This favorite California playground is close to San Francisco – generally only a 45 minute drive (depending on the season and the traffic). This is an area of endless beaches, stunning natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and really delicious food. You can spend the day walking on the beach, watching nature, or get your adrenalin rush watching surfers trying not to kill themselves at the Half Moon Mavericks surfing Competition. Or you can just take a drive to see the glorious scenery. Highway 1 (aka the Cabrillo Highway) runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean, and in many places, the only thing between you and the water is a stretch of sand.
When to go:
Average annual temperature is 55°F. (13 C). The average annual high is 62°F (17 C) and the average low is 47° (8 C). Some people might say not to visit in the winter (November through February) when it can be windy and rainy, but that is when the famous Maverick Surf contest takes place. Fall is a beautiful time to visit, especially in October, when the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival takes place.
Spring and Summer are, of course good times to go to the beach. Still, this is Northern California, on the Pacific Ocean, so any day can be rainy, and any morning can be foggy. So there really is not a bad time to visit the area. It just depends on how wet you want to get and whether you are prepared to drive in the fog.
Here’s a list of
things to do
in Half Moon Bay:
The City of Half Moon Bay offers some good eateries and interesting shopping. But most people come for the beaches, the wildlife, the scenery, the beaches, the fresh air, the hiking and the beached. Did we mention the beaches?
Pillar Point Harbor
This harbor and recreation area is just a few miles north of the city of Half Moon Bay. It really is a microcosm of the area, with a little bit of everything. This man-made “safe harbor” is home to the local fishing fleet, offering moorage and a place for consumers to buy directly from the fishermen (and fisher-women). You could spend the entire day here, from dawn (when the fleet leaves) until dusk (dinnertime at an oceanside restaurant) and be busy every minute. Or, if you cannot drag yourself away from all the bustle and beauty, you can simply stay at the Harbor’s RV Park. Pillar Point Harbor is run by the San Mateo County Harbor District, which is important because, unlike the State Parks, it means you can get in for free. Here are just a few of the things you can do when you visit Pillar Point Harbor:
- Walk along
which is the main pier that allows access to the fishing fleet. It is a great place to see the boats and all the activities associated with the fishing industry. Of course you can fish from the pier, but why bother when you can buy directly from the folks who have just come in with today’s catch? At the Harbormaster’s Office, a reader-board will list the boats that have fish or seafood to sell, and the type of catch available (for example: “D6 – crab”. This means that if you go to Dock D, slip 6, you will find someone who is selling crab. Sometimes the name of the vessel is listed as well, which makes it easier to find). Whether it is crab, abalone, or rockfish, you simply cannot get any better or fresher fish. If you do not feel like standing in a line with 30 or 40 other people, sometimes in wet or windy weather, you can put in an order ahead of time. By calling the Fishfone (650) 726-8724, you can find out ahead of time what is available and find a contact number to put in an order. Restaurants, commercial outlets and people with reservations (orders) get served first. The rest wait in line and hope for the best. Also, be aware that the fish and seafood are alive. That means that you will need some way to transport them, and you will have to be willing to throw the crab into a pot of boiling water.
at the Harbor. Or you can shop in the indoor mall just beyond the restaurants and surf shop.
– There is a wonderful beach and an
for those who want to stay bit longer
rentals are available, and surfing is popular (depending on the waves).
is allowed on the west side of the harbor, and no license is required.
– Take a
conducted by Harbor personnel.
and have a wonderful, relaxing time.
– Walk around the corner (North) and visit the
Pillar Point Marsh
wetlands. This is a great place to see all kinds of birds and other critters in their natural habitat. With any luck you might see some sea otters or seals.
The Half Moon Bay area is famous for all the State Parks that dot the area. California has an impressive Park Service and the upkeep of these beautiful gifts from Mother Nature is impressive. A quick word about the system…
The California State Parks have annual passes that get you into all their parks. So if you are going to be going to a lot of parks, you should get one. They cost a little less than $200. However, if you are only going to Half Moon Bay for the day (or for a few days) then the $10 day-pass will get you into all the parks in the area.
