Burleigh H. Murray State Park – The Mill Barn

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Early morning rabbit!

If you are in Half Moon Bay and you’d like an alternative to watching the ocean from the beach or wading in the tide-pools, consider a visit to Burleigh Murray State Park.

At the mid-point in the two mile hike you will find an old barn that is probably unique in California and certainly very rare in the United States. The first thing that strikes you about this barn is its size. Wander around California and you’ll often find old dilapidated two story barns that usually have a square or oblong footprint. The Mill Barn, by contrast, was originally over 200 feet in length and might better be called the “Long Barn”. In addition the barn is built into the side of the hill and so to see the whole length you have to stand back a good distance.

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The barn as you come off the hiking trail.

This strange design apparently developed in England particularly in the Lake District and the West Country, indeed examples are still found today. The general design is known to have appeared in England in the 1690’s and subsequently in the United States in the 19th century.

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How the barn is built into the hill.

But why is it an innovation? Look at the Long Barn and you see that on one side it’s built into the side of the hill, even curving to follow the hill profile. The benefit of this design is that it utilizes gravity to save work. Crops can be brought in to the top floor where there would be a threshing area and storage areas. Crops can then be processed and stored or lowered to the floor below for transport elsewhere. If animals were housed in the barn they could be fed by lowering the flood from the storage area to their pens on the lower floor.

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See the wire stay on the left

The original design of these barns typically had a square footprint but the Mill Barn is extremely long; in its original form it was over 200 feet. In addition, its foundations utilize Italian Masonry techniques dating back to Roman times. The barn is nearly 150 years old, and as you might expect after all this time it has shifted on its foundations. Additional support is provided by wire stays that have been buried in the hillside and then attached to the wall.

So why get excited about a 150 year old wooden barn? What I think is stunning about this is the elegance of the design, and here I’m referring to the idea of using gravity to remove some of the labor required to move the crops around. Elegant ideas when viewed in hindsight seem so obvious, and yet we can see the difficulty in noticing them because before they were discovered they didn’t really exist. Someone had to see the concept and then implement it. People from 100 years ago would look at our world and think that the tools we have and the things we can do seem to be impossible. But I digress – let’s return to the hike.

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Trailhead parking

When you arrive at the park there is a small parking area immediately off Higgins Canyon Road.

The park has a single trail so you are out and back on the same path. In the initial stretch the walk is through a mixture of open and shaded areas. The dirt road has small undulations but no steep climbs, the maximum elevation above your starting point is 400 feet. You cross Mill Creek by way of a wooden bridge. In the quiet of the morning the babbling creek and noisy jays were the only sounds to be heard. Active on the trail were a few rabbits and picking up on the thermals of the early morning were a few birds of prey looking for breakfast.

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After approximately one mile you come to the barn. Apart from walking around the barn there is an informative panel giving some history, some rusting farm equipment, and a picnic table should you want to sit down.

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Overgrown building

Leaving the barn area you walk up the dirt road and find this building being consumed by the local vegetation.

Imagine that 150 years ago the ground here was cleared and the building erected. Once the building fell out of use, nature slowly but surely started to claim it back.

Past the building you continue to follow the valley floor on a slight incline. Parts of the walk are in a copse and parts in the open where you can see the surrounding hills. Mill creek often runs alongside the road. The further along the road you go the narrower the path and so beware the abundant stinging nettles and poison oak.

At the end of this path you find the water tanks. Beyond the water tanks there is a narrow path that, judging from its condition, is rarely used. The path is overgrown but someone recently trod it down. I followed it for some distance but there was no sign of improvement so I turned back. The official description on the park website says that the path peters out after the water tanks. Hopefully one day, the trail will extend up to skyline.

It’s approximately two miles from the trailhead to the water tanks so this is not a long hike, but it is interesting. The scenery is varied from walking in copses to walking in open spaces.

If you’re interested in a visit:
Hiking Trail
Park website
Trailhead Location

Additional Notes:
Beware: stinging nettles and poison oak.

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