Half Moon Bay State Beach
This is an local’s overview of the very best coastal trails near Half Moon Bay State beach along with pictures, tips, and highlights you will not want to miss. These gorgeous trails are usually segments of the California Coastal trail. Don’t miss other things to see & do along the coast either.
Map Montara Moss-Beach Pillar-Point Princeton El-Granada
Miramar HMB-Beaches Poplar Wavecrest Redondo
Ritz-Carlton Cowell Tunitas Bean-Hollow Butano Ano-Nuevo
Pillar Point Bluff trail, one of many amazing ocean-side hiking trails
It is most fun to take your time and explore them by foot, bike, & car over several visits and many wonderful days. Our tips will help you to quickly get started and to make the most of your time. Before your trip, you may want to also check:
- Map of best trails & beaches along the HMB coastline.
- More things to see & do in nearby coastal towns and a map.
The list below is arranged, roughly, from north to south. In fact, except for Montara and Bean Hollow, you can link most of them together into one long trail if you are willing to adapt a bit to the terrain. We’ve also found that sometimes there are up to three parallel routes which can make things even more interesting via a bluff trail, along the beach beach, or walking a block or two inland on pleasing residential streets. Parking and access for bikes, dogs, and horses varies depending on exactly where you are so watch for signage.
Just walking your dog up and down the hilly streets of the beautiful little town of Montara is fun. In this pleasing rustic neighborhood pleasing native landscaping is common and nice ocean views frequently peek through the trees. A friend who lives here says the quality of living is as quiet and fantastic as it looks.
One of the best short hikes along the coast is Grey Whale Cove trail, especially in spring time when wildflowers are blooming. And, as you can see, the ocean views are fabulous on a clear day. It is an easy 1 mile hike (2 miles round trip) between Grey Whale Cove Parking lot (inland side of Hwy 1 about 1.4 miles north of Montara Beach) and Martini Creek Gate trailhead (inland side of Hwy 1 about .5 miles north of 2d St, Montara).
If you wish to extend your walk then check out the beaches at either end of the Grey Whale Cove trail. Grey Whale Cove Beach at the trail’s north end is interesting. One hundred yards north of the parking lot behind the yellow gate you can climb down long steep stairs to the 300 yard beach which is bounded by two hills. This is considered to be one of the best nude beaches (called Edun, or nude spelled backwards) near San Francisco though we’ve never run across any such sunbathers. Montara State Beach at the southern end of the trail is a more traditional long sandy beach and usually fairly empty as well. Both are beautiful and excellent for beach walking.
More serious hikers and their leashed dogs can climb the Montara Mountain trail(3.9 miles 1 way) to the 1,898 ft North Peak summit which has spectacular 360-degree ocean-to-bay views. This trail has good signs and a map can be found at the Martini Creek trailhead (located on the inland side of Hwy 1 about .5 miles north of 2d St, Montara, and 150 yards north of the free Montara Beach Parking lot)
A nice little round trip is to walk from the Martini Creek trailhead a couple of miles up Old San Pedro Mountain Trail over the ridge to the north side of the mountain. Then, take the steeper foot trail (well marked by signage) down to Grey Whale Cove Trail and back south to the trailhead.
Moss Beach Distillery
We find a good place to start and end two nice little round trip walks, one north & one south, is at the Moss Beach Distillery(140 Beach Way). This famous old restaurant, which was a hopping speakeasy during prohibition days, has an informal outside view deck where dogs are allowed and you can get some tasty fish, chips, and beer. Since Moss Beach area is often foggy they also provide blankets and a fire pit if needed.
By the way, don’t forget to bring warm coat along in the car just in case it is needed for the walk. This Moss Beach area can sometimes be cold, foggy, and breezy.
Starting at Moss Beach Distillery head north on Beach Way until it turns inland at Cypress Ave. Here you will find the Bluff Trail heading north. (Or, you can take the steep Seal Cove Trail from this point down to the beach and walk north along the beach if the tide is out. Or, head inland one block and take the Coastal Trail which allows dogs.) The Bluff Trail gives you a scenic sea views as you walk along in a beautiful old forest of cypress and eucalyptus trees.
In about a half mile you will get to a walking bridge (at California Ave/N Lake St.) which is the Bluff Trail’s northerly trailhead. Walk seaward on N Lake Street past the parking lot of the Fitzgerald Marine Preserve (200 Nevada Ave/N Lake St.). Keep walking to see the truly amazing tide pools which can be seen only when the tides are low. Otherwise, it will just look like a normal beach. After you have explored the tide pools turn around and head back to the Distillery the way you came or along the coastal trail a block inland.