So, pay once and get into all of the following (in alphabetical but not geographical order)
Bean Hollow State Beach & Pebble Beach
Cowell Ranch State Beach
Dunes State Beach
Gray Whale Cove State Beach (a.k.a. Devil’s Slide
(Note – this is a clothing optional beach), Fitz
gerald Marine Reserve at Moss Beach
Francis State Beach (
Half Moon Bay State Beach headquarters)
Montara State Beach
Naples / Roosevelt State Beach, Pomponio State Beach
Pescadero State Park and Wildlife Preserve, San Gregorio State Beach
, (Note – also clothing optional),
Venice State Beach
. Some of these beaches are North and South of Half Moon Bay, but they are worth visiting anyway. Some will probably be on your way home.
Mavericks & Pillar Point Marsh,
at Pillar Point, is not part of the State Park System, so it is free. It is also home to the Mavericks Surf Contest (more on that later). This area is subject to riptides and is notrecommended for swimming, and it’s certainly not safe for surfing – which is why, we suppose, they hold the event there.
is located at Martins Beach and Cabrillo Hwy. It is a public beach that is accessed through private property. One of the property owners has been taking to trying to keep people by putting up a gate, but he lost the latest legal battle over restricting access, therefore has no right to keep people from the public beach. So feel free to enjoy this little-used beach. There is a parking fee.
is not really good for most beach activities. It is mostly rocks with very little sand (none at high tide). It is only mentioned here because the California Coastal Trail runs through it.
Pelican Point Beach
is really beautiful. There is a small parking lot near the Ritz Carlton, next to the golf course. It is a free, City-owned beach. From the parking, follow the paved trail down to beach. Mind the golf balls and the golf carts on the way. The views from the bluffs above the beach are fantastic.
Cowell-Purisima Trail (California Coastal Trail).
This is a 3.6 mile trail that runs from Cowell Ranch Beach to Pillar Point Harbor. It is on the bluffs above the beaches and is closed on weekdays. You can walk or cycle on the trail.
If you are into golfing, the Ritz Carlton has two championship golf courses. They are both absolutely beautiful. The Ocean Course is built on the Scottish model, taking advantage of the natural terrain. The Old Course was designed by Arnold Palmer. Both courses are on the bluffs above the ocean and have unbelievably beautiful views.
Critter-Watching (Birds and other Wildlife)
Half Moon Bay is known for its fantastic birding areas. Both the Pillar Point Marsh (aka Fitzgerald Marine Reserve) and the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve are major havens for migrating and indigenous birds and waterfowl. Pillar Point has both fresh and salt water, so it attracts a greater variety of birds than most beaches. The Pescadaro Marsh Natural Preserve is part of the Pescadero State Park. You access the Preserve by going to the beach and then crossing under the bridge. This all makes sense when you get there. Not only will you see heron, egrets and all kinds of birds, but you might also see raccoons, deer, fox and skunks. If you see the last ones, don’t bother them. If they lift their tails at you, run away
(Hint: Skunks are black with white stripes down their backs. They can squirt a vile smelling liquid at you. Leave them alone). Even though Pescadero is a few miles down the road, it is worth the trip. There are easy walking trails, and plenty of learning moments for the younger members of your family.
Besides birds, other critters that you can easily see are seals and sea lions on any beach. They hang out on handy rocks, at the end of the piers, and on any boat they find handy. You can hear their raucous “barking” all up and down the coast. They are often seen cavorting through the waves on the various beaches. Just wait a moment and you will see one. Pelicans are also plentiful on most of the local beaches.
People in kayaks often find themselves surrounded by adorable and curious sea otters. These laid-back guys usually hang out in the kelp beds, and they are not the least but worried about people in boats. They might even swim up to take a look at you before returning to their two favorite pastimes: eating and grooming.
