14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do 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 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 day trip or weekend getaway from San Francisco with interesting shops, restaurants, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts, and is not-to-be-missed on a Northern California coastal itinerary.
Beautiful beaches, dramatic nature sites, and awe-inspiring ocean scenery provide a glorious backdrop for outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, horseback riding, birding, golfing, and (when the sun is out) sunbathing.
Discover the best places to visit on this unspoiled stretch of Northern California coast with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Half Moon Bay.
See also: Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay
1. Half Moon Bay State Beach
The Half Moon Bay coastline is made up of multiple beaches, which are part of Half Moon Bay State Beach: Roosevelt Beach, Dunes Beach, Venice Beach, and Francis Beach. These four beaches represent several miles of wide, sandy coastline.
Sightseeing and nature appreciation are the most popular activities on these beaches. Tourists should keep in mind that the weather tends to be cool 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. Experienced surfers can brave the Half Moon Bay swells, but generally, the ocean in this area is not safe for swimming.
Instead of swimming, visitors come here to appreciate the gorgeous scenery and to breathe in the refreshing sea air. Many visitors also enjoy fishing and picnicking at the Half Moon Bay beaches.
The Francis Beach Campground offers 52 campsites with hot showers; campsite reservations must be made in advance. A short walk from Venice Beach, the Sweetwood Group Camping provides facilities for tent camping and is ideal for groups (reservations are required).
2. California Coastal Trail
Visitors can enjoy magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean while hiking or cycling the California Coastal Trail. The trail extends along coastal bluffs and above expansive stretches of shoreline.
The federally designated trail traverses pristine coastal habitats, including secluded sandy beaches, lush creeks, meadows, wetlands, and cypress groves. During springtime, vibrant wildflowers enliven the scenery, while the sound of chirping songbirds adds to the tranquility.
The seven-mile trail begins at Pillar Point Harbor, which happens to be great place to sample local cuisine. Plan to have lunch here, especially if you enjoy fresh seafood.
You can continue on the California Coastal Trail from Pillar Point Harbor to Miramar Beach, which is about a half-hour hike. Forested hillsides frame the sprawling stretch of golden sand at Miramar Beach, a popular spot for sunbathing on sunny days. The upscale Cypress Inn on Miramar Beach offers stylish three-star accommodations with ocean views.
From Miramar Beach, the California Coastal Trail follows along Half Moon Bay State Beach. This portion of the trail is about an hour hike. To complete the trail, which winds up at The Ritz-Carlton hotel, takes approximately one more hour.
A five-star resort hotel overlooking the ocean, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay is a special place to stop for a gourmet meal. The hotel has two fine-dining restaurants with amazing views of the Pacific, plus a spa and two golf courses.
Most of the California Coastal Trail is an asphalt-paved path that used to be the route for the Ocean Shore Railroad. As a result, portions of the trail are wheelchair accessible.
3. Pillar Point Harbor
In the neighboring community of Princeton-by-the-Sea, the picturesque Pillar Point Harbor features fishing boats bobbing in its sheltered waters and an old wooden pier jutting out to sea. This harbor is also the departure point for whale-watching tours during whale migration season, as well as charter boat fishing trips.
Several waterfront restaurants offer fabulous bay views and excellent cuisine, especially seafood. Locals' favorite spots include Barbara's Fishtrap, a casual eatery with beachside tables overlooking the fishing harbor, and Sam's Chowder House, a New England-style seafood restaurant known for its fish dishes prepared from fresh local catches. Offering a special dining experience occasionally with live music, Sam's Chowder House has an outdoor terrace with sweeping ocean views.
Pillar Point Harbor overlooks the famous waves of Mavericks Beach, where the legendary annual surfing competition takes place. When the right conditions conspire, Mavericks waves rise to massive peaks reaching 15 to 30 feet in height. Surfers travel from all over the world to meet the challenge of these awesome and powerful waves.
4. 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.
Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park features a visitor center, bookshop, and accommodations. Within the buildings that used to accommodate the light station staff, the HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel provides dormitory-style accommodations and vacation rental houses.
The coastal areas and rocky reefs 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 gray whales can be seen during the migration season (January through March) while on their journey traveling down the Pacific Coast.
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
5. Dining and Shopping on Main Street
The historic downtown of Half Moon Bay delights visitors with its slow-paced ambience and small-town charm. The center of town brims with old-fashioned hotels, quaint bed-and-breakfasts, casual cafés, and locally owned eateries.
For dining and shopping, Main Street is the place to go. Visitors will enjoy browsing the unique locally owned clothing boutiques, bookstores, home decor shops, and other specialty shops. The Visitor Center on Main Street has excellent resources about the local beaches and hikes.
