which almost didn’t happen.
The new park is actually the former section of Highway 1 which was often closed because of slides, and accidents. It is now a 1.3-mile paved walk and bike path with spectacular views of the ocean on one side and the cliffs on the other. It’s a great erosion geology lesson as explained in a sign post at the entrance. “The weathered rock face to the south is the granite rock of Montara Mountain, the same rock found in the Sierra Nevada range. In contrast, the rough layers of sedimentary rock at the north end were once the ocean floor. Not quite as old as the Montara mountain rock, these layers of shale and sand stone have been thrust up and folded, over millions of years, by forces deep within the earth. The landslides occur where the sedimentary rock has been thrust over the granite rock causing broken, weakened ground.”
The section of Highway 1 south of Pacific known as Devil’s Slide was scenic but treacherous. It was featured in a key scene of the 1960 thriller “Portrait in Black” with Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn. Turner and Quinn portrayed doomed lovers who deliberately pushed a car, containing the body of a murdered man, over the edge of the cliff. Real live accidents and road closures led Caltrans to recommend an inland bypass and the burial of Devil’s Slide. In 1972, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors approved the bypass, but the Sierra Club and other groups filed a lawsuit which halted the project. They proposed other options including a tunnel instead.
The problem was that Caltrans said those other options were not possible. Coastside residents and other environmentalists protested that a bypass through Montara Mountain would destroy spectacular scenic open space. Caltrans would not budge.
Opponents of the bypass, including Olive Mayer, Lennie Roberts, Chris Thollaug and many others approached their representative on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, former assemblyman Ted Lempert and asked for help. In 1995, Devil’s Slide was closed for months during severe winter storms. Pressure mounted for a solution. Lempert and his staff researched the issue and gathered a number of independent experts who concluded a tunnel was indeed possible. Lempert, with the support of fellow supervisor Ruben Barrales, brought this to his board colleagues. But the tunnel idea was voted down 3-2 (Mike Nevin, Mary Griffin and Tom Huening were the three supervisors who opposed it).
Opponents wouldn’t give up and decided to get a measure on the ballot — Measure T. Yellow Tunnel T-shirts were seen throughout the county but mostly on the coast. The grassroots effort was successful and county voters overwhelming supported the tunnel rather than the bypass.
The rest is history. Congress came up with the funding, Caltrans finally agreed to build it. Then cyclists wanted a lane in the tunnel so they could stay on Highway 1. That didn’t work so it was decided to turn the old highway into a park for pedestrians and cyclists. If you haven’t visited, you are missing one of the best local sights. Caltrans did a great job on the tunnels and the county did a great job on the park.
While then-supervisor Tom Huening may have been wrong about the tunnel, he and his staff were instrumental in making Sawyer Creek Trail what it is today. One of the first benches on the southern entrance bears his name.
According to Oscar Lopez-Guerra, there was a third woman who broke the men only rule at the San Mateo Rotary Club. That was Linda Poulton, office manager of Lease Mobile.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.