One of the coast’s popular ‘clothing-optional’ beaches is Gray Whale Cove State Beach, just south of Point San Pedro. Park across the road and cross Hwy 1 to the beach very carefully. Montara State Beach is just a half-mile south. From the town of Montara, 22 miles from San Francisco, trails climb up from the Martini Creek parking lot into McNee Ranch, which has hiking and cycling trails aplenty, including a strenuous ascent to the panoramic viewpoint of Montara Mountain, and access to the new 4000-acre park of Ranch Corral de Tierra.
Starting life as a fog station in 1875, the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel is adjacent to the current lighthouse, which dates from 1928. This very popular hostel has a living room, kitchen facilities and an international clientele. There are a few private rooms for couples or families. Reservations are a good idea anytime, but especially on weekends during summer. SamTrans bus 17 stops outside.
The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, south of the lighthouse at Moss Beach, is an extensive area of natural tidal pools and a habitat for harbor seals. Walk out among the pools at low tide – wearing shoes that you can get wet – and explore the myriad crabs, sea stars, mollusks and rainbow-colored sea anemone. Note that it’s illegal to remove any creatures, shells or even rocks from the marine reserve. From Hwy 1 in Moss Beach, turn west onto California Ave and drive to the end. SamTrans bus 17 stops along Hwy 1.
Overlooking the ocean, the Moss Beach Distillery is a 1927 landmark. In fair weather the restaurant's deck is the best place for miles around to have a leisurely cocktail or glass of vino. Reservations recommended.
South of here is a hamlet named Princeton, with a stretch of coast called Pillar Point. Fishing boats bring in their catch at the Pillar Point Harbor, some of which gets cooked up in a bevy of seafront restaurants. In the harbor, Half Moon Bay Kayak rents kayaks and offers guided trips of Pillar Point and the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Half Moon Bay Brewing Company serves seafood, burgers and a tantalizing menu of local brews from a sheltered and heated outdoor patio looking out over the bay, complemented by live music on the weekends.
At the western end of Pillar Point is Mavericks, a serious surf break that attracts the world’s top big-wave riders to battle its huge, steep and very dangerous waves. The annual Mavericks surf contest, called on a few days’ notice when the swells get huge, is usually held between December and March.