Starting at Moss Beach Distillery head south on Ocean Blvd. You’ll see that the road is closed for a block to car traffic because it is starting to crack up and tilt towards the ocean … but you can still walk on it. Continue walking, and enjoying the ocean overlooks, until you reach the Ocean Blvd/Bernal Ave intersection at the end. Here you can find more parking and the trailhead to Pillar Point Bluff.
This is a dog friendly area partially owned and preserved by San Mateo County Parks. There are two or three roughly parallel trails heading south from the northern trailhead for over half a mile. As you will see it is a beautiful natural area with bluffs up to 170 feet high that overlook more Fitzgerald Marine Preserve beaches.
At the south end of the Bluff Trail is Pillar Point itself. The Point is 175 feet tall and home of the Pillar Point Air Force tracking station with its 80 foot dish-type radar antenna. Below Pillar Point, 1/2 mile due west beyond the rocky reefs, is where the world-famous Mavericks surfing competition is held. The biggest waves at Mavericks can get 20-60 feet high and in 1970 a 100 foot wave was observed. However, you probably won’t see these monster waves because they occur only a few times each year when far off-shore weather conditions are just right.
At the southerly end of the Bluff Trail, near the Air Force tracking station, you can look out east over the Pillar Point Harbor. You can also take a fire trail heading down to the Pillar Point Parking Lot (at the end of West Point Ave which provides access to the tracking station); this is actually the fastest way up to see Mavericks. Or, head back to Moss Beach the way you came.
From the Pillar Point Parking Lot, at the north end of Princeton-by-the-Sea, take a pleasant 1/2 mile round trip walk on the beach back under Pillar Point itself. If there is a low tide you may even make it around the Point for a much longer beach walk under the bluffs to the north. But, be careful to watch the tide so that you don’t get unexpectedly forced to climb the bluffs.
Next head easterly along the beach which fronts Pillar Point Marsh, the protected home of more than 150 species of birds, to Pillar Point Harbor in Princeton-By-The-Sea. If the tide is not too high you can go the entire way by beach. Otherwise you’ll have to head inland a few hundred yards and work your way south via Princeton Ave through the industrial part of town.
You should wander around Johnson Pier at Pillar Point harbor and check for freshly caught fish and Dungeness crabs for sale (fishfone 650-726-8724 will tell you which fishing boats recently came in). Also, there are a few local shops and restaurants such as Jeff Clark’s Mavericks Surf Shop, Queen of Hearts Sport Fishing, Barbara’s Fish Trap, and Half Moon Bay Brewing Company to see. Around the harbor you can also find considerable parking should you decide to start your walk here.
Then continue east along the beach on the trail that runs under Sam’s Chowder House. (Note: see live web camera feed from Sam’s). You’ll end up at Hwy 1 at the Pillar Point RV Park and the adjacent Surfer’s Beach in El Granada.
At Hwy 1/Coronado St. in El Granada, Surfer’s Beach heading south is another pleasant beach walk. If the tide happens to be too high take the recently paved Mirada Surf West Walk paralleling the beach about 100 yards inland. After a half mile walk south on Surfer’s beach we usually clamber up the rocks at Mirada Rd/Magellan Ave and continue our walk on the bluff above Miramar Beach. Along the street here you can sit down, watch the waves, and have some coffee on the outside patio of Ebb Tide Cafe, 311 Mirada Rd/Cortez Ave.
At the northeast end of Coral Reef Ave in El Granada there is good access to a nice inland trail into Rancho Corral De Tierra. This is a new 3,800 acre national park which just opened in 2011. At the south end of town is Quarry Park which also has access to more serious open space.
Ebb Tide Cafe patio, Miramar
Start at west end of Magellan Ave off Hwy 1, Miramar We often like to begin our walk near Magellan Ave/Miramar Rd where Miramar Beach Restaurant is located (follow the signs off Hwy 1).
See live webcam action showing Mirada Rd and the beach from the roof of Miramar Beach Restaurant.
Here our local headquarters is usually the nearby Ebb Tide Cafe, 311 Mirada Rd, Miramar, which serves coffee on weekends and has a comfortable outside deck overlooking the ocean.
About four blocks further south on Miramar Rd you will cross a foot bridge. This is where the official Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail begins. Walking along the dunes here gives a pleasant, relaxed feeling. And, the beach here is never crowded because it has only walking access. Normally we stop walking before Roosevelt Beach and turn back. On the way back we often cut back inland to Alameda Ave and enjoy checking out the local homes and their landscaping.
The official Half Moon Bay State Park has four beaches with three continuous miles of sandy shoreline and a paved Half Moon Bay Coastal trail. To the north the trail continues on to Miramar Beach, Pillar Point Harbor, and Moss Beach as discussed above. To the south it continues on as the Bluff Top Trail at Poplar Beach and then turns into a dirt trail at Seymour Bridge headed to the Ritz-Carlton golf course as discussed below.
