Nature Lover’s Guide to Half Moon Bay

Explore the Coastside

Half Moon Bay is a dream for nature lovers. The coastline offers paths for hiking and biking, camping and while the water is too cold for swimming, it’s great for surfing, boating and standup paddle boarding. It also affords wonderful opportunities to see wildlife including whales, porpoises, birds and elephant seals. Here are some highlights.

Año Nuevo Elephant Seals

One of the most compelling experiences on the coast is a visit to Año Nuevo State Park.  Every year up to 10,000 massive elephant seals return to this section of the coast to breed, give birth, and molt their skin at the scenic dunes and beaches. The park offers a Marine Education Center and tours. From the beginning of September to the end of November you can see the “Juvenile Haul-out” just pick up a visitor permit at the entrance and follow a 3-4 mile hike. More details about guided tours are available online.

Elephant Seals
Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park. Photo courtesy California State Parks.

Tide Pools

In addition to beachcombing, exploring tide pools is a great activity for kids and adults alike. The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a particularly good spot to check out. At low tide you’ll find pools of various sizes with a variety of marine life including hermit crabs, purple shore crabs, starfish, anemones, algae and kelp. Look offshore in the Spring and you may be able to spot California gray whales on their migration. You’ll also find tide pools at Pillar Point, Redondo Beach, Cowell Ranch Beach and Pescadero State Park. More details here.

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve reef at low tide. Photo by Rob Cala.

Fishing and Whale Watching 

Half Moon Bay is an excellent place to begin your fishing or whale-watching trip. Riptide Charters offers trips all year long of varying lengths. On trips you may see dolphins, sea otters, California gray whales, humpback whales and blue whales, depending upon the time of year. Reservations can be made online.

Whales feeding off the Northern California coast. Header image and this photo both by Vivek Kumar.

Bird Watching

The marsh areas along the coast offer excellent opportunities for bird watching. Great spots include the Pescadero Marsh and Pillar Point Marsh at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve where you may see great blue herons, snowy egrets, and red-winged blackbirds. Along the coast it’s not unusual to see pelicans flying overhead and sandpipers on the beach. More details about bird watching are available here.

A brown pelican skims the water in Pillar Point Harbor. Photo by Kevin Henney.

Biking & Hiking

Bikeworks Half Moon Bay offers bike rentals including trailers for kids and servicing if your bike needs a tune up or repair. A top path for both hiking and biking is the Half Moon Bay Coastside Trail. It runs parallel to the Pacific Coast along what used to be the Ocean Shore Railroad, from Seymour Bridge in Half Moon Bay to Pillar Point Harbor Blvd in El Granada. It offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean, access to beaches, excellent nature viewing and is part of the larger California Coastal Trail. Parking is available at the Half Moon Bay State Beach Visitor Center. Check out more paths for hiking or biking here.

A lone hiker ascends the trail above Gray Whale Cove in Montara. Photo by Jennifer Jean.

Kayaking and Paddle Boarding

Another way to enjoy the ocean is in a kayak. Half Moon Bay Kayak Company offers sea kayaking, paddle boarding and even biking in Half Moon Bay. You can rent equipment or book a sunset paddle, standup paddle board tour or a kids kayaking trip. More details on guided trips here.

Kayaks prepare to depart at Pillar Point Harbor. Photo by Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.


Mavericks is famous for world class surfing and watching surfers but it’s not for the novice surfer. Those new to surfing can check out Mavericks Experience, which offers both beginner and intermediate surf lessons. Both Surfers Beach and Pacifica State Beach are popular beaches for beginning surfers.

Surfers’ Beach and Pacifica State Beach (pictured) offer more forgiving waves for beginners. Photo by Kevin Henney.


Campers will love Half Moon Bay State Beach, which is comprised of four smaller beaches. Francis Beach and Sweetwood both offer campgrounds for tent camping, trailers or recreational vehicles. Some campsites have electrical hookups and there is a water filling station and coin operated hot showers. Use the Reserve California site to reserve a spot.

Francis Beach
The view from the Francis Beach campground is hard to beat. Photo by Kevin Henney.


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