Text and photos ©2014
Through television series and advertisements, millions who have never been to California are nonetheless familiar with the sunny beaches of southern California, the dramatic cliffs of Big Sur, the rocky shores of Pebble Beach, the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz, and the New England-look-alike coast of Mendocino. Yet within half an hour of downtown San Francisco, the San Mateo Coast remains virtually unknown to out-of-towners. I wish I could say that it’s unknown to Bay Area residents, but the weekend traffic has increased every year since I moved here 37 years ago.
San Mateo County is split down the middle by the Santa Cruz Mountains that separate San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The San Andreas Fault runs through the mountains, dividing the North American Plate from the Pacific Plate. The vast majority of the more than 700,000 who live in the county, live on the east side of the mountains facing the bay. The coastside remains sparcely inhabited, with small towns, agricultural land, and plenty of wildlife.
Plans for developing the coast actually began 130 years ago, with the formation of the Ocean Shore Railroad in 1881. A line had been built between San Francisco and San Jose in 1863, facilitating the growth of the towns on the bay side of the San Francisco peninsula. The Ocean Shore Railroad was to do the same between San Francisco and Santa Cruz on the ocean side. Construction began in 1905, and in 1907 trains began carrying passengers south from San Francisco. The tracks eventually ran a few miles past Half Moon Bay, but the project was never completed and service was abandoned in 1921 due in part to the high cost of maintaining the unstable roadbed along Devil’s Slide. The railway was replaced by a two-lane road in 1937 (more about that later).
In the 1950’s and ‘60’s real estate developers dreamed of building a city of 100,000 or more south of Pacifica. Plans were made to extend two eight-lane freeways over the mountains, one from San Francisco airport into Pacifica, the other over Montara Mountain from Pacifica to the heart of the San Mateo Coast. Cal-Trans bought rights-of-way for the freeways. Westinghouse bought up large tracts of land. Then along came the Coastal Act of 1972, a ballot measure that created the California Coastal Commission and limited growth within the watershed of the Pacific Ocean.
Today the San Mateo coast has two faces, divided by Devil’s Slide, the western most promontory of Montara Mountain. To get an idea of what the 30-mile stretch of coast south of Devil’s slide would have looked like had the Coastal Act failed, one need only look to the 8-mile stretch to the north. Just south of San Francisco, California State Route 1 splits off from an eight-lane freeway in Daly City and climbs three hundred feet before becoming a four-lane highway and dropping into Pacifica, where the infamous San Andreas Fault enters the ocean at Mussel Rock. Pacifica is a pastiche of nine communities (once stops on the Ocean Shore Railroad) incorporated together in 1957, with a current population of around 40,000. While not without its charms, including one of the few fishing piers in California and a fine surfing beach, it was almost entirely developed by the time the Coastal Act was approved, and so has a different character than the more rural communities directly to the south.
At the southern end of Pacifica, at Pedro Point, Highway 1 changes to two lanes. It winds up the backside of San Pedro Point and onto a landslide-prone ledge of Montara Mountain known as Devil’s Slide, four-hundred-feet above the surf. The views are spectacular, and yet this winding section has acted as a psychological deterrent to many would-be visitors. The road turns and dips a further three miles to exit “The Slide” at Montara State Beach, passing through the unincorporated cities of Montara, Moss Beach, Princeton-by-the-Sea and El Granada, before reaching Half Moon Bay, all once stops on the Ocean Shore Railroad. Here housing shares space with plots of agricultural land dominated by Brussels sprouts, artichokes, fava beans and flower farms. Despite its proximity to San Francisco (it’s only thirty-five minutes from Montara to Union Square), today less than four percent of the population of San Mateo County resides on the coast south of Devil’s Slide.
The main routes off the coast are Highway 1 over Devil’s Slide and the two-lane Highway 92 that winds over the mountains from Half Moon Bay to San Mateo. The latter passes flower farms, a trout farm, several nurseries, a winery, and a few Christmas tree farms.
Since passage of the Coastal Act of 1972, the two biggest obstacles to development on this section of coast has been a State mandate that Highway 1 be restricted to two lanes through rural areas, and the unstable nature of Devil’s Slide. Landslides here destroyed sections of the coast road in 1940, 1983, 1995 and 2006. The last closure was for six months, during which time commuters were all forced to funnel into Highway 92. Those working in San Francisco saw their commutes double in both directions. Local businesses that relied on weekend visitors from San Francisco went out of business.