A popular spot on Main Street for Italian cuisine is Pasta Moon Ristorante. This farm-to-table restaurant has been dedicated to sustainable culinary experiences since its opening over 30 years ago. The restaurant's chefs make use of seasonal ingredients sourced from nearby coastal farms and ranches and from local fishermen.
Other culinary highlights on Main Street include the house-made gelato and waffle cones at Gulino Gelato, whose owner was trained in the craft of Italian gelato at a culinary school in Bologna, Italy; Keith's Chicken-N-Waffles, which serves country-style breakfast and lunch; and Panificio, an artisanal pizzeria that specializes in traditional Italian-style wood-fired pizza prepared from seasonal California ingredients.
Just off Main Street on a quiet side street is the Mill Rose Inn, a luxury bed-and-breakfast hotel 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.
6. Lemos Farm
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.
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 giant inflatable Barn Slide.
The farm's main crops are seasonal, focusing on pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees for the holidays. The Pumpkin Patch is open from September 1st through Thanksgiving. On Easter Sunday, Lemos Farm hosts two Easter Egg Hunts that will delight the little ones.
Kids can also visit the not-too-scary Haunted House (open year-round), a tradition at Lemos Farm since the 1980s.
For an especially unique experience, ages five and up can take a "Goat Yoga" class. A dozen or so baby goats wander the space as participants practice yoga.
Address: 12320 San Mateo Road, Half Moon Bay, California
Official site: www.lemosfarm.com
7. Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve
Towering coastal redwood trees are the defining feature of the lush Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve. This forest of second-growth trees replaced the original redwoods, which were logged in the 19th century.
Established by a gift from the Save-the-Redwoods League, the 5,412-acre Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve has nearly 25 miles of trails, many of which are suited for experienced hikers. In this remote canyon, the rushing Purisima Creek creates a sense of serenity, while the northern areas of the preserve reveal glimpses of the Pacific coastline in the distance.
The Purisima Creek Trail was first forged as a logging road, running along the rushing creek and crossing it at several points and including a few sections with a grade up to 15 percent. The trees you will see here are over 100 years old. Along the trail, hikers can see the stumps of the ancestral trees. Leafy ferns, wildflowers, and berry bushes also thrive within the forest's shady understory.
At the North Ridge Trailhead on Skyline Drive (Hwy 35), visitors will find the most convenient access to the 4,711-acre Purisima Creek Trail, which traverses the length of the Redwood Open Space Preserve.
From the same entrance, there is access to the shorter Redwood Trail, which has a mostly flat grade and only stretches a quarter of a mile. This easy trail is suitable for most visitors, regardless of physical fitness level. Facilities include a public restroom and a picnic area that is wheelchair accessible.
Official site: www.openspace.org/preserves/purisima-creek-redwoods
8. 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
9. 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 are wowed by the picturesque landscapes. This beautiful stretch of countryside encompasses wooded rolling hills and small farms, as well as marshlands and beaches.
Pescadero's farms and ranches supply local markets and grocery stores with a wide variety of fresh produce and high-quality meat. Arcangeli Grocery Co. in downtown Pescadero (287 Stage Road) is a great place to pick up sandwiches and other provisions for a picnic at the beach.
Also in downtown Pescadero, the old-timey Duarte's restaurant (202 Stage Road) prepares delicious meals mainly using locally grown vegetables and fruits and fresh-caught fish. This award-winning restaurant is famous for its artichoke soup.
Nature lovers should be sure to visit the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, home to diverse wildlife in its wetlands, saltwater ponds, and flowing creeks, including migratory birds and endangered species such as the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog.
There are four hiking trails within the 235-acre Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, as well as opportunities for kayaking. Docents lead guided tours on the first and third Sundays of the month.
Sheltered by rocky cliffs, Pescadero State Beach is a quiet, sandy beach with unspoiled natural scenery and a small picnic area. The beach is two miles from the town of Pescadero, which is east of Highway One on Pescadero Road.
Foodies can visit the Harley Farms Goat Dairy to see the property, meet the goats, and purchase award-winning cheese, as well as artisanal specialty food products at their shop. The Harley Farms Goat Dairy also offers guided farm tours, including springtime Baby Goat Tours that allow children the chance to enjoy play time with the adorable baby goats.
10. 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 country 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. Several pumpkin farms offer activities designed for little ones, such as pumpkin carving contests, mazes, pony rides, and petting zoos.
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 pumpkin carving, a costume contest, 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."