These four beaches do not have the spectacular high bluffs, rocks, and pounding surf seen to the north and south so we don’t visit them as often. However, they are popular and family friendly. E.g., they feature:
- Good access, restrooms, and parking ($10/day as of Jan 2010).
- Safer swimming. Though not as rough as elsewhere the water is still very cold & has potential dangers such as rip tides.
- Long broad sand beaches for sun bathing and walking (no dogs allowed).
- A long paved coastal trail for family biking or walking (leashed dogs allowed on the trail but not on the beaches) between beaches.
The official Half Moon Bay coastal trail runs along what used to be Ocean Side Railroad tracks (San Francisco to Tunitas Creek, 1908-1920). It is not that exciting to walk but certainly provides a smooth, pleasant bicycle ride. Riding quickly on a mountain bike it took me thirty minutes to get from Poplar Beach to Pillar Point Marsh (estimated 5 miles). Give yourself more time if you are not familiar with the area or are sightseeing. The length of the official HMB Beach segment from Francis Beach to Roosevelt Beach is 3 miles.
- Roosevelt Beach, west end of Young Ave, then veer north right after the Ranger’s kiosk. Nice and quiet beach – Less busy than the other three yet still has automobile access & parking.
- Dunes Beach, west end of Young Ave off Highway 1.
- Venice Beach, west end of Venice Blvd off Highway 1 – To the north of Venice Beach is Frenchmans Creek bridge and to the south is Pilarcitos Creek bridge. These two creek habitats provide bird watching and are also steelhead trout spawning routes.Sea Horse ranch horse rentals, located just south of Venice Blvd, uses the horse trails that run from Roosevelt Beach to Francis Beach. We don’t ride horses but do notice a lot of horse droppings on the beach sand and dirt trails in the area.
- Francis Beach, west end of Kelly Ave off Highway 1 – Also known as Half Moon Bay State Beach, this is the most well developed beach area. It has hot showers and 52 individual camp sites.We like the Oceanview Driving Range a couple of blocks inland at 201 Kelly Avenue. It is small, low key, and uncrowded. The neighbor’s yard out front holds a big Llama who looks like he can take care of himself and you too (note: He wasn’t there recently. Hopefully, he’ll be back soon.). Tres Amigos, a popular and decent tacqueria, is at the corner of Kelly Ave & Hwy 1.
Start at west end of Poplar Ave off Hwy 1 – This is also a Half Moon Bay City park but is less developed than the other four. It has free parking and is one of the few San Mateo beaches where dogs are allowed. Horses too.
Start west of where Wavecrest Rd ends, off Hwy 1 – The best way to get to the trail overlooking Wavecrest Beach is via Seymour Bridge at the south side of Bluff Top Coastal Park / Poplar Beach.
Another approach is from Hwy 1 where you can turn west at Wavecrest Rd (Cameron’s British Pub, Restaurant & Inn) and park at the end near the Smith Field Little League Park and Coastside Dog Park. From there work your way via miscellaneous trails to the beach area.
This land was recently purchased by the Peninsula Open Space Trust for conservation and public use. This will help save some of the most important San Mateo County wintering grounds for raptors which are meat eating birds such as hawks, eagles, falcons & owls that use their feet to catch prey.
This hidden gem is located at the west end of Redondo Beach Rd off Hwy 1 – The bluff views and hikes are quite nice with a private wild feeling about them. Access to the beach itself is steep with no stairs. However, there are at least two or three paths down if you look for them.
We often park here then walk on south to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel where free parking can get tight. The trail/road is on the bluff and works its way a block south then turns inland for a block before accessing Ritz-Carlton’s grounds.
Start at west end of Miramontes Point Rd – This segment of the California Coastal Trail going through the Ritz-Carlton Hotel is very nice in a formal cultivated way. The awesome natural scenic beauty remains but you walk on paved golf cart paths within a world class golf course. The Ritz-Carlton facility was approved before the California Coastal Act was passed in 1976 and shows the previous direction of coastal development (which had less emphasis than now on natural conservation and public access).
Luckily public access is still preserved here including 25 free public parking spaces in the covered garage. If these spaces are not full you can get a password at the guarded gate on Miramontes Point Rd; otherwise expect to pay for valet parking.
Manhattan Beach below the Ritz-Carlton bluffs is one of the nicest beaches in the Half Moon Bay area. You will need to walk about 3/4 mile south to the concrete stairs going down the bluff. If the tide is out you can sometimes keep walking north to Redondo Beach, Wavecrest Beach and even Poplar Beach; however, be careful because the tide can quickly come back in and cut off beach access.
