11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Half Moon Bay
Sheltered by wooded rolling hills, the cozy seaside community of Half Moon Bay is an unpretentious small town with a friendly attitude. Despite being so close to San Francisco, the town feels much further away because it's only accessible by a winding two-lane country road. Often blanketed in misty fog, the hillsides sloping down to the Pacific Ocean are covered with fragrant eucalyptus trees and a patchwork of farms, ranches, and flower nurseries. The seasonal bounty of artichokes, carrots, corn, strawberries, green beans, and pumpkins delight shoppers at the weekly farmers market. Produce stands also line Route 92, the main road into town. Half Moon Bay is a popular weekend getaway from San Francisco with interesting shops, restaurants, and quaint bed & breakfasts, and makes a wonderful stop on a Northern California coastal itinerary. Beautiful beaches, dramatic nature sites, and awe-inspiring ocean scenery set a glorious backdrop for outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, horseback riding, birding, golfing, and (when the sun is out) sunbathing.
See also: Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay
1 Half Moon Bay State Beaches
The Half Moon Bay coastline is made up of multiple state beaches. The entire area encompasses several miles of wide, sandy beaches including Surfers' Beach, Dunes Beach, Venice Beach, and Francis Beach. Tourists should keep in mind that the weather is often quite cold and windy, even during summertime when thick fog often blocks the sun. During September through early November is the best time for sunbathing and wading. Also, the Pacific Ocean in Half Moon Bay is too cold to enter without a wetsuit, and the riptides can be dangerous. Instead of swimming, visitors come here to appreciate the natural beauty and to breathe in the refreshing sea air. Many visitors also enjoy fishing and picnicking at the Half Moon Bay Beaches. A campground above the beaches offers overnight accommodations; campsite reservations must be made in advance.
2 Pillar Point Harbor and Coastside Trail
Visitors can enjoy magnificent views of the dramatic Pacific coastline while taking an invigorating walk along the Coastside Trail. This scenic oceanfront trail extends from the Pillar Point Harbor to the south of Half Moon Bay. The Pillar Point Harbor fishing pier is in the neighboring community of Princeton-by-the-Sea. This harbor is also the departure point for whale-watching tours during whale migration season. Visitors will also find several excellent seafood restaurants in this area.
3 Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park
Perpetually covered in dense fog that obscures visibility, this coastal site was in dire need of a lighthouse when the Pigeon Point Lighthouse was built in 1871 after a series of shipwrecks. Standing on a cliff, this 115-foot lighthouse is one of the tallest in the United States. The classic white-painted lighthouse is now primarily automated, and the fog horn has been shut down, but it is still an impressive sight. The coastal areas around the lighthouse are full of marine life. Seals regularly swim from the shore beyond the surf, and during whale migrating season (December through May), the amazing mammals travel down the Pacific Coast. The rocky reefs around the lighthouse are also full of diverse plant and animal life.
4 Main Street
The historic downtown of Half Moon Bay has many old-fashioned small hotels, quaint bed & breakfasts, small cafés, and restaurants. A popular spot is Pasta Moon, a farm-to-table restaurant that has been in business for more than 20 years. Just off Main Street on a quiet side street is the Mill Rose Inn, a charming luxury bed & breakfast with a delightful English country-style garden. The B&B owner takes advantage of Half Moon Bay's cool, misty climate, which allows an abundance of colorful roses and other flowers to thrive in the garden. For dining and shopping, Main Street is the place to go. Take a leisurely stroll down this main drag and enjoy the town's relaxing, slow pace. Browse the clothing boutiques, bookstores, home decor shops, and other locally owned specialty shops. A visitors center on Main Street has excellent resources about the local beaches and hikes.
5 Pescadero's Farms and Coastal Delights
On the way from Half Moon Bay to the quaint rural community of Pescadero, about 17 miles to the south, travelers drive past rolling coastal hills and a patchwork of artichoke, lettuce, and green bean farms. With its saltwater ponds and flowing creeks, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve reveals diverse sea life in the tide pools. The preserve is also a sanctuary for migratory birds including great blue herons, great egrets, and snowy egrets. The Pescadero State Beach is a small, quiet beach with unspoiled natural scenery. The town of Pescadero lies two miles east of Highway One on Pescadero Road. Foodies can visit the Harley Farms Goat Dairy to sample their award-winning cheese or to attend one of the Farm Dinners, special candlelit meals held in the restored Victorian barn.
6 Half Moon Bay Golf Courses
Half Moon Bay has two world-class championship golf courses, both on the Ritz-Carlton resort property. The Old Course was designed in 1973 by Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane. This classic 18-hole course features a parkland links design, cypress trees, and sensational views of the Pacific Ocean. The course concludes with one of the highest ranked and most dramatic holes in the world, a 405-yard par four on a bluff with stunning ocean vistas. Numerous U.S. Open Qualifiers have been held at the Half Moon Bay Old Course.