Debate over a Devil’s Slide bypass went on for three and a half decades. Caltrans, the state agency responsible for building and maintaining highways, argued that the 1,000-foot section of Devil’s Slide cost a million dollars a year to maintain, and proposed a 100-foot wide bypass over Montara Mountain, with uphill passing lanes, runaway truck ramps and wide shoulders. Environmentalists and slow-growth proponents fought for a smaller project. In 1996, county voters finally elected to build a two-lane tunnel through the mountain. I attended some of the meetings that Caltrans held for locals to see and comment on the final design. At the time the cost was estimated at 56 million dollars. The latest estimate is 342 million, so compared with the cost of maintaining Devil’s Slide, it will only take 342 years to break even, assuming there is no inflation in the meantime.
The cat may not be fully out of the bag, maybe only its head (Caltrans punched through the northbound bore of the tunnel in October, 2010), but change is coming. Upon completion in early 2013, the tunnel will be the second longest in California at 4,149 feet, making San Mateo’s mid-coast more accessible than ever before. The old roadway along Devil’s Slide will be opened to pedestrians and bicyclists who will be able to enjoy the precipitous ocean and mountain views.
While there is bound to be more pressure to develop the coast, major impediments to growth still exist. There is a limited amount of fresh water, much of the coast is zoned for agriculture, and weather is also an issue. Nonetheless, the opening of the tunnel will encourage more visitors from San Francisco. The coast offers some wonderful day trips from the city, as well as elegant lodging for those who want to get away overnight without driving too far. This 30-mile section of coast runs from just north of Point Montara lighthouse, to just south of Pigeon Point lighthouse, the only two lighthouse hostels in California. There’s a lot to see and appreciate on this quiet coast. Here’s a local perspective on what you might find worthwhile —
When to visit depends on your point of view. This stretch of coast has one of the most temperate and unvarying climates in the world. The average high temperature in winter is 58 degrees Fahrenheit, and it only rises to a high of 66 by September, the warmest month. Average low temperatures vary from the mid 40’s to low 50’s. The mild summer temperatures are due to a fog layer that blankets the coast in the summer months. Those of us who live here find it dreary, but visitors from the East Bay, tired of baking in the summer heat, flock to the foggy coast on summer weekends. The most clement weather is in April, May and October, and through some quirk of nature, we almost always have a heat wave for a week or two in January.
Montara and Moss Beach
If you like sun bathing in the buff, Grey Whale Cove, just north of Montara, is one of the few clothing-optional beaches in California.
Montara (population 2,950) and Moss Beach (population 1,953) are contiguous, separated only by Montara Creek. Montara has a couple of bed-and-breakfast inns and restaurants, but its chief attraction is Montara State Beach, a mile long stretch of coarse yellow sand with views of Devil’s Slide and Montara Mountain. Trails up the mountain to McNee Ranch State Park also provide dramatic views.
At the dividing line between Montara and Moss Beach, Point Montara lighthouse is worth a stop, or an overnight stay (it’s the site of a youth hostel). It has a colorful history, having begun life as the Mayo Beach lighthouse in Wellfleet, Massachusetts in 1881. The cast-iron structure was disassembled in 1925 and rebuilt on Point Montara in 1928. In the 1957 filmThe Spirit of St. Louis, starring Jimmy Stewart, the lighthouse stands in for the coast of Nova Scotia as Lindbergh flies overhead. More recently the hostel passed as a motel in the 2001 film Bandits.
Moss Beach is noted for its tidepools at James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Here you’ll find anemones, sea stars, urchins, tiny fish and eels, baby octopi, chitons, limpits, mussels, crabs, cormorants, grebes, harbor seals and the occasional sea lion. It’s a curiosity that harbor seals are rarely seen in the harbor, and the sea lions are rarely seen at sea. Collecting sea life or shells in the Reserve is prohibited.
If high tide covers the tidepools, you can stroll through the cypress forest on the bluffs above the beach. An archaeological dig in the 1990’s proved that people have been living here for 6,000 years. The Park Service recently installed a stairway to Seal Cove beach at the south end of the cypress forest, where rum runners landed cargo during Prohibition. On the bluff above, the Moss Beach Distillery is a local restaurant on the historic register. Like other historic restaurants in the area, it was once a Prohibition roadhouse and brothel.