If you would like a more isolated and rural beach keep driving further south from HMB about a mile past Miramontes Point Rd (the Ritz-Carlton exit). Look for a yellow gate to the right, which is easy to miss, behind which you will find a small parking lot. Then take the 1/2 mile walking trail west from the parking lot through working farm fields to the Cowell Ranch beach bluff. On weekends you can walk the Cowell-Purissima Trail south from the beach. You can also walk a short trail north, through beautiful wild flowers in June-July, to the Ritz Carlton Trail. Bikes are OK but no dogs are allowed.
Long wooden stairs will take you down to the pleasant uncrowded beach. But, first look out over the protected seal preserve to the south. Seals can usually be seen there from February-May, with seal pups from March-April.
The California Coastal Trail currently stops at the southern end of the Ritz-Carlton property. A new segment of the Coastal Trail starts again at Cowell Ranch Beach and heads south parallel to the bluffs for about 3.5 miles. Warning: This trail is closed off in the middle for farming operations except during weekends.
If you prefer you can also start at the southern end of this trail segment. The southern parking lot is across Hwy 1 from Bob’s Vegetable Stand & Pumpkin Farm, which is about three miles further south down Hwy 1. From here you can hike or bike ride back north along the bluffs to Cowell Ranch Beach. There are good views of the shoreline at this end but no beach access due to very steep bluffs.
If you don’t mind something a little more strenuous then Tunitas Creek Beach is a pleasant hidden spot worth visiting. South on Hwy 1 just past Tunitas Creek Road is where you park (look for the blue San Mateo County Call Box SM 001 205). From here it is a short hike west to the beach. The challenge is that one part of this hike is so steep that a rope has been strung to help you make it down and then back up.
Located three miles south of Pescadero Beach are two of the best, most interesting beaches along the coast: Pebble Beach and the somewhat larger Bean Hollow Beach. They are connected by a fantastic nature trail approximately one mile long. Here are a list of some of the features:
- Nature trail – An excellent nature trail is provided on top of the low 5-10 foot bluffs. It is very natural feeling yet has wooden foot bridges over gulleys and man-made steps down to the beaches when appropriate.
- Pebble Beach – The northern beach is made of many smooth small pebbles washed in from the ocean floor. You can see the big pebbles change to small pebbles to eventually sand as you walk along this beach.
- Sand beach – The bigger southern beach has plenty of sand for sunbathing.
- Interesting rocks An excellent variety of very unusual rock formations, both in and out of the water, can be seen.
- Tide pools – A long rocky beach fronts the nature trail with many different places to get into tidal pools.
- Wild life – On a recent trip we have seen 50-100 seals basking about 50 yards off shore on the rocks. There is plenty of interesting flora as well.
- Dogs are allowed – This is one of the few San Mateo beaches where dogs are allowed (on leash).
- Free parking – Many San Mateo beaches charge up to $10/day. This is a nice exception.
This is a very nice, very quiet inland state park south and east of Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Take Gazos Creek Road from the coast or Cloverdale Road from Pescadero. Butano State Park is almost always sunnier than the coast which makes it a good place to go on foggy cold days or for some variety on a Sunday drive.
Besides 40 miles of hiking trails through young redwoods you can camp out (reservations suggested) alongside your car or on trails. Dogs and bikes are allowed on most camp sites and on fire roads but not on hiking trails. We like the cute little nature museum too.
Stuffed great horned owl at the Butano State Park nature center
This unique world-class tour runs December 15th to March 15th each year. Where else are you going to be able to get within 30 feet of a bull seal, weighing up to 5000-6000 lbs, in the wild. It’s well worth the longer trip (55 miles south of San Francisco) to do at least once. But do get your reservations early, especially for weekends, if you want to experience this adventure. The park is also open the rest of the year and is especially interesting for birders.
These Half Moon Bay State Beach walking trails provide some of the most beautiful and accessible coastal access in the entire U.S. Don’t miss enjoying these truly great wonders of nature all within 30-60 minutes of most of the San Francisco Bay area.
- Half Moon Bay Area and map – Things to see & do near Half Moon Bay
- HMB beaches & trails map – Exact locations of the best beaches and trails along the Half Moon Bay coastline.
- Pictures near Half Moon Bay – A few pictures of what to expect.
- Biking Skyline Ridge and map – Skyline Ridge is a hidden treasure along the mountain tops just west of Half Moon Bay. Check it out for several more nifty, nearby things to do.
- SF Bay Dog Walks – Some of the best dog (and people) walks in the SF Bay area.
- SF Bay Activities – Many more healthy, active things to do … hike, bike, surf, fly… in the San Francisco Bay area.
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