Even more challenging, the newer Ocean Course opened in 1997 and was designed by renowned landscape architect Arthur Hills. This classic 18-hole links-style course is perched high on a rugged bluff overlooking the crashing Pacific Ocean waves. Every hole of this course offers sea views, and the final four holes are considered some of the finest anywhere. On weekends at sundown, bagpipers play on the course in the Scottish tradition. In 2008, the course hosted the LPGA Samsung Golf Championships
7 Mavericks Surfing Competition
Legendary among surfers, Mavericks is one of the biggest surfing waves in the world. This enormous wave breaks a half-mile from Pillar Point Harbor. When the conditions are right, professional surfers take on this big wave for the famous Mavericks Surfing Competition. Surfers come from all over the world at only 48 hours notice. For safety reasons, the public is not allowed to watch the competition from the beach.
8 Gray Whale Cove Trail
For a breathtaking coastal walk, head to the community of Montara (seven miles north of Half Moon Bay) to the Gray Whale Cove Trail. This gentle one-mile trail begins about 1.5 miles from the Chart House Restaurant, a worthwhile stop in itself for dining with an ocean view. After a slight incline from the parking lot, the trail is completely flat and is more of a scenic walk than a hike. With the San Pedro and Montara mountains in the background and the Pacific Ocean crashing against granite outcrops, the setting is truly inspiring. The trail is lined with typical California coastal vegetation such as sagebrush and coyote bush. Watch out for poison oak with its three-pronged reddish-green leaves. During springtime, this trail is a lovely place to spot colorful wildflowers, including blue Douglas irises, vibrant pink hollyhocks, and bright yellow buttercups. Gray Whale Cove also has a sheltered sandy beach.
9 Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach
At the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, the community neighboring seven miles to the north of Half Moon Bay, visitors can discover the fascinating world of tidal pools. During low tide, the saltwater pools are filled with sea creatures like hermit crabs, starfish, and purple shore crabs. For a pleasant nature walk, take the trail that begins at the sandy cove on the southern end of the reserve. The trail winds through the garden of an old estate and a century-old forest of Monterey cypress trees. During springtime, it's sometimes possible to spot California gray whales just offshore. In the summer and fall, look out for brown pelicans swooping over the waves.
10 Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park
About 27 miles south of Half Moon Bay, the Año Nuevo State Park is a nature reserve featuring wetland marshes, dune fields, coastal scrub, and beaches. Every winter, an incredible event occurs here: Thousands of enormous elephant seals arrive on the shores for breeding season, from December to April. As many as 10,000 seals come to the dunes and beaches of Año Nuevo State Park to breed and give birth to their pups. Año Nuevo is the world's largest mainland breeding colony for the northern elephant seal.
Ano Nuevo State Reserve is only open for special guided tours. Visitors will be surprised by the size of the bull elephant seals, stretching to 16 feet and weighing 3 tons. The bull seals guard the harem of female seals and their babies. Sometimes visitors may even see a mother seal giving birth. Visitors can also observe "molting" season from April to August. During this time, the seals shed the outer layer of their skin and fur in a four- to six-week process as they rest on the beaches.
11 Pumpkin Season in October
During the pumpkin season in October, traffic into the "World Pumpkin Capital" slows to a crawl as visitors from San Francisco and the South Peninsula make their way into Half Moon Bay on the two-lane road. The rewarding drive offers views of rolling fields dotted with bright orange pumpkin patches, country barns, and scarecrows overlooking the ocean. Families with small children have fun visiting the farms and picking out the perfect Halloween pumpkins. The most anticipated local event, the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, in mid-October, draws big crowds. This lively event on Main Street features attractions such as a parade, arts, crafts, and live music. Festival highlights are the gigantic pumpkin competitions, with some weighing in at more than 1,000 pounds, the creative Jack-o-Lanterns and pumpkin sculptures by the "Picasso of pumpkin carvers."
Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay for Sightseeing
We recommend these wonderful hotels along the coast in Half Moon Bay:
- The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay: oceanfront luxury, elegant decor, wonderful spa, indoor pool, golf courses.
- Beach House at Half Moon Bay: mid-range boutique hotel, beachfront location, beautiful ocean views, spacious suites with fireplaces, lovely pool and hot tub.
- Half Moon Bay Lodge: affordable rates, heated outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, golf course views, outdoor fireplace, breakfast included.
- Comfort Inn Half Moon Bay: budget-friendly rates, free hot breakfast and parking, hot tub.