The Highlights of Highway 1
The coastline between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay offers Bay Area families the opportunity to experience an almost exotic getaway, but they can still arrive home for a reasonable bedtime. Imagine cruising past windswept cypress trees that keep lonely watch on craggy cliffs over the vast Pacific, and then settling down for a homemade picnic alongside one of the countless streams that carve canyons into the rolling coastal hills.
Great Beaches to Visit
Along Highway 1 on the Santa Cruz and San Mateo coast, you and the kids can see giant sea monsters, pick strawberries and blackberries, explore forests, attend one of many seasonal festivals, plus stroll the main street of a peaceful small town.
But, of course, the beaches are what make this stretch of the California coastline world-famous. The sheer number make it hard to pick just one to visit, but San Gregorio State Beach, Bean Hollow State Beach, Waddell, Scott Creek and Davenport Landing are the biggest, sandiest and most easily accessible. Others, such as Greyhound Rock, require a bit of a hike to reach, but are well worth the walk for an adventurous family.
Pomponio State Beach, one mile north of the town of Pescadero, is a great place to explore rock formations, multi-colored pebbles and tide pools full of bizarre and colorful sea life, such as urchins, anemones and hermit crabs.
A word to the wise: The beaches along this part of the coast do not have lifeguards, and surf conditions can be treacherous. Conditions are subject to rapid change, so exercise caution near the shore, especially if you are unaware of local conditions. Remember that coves and beaches that are accessible at low tide can be dangerous as the sea rises. Don’t be trapped: check the tides.
Beyond the Beaches
In addition to the beaches, the coast provides a wealth of new discoveries for the family. Here are some highlights of Highway 1, starting in Santa Cruz and heading north to Half Moon Bay.
The little town of Davenport, 11 miles north of Santa Cruz, is an old-time artists’ community and a hard place to pass by without stopping. It is home to the Whale City Bakery, which has great coffee and muffins. The town’s old two-cell jailhouse, of special interest to kids, has been converted into a cultural history museum.
Swanton Berry Farm, just north of Davenport, is the perfect kid-friendly farm experience. Depending on the season, you can pick strawberries, olallieberries, blackberries and kiwi fruit. The farm also sells delicious local organic goodies, such as pies, brownies, lemonade, coffee, chocolate-dipped strawberries, soup and its famous berry jams.
Into the Woods
Approximately 10 miles farther north is where Big Basin, California’s oldest state park, meets the ocean. The park, home to the largest contiguous old-growth redwood forest south of San Francisco, is densely quilted with amazingly different environments – wetlands at the coast, redwood forest, oak trees and sun-drenched chaparral on its peaks and ridges.
The majority of the trails are well marked and easily traveled by small legs. Poison oak alert: an itchy red rash is a common souvenir, so keep your eyes open for leaves of three.
The park also features family and group camping, tent cabins, backpacking camps, hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails. It is open year-round; camping reservations are usually needed during the summer season.
Giant Sea Monsters
Don’t just visit the coast during the summer. Put a visit on your winter calendar, too. A few miles north of Big Basin, just into San Mateo County, is Año Nuevo State Park, the famous breeding ground for the massive elephant seal.
These amazing, rotund giants come ashore between Dec. 15 and March 31 to breed and rear their young. The males reach more than 16 feet in length and can weigh almost 7,000 pounds. Watching them slam into each other as they spar for breeding rights is truly a sight your children – and you – will never forget.
To view the seals, you must be on a guided walk. Visit www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523 for more information on how to book a tour.
Let There Be Light
Approximately 30 miles north of Santa Cruz stands what is probably the most photographed landmark on this stretch of the coast: Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
Among the tallest lighthouses in North America, the building is nearly 140 years old and now operates as a hostel. It boasts what has to be one of the world’s most scenic hot tubs, which is perched on a high rocky cliff directly over tide pools and the vast Pacific.
Modestly priced rooms (shared and private) are available. Walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are encouraged, particularly in summer. For details, go to norcalhostels.org/pigeon/reservations/.
For the perfect lunch stop, pull into Pescadero, 14 miles south of Half Moon Bay and a mile inland. The town’s quaint but lively main thoroughfare, Stage Road, offers a number of eateries, such as Duarte’s Tavern, Pescadero Country Store, Norm’s Bakery (Sample the artichoke garlic bread!), Harley Farms Goat Dairy (open to public tours on the weekends) and Taqueria y Mercado de Amigos, an acclaimed taqueria in the local gas station.
This stretch of coast is home to many seasonal festivals, fairs and special events, such as Pescadero’s annual Art and Fun Festival, which takes place Aug. 18-19.
One excursion not to be missed is Arata Farm’s corn maze, three miles south of Half Moon Bay. It’s especially fun during the fall harvest/ Halloween season. This corn maze setting offers arts and crafts, food, pony rides, a pumpkin patch, gladiator battles and more. For details and pricing, check out www.aratapumpkinfarm.com.
For even more information about coastside events, go to www.visithalfmoonbay.org/area-events.
Alex Hubner is a Santa Cruz-based freelance writer.
Tips for Coastal Day Trippers
For the most affordable gas and travel supplies, do your shopping in either Half Moon Bay or Santa Cruz. The area between them is rural, and commodities can be expensive.
Dress in layers. Fast moving fog can make a hot summer afternoon turn cold very quickly.