Whale watching is probably the biggest “critter” adventure in the area. Grey whales migrate through the area, and a number of businesses are set up to take you out to view, but not bother, these gentle giants of the sea.
As a part of the Fall festivities, many local farms offer family-friendly events that will entertain everyone. But some local farms are open year-round for the enjoyment of the little ones. Lemos Farm, for example, is open on weekends and has a train, pony rides, a play corral, a petting pen, and offers Laser Tag. It hosts school field trips and has a Scare Zone during the Halloween season. At Christmas, families can cut their own Christmas Trees at the farm.
In the Fall, many farms and pumpkin patches go all-out to make sure that children and their parents have a fantastic time. The 4-C ‘s Pumpkin Patch has “awesome inflatables” (per some of the younger guests) and the Arata Pumpkin Farm has an annual hay maze to keep everyone entertained. Bob’s Pumpkin Farm has farm animals, and corn maze (no pun intended). There are so many more, and they can be found on the City of Half Moon Bay’s website, which gives hours, directions and a brief description of the “amenities” offered.
Half Moon Bay has tons of festivals, but two stand out as the most well-known: the Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival, and the Mavericks Invitational. There are food fests and wine tasting, but these two events are the big ones.
The Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival
officially happens in the weekend just before Halloween, but the fun starts long before then. Half Moon Bay has been called the Pumpkin Capital of California (sometimes the Pumpkin Capital of the World) and for good reason. As soon as the harvest is in, and the pumpkins turn orange, people from all over flock to Half Moon Bay to shop at local farms and find the perfect pumpkin.
The Festival itself is a huge family event with a parade, pumpkin carving contests, concerts, pumpkin pie contests, haunted houses and pumpkin weigh-offs. Local pumpkin patches offer pony rides, hay rides and all kinds of family fun. And, of course, there is the challenge and joy of searching for the perfect pumpkin to impress or scare on Halloween night. (Note: Local superstation says that you should not take the first pumpkin you see, or you will have bad luck on Halloween night). But not to worry – with an average harvest of 3000 plus tons, there is bound to be a pumpkin that wants to go home with you. Admission is free to the event, though you will pay for food and all the goodies you buy. And be prepared for a long slow trip to Half Moon Bay – there are only three roads in – and several thousand people trying to get there.
The Mavericks Invitational Surf Completion
is held in what has been called one of the world’s most perilous surfing spots. The contest, which is by invitation only, is held on Mavericks Beach – a place where people are not supposed to swim, let alone surf. The event is held in winter, when the waves are at least 40 feet tall. So far, two surfers have died at the event, and in recent years, it even became dangerous for the spectators when waves washed them off the sea-wall to the rocks below (15 people were injured). So the event is dangerous, the venue is dangerous, and Mother Nature is dangerous. Still, thousands flock to Half Moon Bay to see the best surfers in the world battle the most dangerous waves in the continental United State. Only now they watch the event on big-screen TV’s from the safety of bleachers and sports bars.
Whether you are grabbing a quick lunch of Fish ‘n’ chips at a walk-up at Pillar Point Harbor, or having an elegant meal at the Ritz-Carlton, you are going to have an amazing dining experience. “Farm-to-table” dining is the model in Half Moon Bay, and “Sea-to-table” should be added to that list as well. Almost all the farms in the area are certified organic, and the fish you ordered for dinner was probably delivered fresh from the boat only an hour before. The crab you get at any location is coming straight from the ocean to the pot to your table.
While the emphasis is on seafood and in Half Moon Bay, just about any type of restaurant can be found in the area. And, if you are really feeling adventurous, you can drive up to Moss Bay Distillery, have a great meal in the former prohibition-era “speakeasy” and see if the ghost of the famous Blue Lady will put in appearance.(Hint: she hangs out by the cliffs).