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12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Half Moon Bay

Written by Lisa Alexander
Mar 27, 2019

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 farther 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-and-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. Plan your trip with our list of the top things to do in Half Moon Bay.

See also: Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay

1. Coastside Trail

Pillar Point Harbor and Coastside Trail

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, also known as the California Coastal Trail. This scenic oceanfront trail extends from Seymour Bridge in Half Moon Bay to Pillar Point Harbor, totaling a little less than five miles in length. Most of its length is an asphalt-paved trail that runs along the path that used to be the route for the Ocean Shore Railroad. As a result, it is wheelchair accessible and also a popular place for in-line skating and cyclists, as well as those on foot.

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.

2. Lemos Farm

Lemos Farm | schnaars / photo modified

Lemos Farm is a popular tourist attraction for families, especially those with younger kids. It is a fully operational family-run farm with resident pigs, goats, sheep, and bunnies, which kids can meet in the petting zoo. There are also ponies here, each happy to give rides to smaller kiddos. The farm's main crops are seasonal, focusing on pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees for the holidays.

Other farm activities include a train ride and hay ride, each of which explore other parts of the farm. Interactive attractions include the "Dig Zone," where kids can run their own excavator, and a large playground area. In September and October, kids can also visit the not-too-scary haunted house, a tradition at Lemos Farm since the 1980s. For an especially unique experience, ages 10 and up can take a "goat yoga" class, striking a pose among a dozen or so baby goats.

Address: 12320 San Mateo Road, Half Moon Bay, California

Official site: www.lemosfarm.com

3. Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

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, and this is a great spot for wildlife viewing. Seals regularly swim from the shore beyond the surf, and during whale migration 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. Although the lighthouse itself cannot be toured, guided history tours of the grounds are conducted daily each afternoon or by appointment.

Address: 210 Pigeon Point Road, Highway 1, Pescadero, California

Official site: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=533

4. Dining and Shopping on Main Street

Main Street

Main Street | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The historic downtown of Half Moon Bay has many old-fashioned small hotels, quaint bed-and-breakfasts, small cafés, and restaurants. The visitor center on Main Street has excellent resources about the local beaches and hikes, and 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.

A popular spot for Italian cuisine is Pasta Moon, a farm-to-table restaurant dedicated to sustainable culinary experiences since its opening over 30 years ago. Shoppers will want to browse the clothing boutiques, bookstores, home decor shops, and other locally owned specialty shops.

Just off Main Street on a quiet side street is the Mill Rose Inn, a charming luxury bed-and-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.

5. Purisima Creek Trail and Redwoods Open Space Preserve

Redwood forest at the Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Reserve

At the North Ridge Trailhead on Skyline Drive (Hwy 35), tourists will find the most convenient access to the 4,711-acre Purisima Creek Trail, which traverses the length of the Redwood Open Space Preserve. The trail was first forged as a logging road, running along the creek and crossing it at several points and including a few sections with a grade up to 15 percent.

From the same entrance, visitors can also access the shorter Redwood Trail, which has a mostly flat grade and only stretches a quarter of a mile. There are additional trails that explore the preserve, nearly 25 miles total, many of which are better suited for experienced hikers. The trees you will see here are over 100 years old, a forest re-born after extensive logging in the late nineteenth century. Along the trail, hikers can see the stumps of the ancestral trees.

Official site: www.openspace.org/preserves/purisima-creek-redwoods

6. Half Moon Bay Golf Courses

Half Moon Bay Golf Courses

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 Scottish 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.

Official site: www.halfmoonbaygolf.com

7. Half Moon Bay State Beaches

Half Moon Bay State Beaches

Half Moon Bay State Beaches

The Half Moon Bay coastline is made up of multiple state beaches, stretching along several miles of wide, sandy coast including Surfers' Beach, Dunes Beach, Venice Beach, and Francis Beach. Sightseeing and nature appreciation are the most popular activities on these beaches, and tourists should keep in mind that the weather is often quite cold and windy, even during summertime, when thick fog often blocks the sun. September through early November is the best time for sunbathing and wading, however 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.