Pillar Point Harbor area
Two miles south of Moss Beach, past a large Brussels sprouts farm on the east, and the Half Moon Bay airport on the west, you’ll come to Princeton-by-the-Sea (population 300) and Pillar Point Harbor. Once one of the largest commercial salmon fisheries on the west coast, it is still a working harbor with a fishing fleet of 200 boats. Over the past three decades it’s gone upscale, as today there are also 170 yachts, and the harbor is ringed by fine restaurants, a couple of bed-and-breakfasts, a hotel and a recently opened Spa and Resort. The latter seems rather large by local standards, though I expect we’ll get used to it. You can still buy fish off the back of the boats, and Dungeness crab from November through June. The harbor is home to hundreds of pelicans, gulls, cormorants, sea lions, and the occasional sea otter, egret and blue heron.
After visiting one of the local restaurants, you can work off the extra calories by renting a kayak just south of the pier. Other diversions for the visitor include sport fishing and whale watching tours. California Grey Whales migrate from Alaska to Baja California from October to December. On their return migration in March and April they come closer to shore, usually in groups of three (mother, aunt and calf). Though not an everyday sight, I’ve seen them breach off of Moss Beach and Montara.
The harbor is sheltered from the ocean by Pillar Point, topped by an Air Force satellite tracking station. Offshore of the point is Mavericks, famous for its mammoth winter waves.
Across the highway from the harbor, El Granada (population 5,700) spreads uphill under Eucalyptus trees. In the early 1900’s The Ocean Shore Railroad commissioned Daniel Burnham (of New York’s Flatiron Building fame) to develop plans for the town, which is unusual for its streets laid out in a fan shape joined by concentric arcs.
Just south of the harbor, Half Moon Bay makes a graceful arc rimmed by a five-mile long beach hemmed in by sandstone cliffs. Dolphins are often seen close inshore, and a whale once surfaced 20 feet in front of my kyack off Miramar Beach.
A paved coastal trail for walkers and bicyclists now runs along the bluff from the harbor to the southern end of the town. Equestrians can rent horses at Sea Horse Ranch and take a bridal path that parallels the trail and eventually leads down to the beach.
Half Moon Bay
At the crossroads of Highways 1 and 92, Half Moon Bay (population 12,000) is just a 45-minute commute to both San Francisco and San Jose, making it a nexus for the political tug-of-war between developers and slow-growth factions.
The town has become famous for pumpkins. Each weekend during the month of October, tourists pour over the hill to wander the area’s pumpkin patches, looking for just the right squash to carve into jack-o-lanterns (though to be honest, most of the pumpkins are trucked in). Begun 40 years ago to raise funds to renovate Main Street, the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, held in October, annually draws about 200,000 people to the two-day event.
Main Street Half Moon Bay is worth a morning’s stroll. It’s lined with quaint shops, small restaurants, art galleries, bakeries and bed-and-breakfast inns.
The Ritz Carlton resort, built in 2000 at the Half Moon Bay Golf Links, is by far the largest hotel in the area, and the town’s largest employer. Though at the time of its building locals feared the impact of such a large project on a small town, the hotel keeps a low profile, both figuratively and physically. Situated on cypress studded ocean bluffs, the hotel is surrounded by the only ocean side golf course in northern California.
If you’re a wine enthusiast, you may want to visit Half Moon Bay’s Nebbia Winery, or if you have more time, the Santa Cruz Mountains are home to over 60 wineries.
One of the hidden gems of Half Moon Bay is Purisima Creek Redwoods. The 3,360 acre Open Space Preserve, encompasses a fern bordered creek shaded by towering Sequoia Sempervirens. The preserve features twenty-one miles of trails that climb up to Skyline Boulevard at the 1,600 foot level of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Though the redwoods are the main attraction, the canyon is also home to Douglas Fir, oak and madrone.
There are no other coastal towns on the San Mateo Coast (Santa Cruz is 50 miles south), but there are several State Beaches, including Pomponio and San Gregorio, with parking and restroom facilities. For visitors accustomed to images of Southern California beaches, be forewarned that Northern California water is cold, the beaches are often windswept, and the waves can be treacherous.
Pescadero State Beach, 14 miles south of Half Moon Bay, is backed by Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, popular with bird watchers. A mile and a half inland, you’ll find the tiny agricultural town of Pescadero, where you can try two local delicacies — cream of artichoke soup, and Olallieberry pie — at the century-old Duarte’s Tavern. Operated by the fourth generation, Duarte’s was one of only five restaurants in the U.S. to be dubbed an “American Classic” by The James Beard Foundation.
