The clear blue waters of the Crystal Springs Reservoir and the San Andreas Lake sparkle to the west of the Sawyer Camp Trail, offering outdoor enthusiasts some of the most picturesque views in the Bay Area. Ducks, hawks and a multitude of small birds can be seen soaring overhead or resting in the surrounding oaks and madrones. Deer, squirrels and rabbits frolic nearby, seemingly unaware of the endless procession of humans who stop to stare at them with awe and delight. The scenery along the Sawyer Camp Trail rivals that found in remote rural settings, and is even more remarkable due to its close proximity to such a heavily populated area.
Not surprising, this 12-mile paved recreation path is an extremely popular place to be, particularly on sunny weekends. Walkers of every age stride along on the wide path that winds along the banks of the reservoirs and through shady groves of trees. Families come for a fun ride on tricycles and bikes of all sizes, and the littlest tykes get to enjoy the fresh air while being pushed along in a stroller. Joggers and runners might stretch for a bit at the entrance, then strap on a water bottle and head off, disappearing quickly around the bend. In-line skaters use the benches at the beginning of the trail to put on knee pads, wrist guards and skates, and stow their tennies under the benches before gliding off down the path. Horseback riders can also use Sawyer Camp Trail, although in the two decades that I’ve used it regularly, I’ve only seen a few horses on the trail.
Known officially as the Sawyer Camp County Historic Trail, the path is mostly flat with just a few small hills until you reach the very end, where a mammoth-sized climb awaits the most adventurous. Though it’s one of the most heavily-used recreation paths in San Francisco Bay Area, with more than 30,000 visitors annually, for the most part everyone politely shares the trail so that all can have an enjoyable experience.
Sawyer Camp Trail has good pavement, but there are a few rough and patched sections. In summertime, it can get very warm in this protected valley, and as the day heats up, bikers and skaters should take care to avoid the tarred repairs on the asphalt path, because they become soft and grabby.
There’s a water fountain at about the two-mile mark, plus a chance to see the oldest and biggest laurel tree in California. Established to be over 600 years old, the Jepson Laurel is one of the most famous landmarks along Sawyer Camp Trail. In 1923, the tree was named in honor of Willis Linn Jepson, one of California’s most noted botanists. This venerable tree was finally fenced to protect it from soil compaction, which could weaken its roots. In 1981, the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Division opened the area near the tree and constructed a new picnic area.
At about the five mile mark, there is a winding climb up a steep hill to the dam at the south end of San Andreas Lake. The view here is beautiful, and it’s a great place to rest in the shade before tackling the even steeper climb to the end of the trail. If you’re on bikes or in-line skates, don’t make the climb unless you have good brakes and can handle the steep downhill cruise without losing control. The posted speed limit on the Sawyer Camp Trail is fifteen miles-per-hour, but on the big hill and in congested areas there is a five miles-per-hour speed limit, enforced by radar-wielding rangers.
The Sawyer Camp Trail is open every day of the year including all holidays. It opens daily at sunrise and closes at sunset. There are restroom facilities at the beginning of the trail at the Jepsen Laurel picnic area.
Directions to the Sawyer Camp Trail:
South Entrance in San Mateo – From I-280 (north or south) take Black Mountain Road/Hayne Road Exit. Go west to Skyline Blvd., then south on Skyline one mile to trail entrance at the junction of Skyline Blvd. and Crystal Springs Road.
North Entrance in Millbrae – From southbound I-280 take the Larkspur/Hillcrest Blvd. exit to Skyline Blvd. Take a right on Skyline Blvd. to Hillcrest Blvd. Make a right on Hillcrest Blvd. to the trail entrance. From northbound I-280 take the Millbrae Ave. exit. Continue straight ahead onto Skyline Blvd. to Hillcrest Blvd. Make a left on Hillcrest Blvd. to trail entrance.