11. Gray Whale Cove Trail
For a spectacularly scenic hike with panoramic coastal views, head to the community of Pacifica (about 10 miles north of Half Moon Bay). The trail begins at the Gray Whale Cove State Beach parking lot, which is east of Highway One.
After a slight incline from the parking lot, the Gray Whale Cove Trail winds around the hillsides and continues south at a gentle grade (for about one mile) alongside ocean bluffs until reaching Montara State Beach, a stretch of sandy shoreline tucked away behind steep cliffsides. Montara State Beach is a wonderful place for relaxation, sunbathing, and nature walks.
The Gray Whale Cove Trail offers an easy two-mile out-and-back hike with stunning vistas of the shoreline and crashing waves below. Hikers may also spot gray whales during the migration season.
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, the Gray Whale Cove Trail blooms with colorful wildflowers, including blue Douglas irises, vibrant pink hollyhocks, and bright yellow buttercups.
Alternatively, visitors may skip the two-mile hike and instead take the shorter (but steep) trail down to Gray Whale Cove. This small cove conceals Gray Whale Cove State Beach. Along the way down to this sandy beach, visitors will find a picnic area perched on an ocean bluff.
12. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Moss Beach
In Moss Beach, the neighboring community seven miles to the north of Half Moon Bay, visitors can discover the fascinating world of tide pools at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Within the inter-tidal zone (between the low-tide and high-tide areas), the saltwater pools are filled with sea creatures like hermit crabs, starfish, and purple shore crabs.
For a scenic walk, take the trail that begins at the sandy cove on the southern end of the reserve and winds through a grove of Monterey cypress trees.
During winter and springtime, it's sometimes possible to spot gray whales just offshore. In the summer and fall, look out for brown pelicans swooping over the waves.
13. Watch the 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 through March.
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 guided tours from December through April. Reservations are required. The rest of the year, visitor permits are required.
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.
14. Burleigh H. Murray Ranch State Park
Nestled in a valley about three miles from the Half Moon Bay downtown, Burleigh H. Murray Ranch State Park delights visitors with its pristine rural landscapes. Expansive chaparral-covered rolling hills and shady eucalyptus groves give the place a peaceful quality.
Within the park is a 1930s bungalow and a run-down historic barn that dates to the late 1800s. There is also a two-mile hiking trail that follows the meandering Mills Creek and continues into a narrow valley and brush-covered open space.
Where to Stay in Half Moon Bay for Sightseeing
- The epitome of luxury, The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay is a five-star oceanfront resort with an upscale spa and two championship golf courses. The spacious guest rooms and suites feature sumptuous bedding and decor. 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.
- English country-style gardens surround the romantic Mill Rose Inn, a three-star bed-and-breakfast hotel just a few blocks from the downtown restaurants and shops. The inn has just six guest rooms/suites within a charming cottage that dates to 1901 and has been lovingly renovated. The complimentary full breakfast includes hearty gourmet options, fresh-squeezed juices, and homemade breads.
- Another excellent bed-and-breakfast hotel is the three-star Nantucket Whale Inn, housed in a renovated Victorian that dates to 1898. This centrally located boutique accommodation merges East Coast and West Coast nautical themes. In addition to beautifully furnished rooms, some with fireplaces and whirlpool tubs, the inn has lovely outdoor space and common areas where evening refreshments are served. Accommodations include a complimentary full breakfast.
- The three-star Beach House Half Moon Bay is an upscale mid-range boutique hotel, with a beachfront location and spectacular ocean views. Spacious suites include fireplaces, refrigerators, and microwaves. Amenities include a well-equipped fitness center and spa, as well as a complimentary continental breakfast and free parking.
- Located at the edge of the Ritz property's golf course, the three-star Half Moon Bay Lodge offers plush accommodations in an excellent location. Amenities include a heated outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, a fitness center with a sauna, golf course views, and an outdoor fireplace.
- If you want both the B&B experience and a beachfront lodging, the four-star 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.
- For a dependable budget-friendly hotel located close to the beach and several restaurants, the two-star Quality Inn Half Moon Bay/Miramar Beach is a great choice. They offer a free breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi, and rooms are equipped with refrigerators. Family rooms are available, and there is a small fitness center on-site as well.
- The Miramar Inn & Suites provides excellent value and amenities along with an ideal location near the Pillar Point Harbor. The spacious guest rooms were recently remodeled and feature refrigerators, as well as air-conditioning. Travelers will also appreciate the 24-hour front desk, free breakfast, and fitness center.
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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.
Bay Area Attractions: Across the bay via the Golden Gate Bridge or by ferry past 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 its ethnic restaurants and lakeside park. Younger travelers will enjoy the nearby college town of Berkeley, which is full of hip hangouts.