Daytrip: Half Moon Bay and the San Mateo coast

Early on in my freshman year of college, a friend with a car—precious and rare in those dorm days—drove me out to Half Moon Bay. I have a vague memory of the foggy coastline, turbulent surf, and some stories about Neil Young.

But somehow that has remained my only visit to the seaside town and to the San Mateo coast, until a few weeks ago. Aron took the day off for his birthday and I decided to plan a drive for us.

We dropped off the kids at school and hit the road on one especially warm Monday morning in October, skirting the edges of San Francisco, to head south of the city. From Pacifica, we put the top down and stayed along the coast until we came to Half Moon Bay for lunch.

The coastline gets dramatic immediately. We pulled over at Gray Whale Beach, unable to pass up chances to take in the views. And I was intrigued to see that there’s a hostel in a lighthouse at Montara State Beach: The 1875 -built fog signal station is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and has been open as a hostel through a partnership with California State Park for about 40 years now.

I’d planned for us to go for an early lunch at Sam’s Chowder House after hearing that their Lobster Rolls are renowned. We’ve missed seeing Lobster Rolls routinely on menus since leaving the east coast. Aron ordered the naked style (or the Connecticut version with warm lobster and butter), and I went for my favorite—lobster salad on a buttered bun (the Maine-standard). That alone made the trip worthwhile.

The place was surprisingly full for a Monday at 11am, but I gather that it gets a whole lot more busy on weekends—especially October ones, when the pumpkins that Half Moon Bay is known for are being celebrated.

Sam’s is in the harbor, just south of Mavericks, the famous surf break. We looked out onto the bay, still amazing by how sunny and clear it was (as much as it’s known for pumpkins, Half Moon Bay might be synonymous with fog), and watched the pelicans coming and going. I can’t recall ever seeing so many pelicans at once. I’m not sure if you can see the detail in the shot above, but there were hundreds of them.

My other hopes for our stop were to go tidepooling at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and to check out the views from the Ritz Carlton. Unfortunately the tide was high midday, so we decided to leave the first item for a return trip with the kids and instead head out to the beach below the Ritz. I had done lot of reading on trails for hiking as well, but we really ended up just trying to get more of an overview of the area. I’d love to hear more suggestions from those of you who know the area well.

The hotel is known for its golf courses right on the ocean, and the views were indeed spectacular. We took off our shoes and wandered down to the water—at Ocean Colony—grateful for the cool breezes in the unusually hot sun. You can park on Miramontes Point Road and access the beach (and the resort), or pay for valet parking at the Ritz and head down the stairs.

We stopped briefly on the main street in the town of Half Moon Bay, picking up coffee (and sunscreen!) before getting back to our drive. There are lots of charming looking shops and restaurants.

Following the coast south, past the hotly contested Martin’s beach, one of our favorite stops was at San Gregorio at the intersection of Highways 84 and 1. Pockets of fog formed where the San Gregorio creek fed into the water and shorebirds gathered and surfed the wind. It was magnificent!

I thought we might make it as far south as Pescadero and the Año Nuevo state park, but we thought better to head inland on Highway 84—into the Santa Cruz mountains and the Purisma Creek Redwoods preserve.

We turned North at La Honda by Applejack’s—an 1879-blacksmith shop turned roadhouse. Apparently it was popular in the ’60s with author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. From there we followed Skyline Drive, passing Alice’s Restaurant, considering (and passing on) detours to nearby wineries, looking for a trailhead that would give us just a small taste of the preserve.

As in, maybe, a 30 minute hike out and back. We found a lovely, if steep, route that afforded us views looking all the way back to the Harbor where we began. Good to note: there were some trailmaps and bathrooms by the parking lot.

This loop lead us back toward Half Moon Bay along the Peninsula’s ridge and eventually into Burlingame for dinner. I’d found us a South Indian fusion restaurant called Rasa that came with great reviews, and a Michellin star, for dinner. It seemed perfect for Aron: interesting, unfussy, delicious. If it were nearby, we’d be back often. If you’re lucky to be closer, be sure to try the Bombay sliders and the Mangolee sake cocktail.

Have you visited Half Moon Bay or anywhere else on the San Mateo coast? What are your favorite destinations? 

P.S. More Northern California daytrips. 


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