8. Pescadero's Farms and Coastal Delights

Pescadero's Farms and Coastal Delights

Pescadero's Farms and Coastal Delights | Doc Searls / photo modified

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.

9. Pumpkin Season in October

Pumpkin Season in October

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, and the creative Jack-o-Lanterns and pumpkin sculptures by the "Picasso of pumpkin carvers."

10. Gray Whale Cove Trail

Gray Whale Cove Trail

Gray Whale Cove Trail | Michael Fraley / photo modified

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, but also poison oak, so watch out for 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.

11. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach | Dawn Endico / photo modified

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.

12. Watch the Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park | Travis Wise / photo modified

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 through April. This is the world's largest mainland breeding colony for the northern elephant seal, and 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.

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 an average of three tons each. 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.

Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: The epitome of luxury, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay is a five-star seaside resort and top-rated spa with two championship golf courses. This hotel truly goes all-out and is as appropriate for families as it is for couples. For those traveling with children, there are on-site kids' activities and babysitting services, so that parents can get out and enjoy a round or two of golf or a game of tennis. Other luxury amenities include indoor and outdoor pools, a concierge service, and fitness center. Pets are also allowed.

    For a romantic couple's retreat, look no further than the Mill Rose Inn, a four-star B&B located in the heart of town, just a few blocks from dozens of excellent restaurants. This intimate inn has only six guest rooms, allowing staff to devote their full attention to your every need, from a freshly cooked full breakfast to spa services.

    Another excellent B&B perfect for a romantic getaway is the Nantucket Whale Inn, a centrally located boutique lodging that merges East Coast and West Coast nautical themes. In addition to beautifully furnished rooms, some with fireplaces and whirlpool tubs, the inn has lovely common areas with nightly spreads of goodies.

  • Mid-Range Hotels: The Beach House at Half Moon Bay is an excellent mid-range boutique hotel, with a beachfront location and beautiful ocean views. Spacious suites include fireplaces, refrigerators, and microwaves. Amenities include an outdoor pool and hot tub overlooking the water, a well-equipped fitness center, and there is also a spa on-site. A full breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi are complimentary.

    Located at the edge of the Ritz property's golf course, Half Moon Bay Lodge offers an excellent location with affordable rates. Amenities include a heated outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, a fitness center with a sauna, golf course views, and an outdoor fireplace. Breakfast is included, and the hotel is pet-friendly.

    If you want both the B&B experience and a beachfront lodging, the Oceano Hotel & Spa Half Moon Bay is an excellent option located right on Pillar Point Harbor. Each suite has a romantic fireplace and a balcony from which you can enjoy the views of the ocean and gardens. The Oceano also offers a full range of spa services, room service, and concierge, as well as spacious banquet facilities perfect for weddings and special events.

  • Budget Hotels: For a dependable budget-friendly hotel located close to the beach and several restaurants, Comfort Inn Half Moon Bay is a great choice. They offer a free hot breakfast, parking, and WiFi, and rooms are equipped with refrigerators and microwaves. Family rooms are available, and there is a small fitness center on-site as well.

    Best Western Plus Cameron's Inn is another of the more affordable lodgings in Half Moon Bay, located close to the water and just up the road from the golf courses. This 2.5-star hotel offers clean rooms and dependable service, as well as free parking, Wi-Fi, and breakfast.

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San Francisco Sights: Half Moon Bay is about 45 minutes south of San Francisco, making a day trip into the city and even the surrounding area a great option for tourists. For those staying in San Francisco, there are plenty of things to do with kids, and many of the city's top attractions can be visited on a walking tour.

Near San Francisco: Across the bay via the Golden Gate Bridge or by ferry past the infamous Alcatraz Island, tourists can spend a day exploring the Marin Headlands or poking around the charming town of Sausalito. To the east, tourists can take the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland, a city known for the central Lake Merritt and the attraction-filled Lakeside Park. Younger travelers will want to spend some time in the nearby college town of Berkeley, which is full of hip hangouts.

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