Getting Out: Hidden in the San Mateo foothills

Getting Out

It isn’t often that I learn of a state park in the Bay Area that I have never heard of before. Hidden in the foothills of the San Mateo Coast, Burleigh Murray Ranch State Park waits humbly and quietly for someone to notice.
That is exactly the feeling I had as I pulled into the small visitor parking lot. The park is 1.7 miles out Higgins Purisima Road that turns inland toward the peninsula hills at the south end of Half Moon Bay. There is no fanfare along the road announcing the upcoming park, and the entrance sign is set back such that I only noticed it as I drove past it. Turned around and back to the small parking lot, I stepped from the car into a setting so humble and unassuming that I felt the urge to make friendly small talk as if the park were a painfully shy wallflower at a junior high dance. Burleigh Murray Ranch State Park has an unusual air about it that is strangely enchanting.
The park rests in and along a distinct valley cut by Mills Creek. We set out on the ranch road that gently follows Mills Creek’s course up the valley. The setting was so quiet and secluded that I couldn’t shake the feeling I was trespassing on a rancher’s private land. In fact, it was the mark of past ranching activities more than the land’s natural features that continually turned our heads.
Here and there, partially hidden behind a tangle of blackberry bushes and other shrubs, an old fruit tree appeared in dazzling bloom. Perhaps they had trunks and branches, but blossoms so completely concealed each tree’s structure that they might easily have been mistaken for clouds.  
Beyond each little rise, I expected to see ranch buildings nestled in the hollow beyond. The valley narrowed as we neared the ranch site where we crossed Mills Creek and entered a dark grove of eucalyptus. Hidden behind a tangle of shrubs and leafless alders, we heard the creek more often that we saw it. We were a little early for the lush spring wildflowers displays that reportedly brighten the meadows along the road, but we stopped to admire several impressive red-flowering currant bushes (Ribes sanguineum) along the path.
A mile in, we reached the ranch buildings. Straight ahead on a little rise, an old ranch house sat beside a long neglected, but beautifully blooming orchard. Nearby, in a clearing across the creek, was a long wooden barn and bunkhouse—said to be the only one of its type in California—that dates back to the 1890’s. Upstream from the barn was a picturesque outbuilding wrapped it a snarl of branches. The trail continues another mile up to some water tanks, but pressed for time, we turned toward home.
The strange feeling of intimacy I felt there lasted my entire visit. Walking along the road, I imagined that if I were looking for land to farm 150 years ago—like Robert Mills, the original owner—I would gladly choose this spot. It feels comfortable, homey. I half expected to be greeted (or sent away) by the current rancher who surely must be just around the corner.
The two-mile round trip to the ranch buildings at Burleigh Murray Ranch State Park is a walk, not a hike, and a perfect tidbit to add to a Half Moon Bay visit.  The gentle rolling ranch road along Mills Creek is the only path in the park, and it is perfect for everyone from granddaughter to grandma.

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