A quarter mile east on North Street, Harley Farms is an artisan producer of goat cheese, where you can take a tour, pet the baby goats, and shop for cheese.
Just four and a half miles further east you’ll come to Butano State Park, a Redwood lined canyon, not unlike Purisima Creek Redwoods, with miles of hiking trails and 21 drive-in campsites.
Another three miles south of Pescadero, past Bean Hollow State Beach, you’ll come to Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Unfortunately, visitors can no longer take the spiral staircase to the Fresnel lens at the top of the 115-foot tall lighthouse, but you can stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel, in the original lighthouse keeper’s quarters. For day visitors, the grounds offer some historical background on the light, erected in 1872, as well as dramatic views of crashing surf.
Five miles south of the lighthouse, at the southern edge of San Mateo County, Año Nuevo Point is the site of the largest breeding colony of the northern elephant seal. During the breeding season, December through March, park access is limited to guided walks, and advance reservations are recommended.
Where to Stay:
The coastside has a number of hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns. Here are a few of my favorites:
If I could scout a location for a Hitchcock style mystery, I’d pick Seal Cove Inn in Moss Beach. Set on the border of a stand of brooding cypress that overlook the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the inn is particularly atmospheric when the fog rolls in (in the summer months). To keep you warm, each bedroom has a wood burning fireplace. A stairway to Seal Cove beach is just a hundred yards away. 1-800-995-9987, www.sealcoveinn.com
Landis Shores on Miramar Beach is one of only two oceanfront inns in Half Moon Bay. All rooms have high-speed internet and private balconies overlooking the waves. Several have whirlpool tubs and fireplaces. Ellen Landis, a sommelier, keeps a temperature-controlled wine room for guests, well-stocked with interesting wines from around the world. 1-650-726-6642, www.landisshores.com
Cypress Inn on Miramar Beach takes up three buildings, perched on a cliff above the crashing surf. All rooms have fireplaces, and several have whirlpool tubs. You can pick up the coastal trail here, with access to all of Half Moon Bay’s beaches.
In the heart of Half Moon Bay the English-style Mill Rose Inn offers visitors a quiet sanctuary of color and scent in an acre of gardens, with more than 200 rose bushes. The rooms are decorated with fine European antiques, and all but one have hand-painted fireplaces. 1-650-726-8750, www.millroseinn.com
The budget minded might want to try the two lighthouse hostels, where room rates start at $24 a night. www.norcalhostels.org
Where the locals eat:
There isn’t space here to list all of the good restaurants on the San Mateo coast, but here are a few of my favorites:
Half Moon Bay Brewing Company at Pillar Point Harbor is a brewpub offering both indoor and outdoor seating. The fare ranges from hamburgers to seafood. Try their beer sampler. 1-650-278-2739, www.hmbbrewingco.com
With its nautical décor and warming woodstove Ketch Joanne Restaurant at the harbor is a favorite of local fisherman. Generous portions at reasonable prices, the best omlettes on the coast, and the best BLT this writer has ever had. 1-650-728-3747, www.ketchjoanne.com
On Highway One, with a panoramic view of the harbor, Sam’s Chowder House is so popular you’ll find parking a problem. I suggest you park at the harbor and take the five-minute walk down the coastal trail to the restaurant. The food is good, if on the pricey side. 1-650-712-0245, www.samschowderhouse.com
A former speakeasy and brothel, Miramar Beach Restaurant, just south of the harbor breakwater, serves my favorite New England style clam chowder. You can eat outdoors on their terrace and listen to the sound of waves rolling into shore. 1-650-726-9053,www.miramarbeachrestaurant.com
Across highway one from the harbor, you’ll find Cafe Gibralter, a cosy little bistro serving Mediterranean cuisine in an intimate setting. You’ll love the bread fresh from their wood fired pizza oven. www.cafegibralter.com
At the north end of Main Street in Half Moon Bay, Pasta Moon serves authentic Italian cuisine, house made pasta, focaccia and thin crust pizza. The wine list features hard to find wines from northern Italy. 1-650-726-5125, www.pastamoon.com
The newest addition to fine dining in the area is Via Uno, appropriately on Highway One in Half Moon Bay. Run by Italians, they naturally serve authentic southern Italian food, including the best pizza on the coast, as well as a killer wine list.
(650) 560-8858, www.viaunorestaurant.com