Once a year the coastal town of Half Moon Bay shines in an orange-tinged light, the site of the famous Art and Pumpkin Festival. Fun-filled delights for all ages await those able to negotiate roads that resemble clogged arteries, allowing individual cars, like blood cells, access to town.
Visit during quieter times for a taste of a historic town, a long stretch of white-sand beach and a secret redwood grove. Visit once and you’ll want to keep it on your list for seasonal getaways just to watch nature’s yearly cycle of life.
Half Moon Bay is the oldest town in San Mateo County, founded in 1840. Sited between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Cruz Mountains, amid plentiful open space, it offers two distinctive landscapes, just a few miles apart. On a warm fall day I sampled these landscapes before ending my day on Main Street.
I never cease to be amazed at the wealth of natural resources at our fingertips, some known to all and others, like a secret treasure, waiting to be discovered. Purisima Creek Redwoods is one of those treasures. Situated on the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this preserve of 3,120 acres contains a variety of plant and animal communities connected by twenty-one miles of trails.
Purisima Creek Trail put me right where I wanted to be, in a deep canyon shaded by towering coast redwoods listening to the sounds of the year-round creek at my side. The parking area is small so I began my hike early, first picking up a brochure of the preserve at the trailhead.
The air was crisp and fresh and my surroundings were a feast of green. Wood, sword and five-finger ferns clung to the banks among madrone, tanoak and Douglas fir; carpets of sorrel created a cushion below redwoods that reached toward the sky; big leaf maples began their herald of fall, the dappled sunlight glinting on their golden leaves. Above, a canopy, below, a wide gentle trail softened by leaf litter. Creek water murmuring as it flowed over stones and into pools. A few migrants from UC Santa Cruz, bright yellow banana slugs, highlighted spots of color. Large redwood stumps with diameters between ten and twenty feet gave evidence of thousand-year-old trees logged during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today’s trees are second-growth, youngsters, a mere 100 years old.
I followed the trail one mile to an intersection with trails climbing out of the canyon or continuing along the creek. With a busy agenda, I opted to head back the way I had come, happy to revisit ethereal scenery that had rejuvenated my spirit.
From the mountains to the sea. At Half Moon Bay State Beach you get four beaches for the price of one. Roosevelt, Dunes, Venice and Francis Beaches are connected by the three-mile Coastside Trail that follows the curve of broad, white sands and continues north to Pillar Point Harbor. Francis Beach is the most developed with headland camping and picnic facilities as well as a small but comprehensive visitor center.
Wanting to familiarize myself with both the cultural and natural history of the area, the visitor center was my first stop. Excellent interactive exhibits immediately involved me by posing questions and offering buttons to push. Matching organisms with their seasons and birds with their footprints made me feel like a biology detective. A favorite exhibit was a series of 20 poster boards, each containing a photo, drawing and characteristics of coastal flora. Another display identified commonly seen plants, like field mustard and lizard tail, as natives or non-natives. A surprising amount of first-rate information was attractively packed into a small space, giving me a good idea of what to expect, biologically speaking, outside.
The paved, broad Coastal Trail is designed for both feet and wheels. Alas, this late in the season, I could only try to guess which of the sere plants trailside were the lovely spring-blooming orange poppies, bright yellow beach primroses, lavender wild radish or pale yellow bush lupine. Luckily, the beautiful Pacific was a far-reaching expanse of brilliant blue, decorated with bobbing sea birds and surfers. It’s not uncommon to spy brown pelicans, sanderlings, terns and sooty shearwaters off this coast and the sturdy benches along the bluffs provide comfortable strategic viewing spots.
An equestrian trail, separated by a weathered wood rail fence, was busy with a steady stream of enthusiastic riders enjoying the same views that held my gaze. Along this developed path I wasn’t able to completely lose myself to nature but I appreciated this conduit between beaches that suited a variety of pursuits.
If shopping or just browsing through quality merchandise is your favored pursuit, Main Street Half Moon Bay awaits. Not the sleepy historic town of old, the word is out that this picturesque spot, only one hour from home, is well worth the price of the trip.
With its tree-lined sidewalks, flower filled ceramic planters, deep shade-providing awnings and wide benches, Main Street lures you. The vast selection of goods seems to outweigh the size of the town: home and garden furnishings, apparel boutiques, fine crafts, art and jewelry, books and paper goods, and, of course, antiques and collectibles. Eateries aren’t far behind in variety, from fine restaurants through cafes and outdoor delis.
Combining historic buildings and shopping seemed a good use of my time, so I began my promenade at the north end of Main Street. Pilarcitos Creek Bridge, built in 1900, was the first steel-reinforced bridge in San Mateo County; a good thing considering the traffic it now supports. The oldest building in town is the sky blue with white trim Zaballa House, now a B&B. Just a few doors down stands the imposing dark cinnamon brown Feed and Fuel. A huge barn-like structure with requisite white rafters, it carries everything an animal or its owner might need, including a Cockadoo Traders Australian waxed cotton full-length coat, critical for those wet days and nights on the range.
Inside Fengari Fiber Arts I was treated to a fantastic explosion of color. Yarns of all textures covered display tables and crammed wall cabinets and boxes. How could anyone ever choose among the greens, russets, reds and golds that forecast days to come?
When does a City Hall look like a bank? When it began life as the Bank of Half Moon Bay. Now a stately gray adorned with brightly painted murals depicting local scenery, this is a city building that can’t easily be overlooked. Next door is the tiny jail, built in 1911, an “antique” of long-gone peaceful times.
The most fun I had was in the garden courtyard of Half To Have It, the designated “Glass Gone Wild” of the coast. Sunlight shimmered through glass containers and the bits of broken glass mixed with pottery shards that made up the “gravel” below my feet. Planters, floats and containers share space with a crazy, eclectic, fun collection of rusted metal arched frameworks and leftover artifacts of previous lives. An archeologist’s dream site.
If pumpkin extravaganzas loom large in your future, don’t miss Half Moon Bay’s Festival. If a quiet redwood canyon, crashing waves and gourmet chocolate call, visit Half Moon Bay when the crowds have gone and discover a warm coastal community with a lot to offer.
Getting there: Take Hwy. 880 to Hwy. 92 across the San Mateo Bridge to Half Moon Bay. 53 miles.
Purisima Creek Redwoods: Take Hwy. 1 south of Half Moon Bay for one mile. Turn left on Higgins Purisima Road, continue for 4.4 miles. Call (650) 691-1200, or see www.openspace.org. Open dawn to a half hour after sunset. No dogs allowed. Carry water. No fees.
Half Moon Bay State Beach: Francis Beach is half a mile west of Hwy. 1 on Kelly Ave. Call (650) 726-8819, or see www.parks.ca.gov. Fees: $6 per car. Dogs on leash on trail only; no dogs allowed on beach.
Fengari Fiber Arts: 415 Main St., (650) 726-2550, www.fengari.net.
Half Moon Bay Feed & Fuel:
331 Main St., (650) 726-4814, www.halfmoonbayfeedandfuel.com.
Half To Have It: 601 Main St., (650) 712-5995, www.halftohaveit.com.