San Mateo Coast: A California Secret

Just a few miles from Silicon Valley, beaches here sprawl-from wide-open sandy strips, to hidden rocky coves-and each is wildly different from the next.Just a few miles from Silicon Valley, beaches in San Mateo County sprawl-from wide-open sandy strips, to hidden rocky coves-and each is wildly different from the next.

Seventy percent of San Mateo County is dedicated open space--seventy percent! How magical to see the primordial old-growth redwood forest spilling into the churning sea at the edges of Big Basin Redwood State Park.

The coast here looks just as it always has-and there's no chance of it being developed, thanks to the Peninsula Open Space Trust. But there's more here than just beaches: the rolling inland hills are protected in a series of parks and marshlands, ideal for day-hiking.

In between, small towns beg exploring, and lush, green farms dot the countryside. Plan to poke your head into country antiques shops, then load the trunk with strawberries.

Text and images courtesy Trazzler and John Vlahides.

Visiting The San Mateo Coast
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San Mateo Coast: A California Secret (PHOTOS)
Originally conceived as an eco-lodge, Costanoa has four types of accommodations: a campground, tent cabins, duplex cabins with fireplaces, and hotel-style lodge rooms. The location is stunning; the resort’s 75 acres are surrounded by state park lands, and the ocean is never out of earshot. The inexpensive tent cabins have cool extras, like bathrobes and heated mattress pads. And there’s a sauna and outdoor fireplace just outside, a nice touch on a chilly evening. The killer location and mesmerizing hilltop views above the sea seal the deal. For those who don't want to cook, the restaurant on site is fancy-camping delicious. Note: Only the lodge rooms have private bathrooms.

Writer & Photographer: John A. Vlahides

Wind your way through Princeton-by-the-Sea, park at the base of the Pillar Point Air Force Station, walk up the road to the right and you’ve arrived at the Pillar Point Bluff Preserve. Being high on the bluffs gives you a bird's eye view; the breaking waves, the surfers, and the harbor seals below all have the appearance of tiny figurines. The preserve is bike and dog friendly, so take Spot with you. And the Pillar Point Marsh at the base of the bluffs is a popular destination for bird watchers. You can often see groups of them with their cameras and binoculars looking for the rare booby crested finch—watching the watchers can be just as entertaining as the birds themselves.

Writer: Ashley Welton Photo: Avis Boutell

Don’t be fooled by the grassland entrance to Butano State Park, you’re about to wind your way into a dense redwood forest. As you climb, the air changes—cool, fresh and peaty—and every surface is a shade of burnt sienna or green. There are several camping options, from car camping to packing it in five miles to trail camp, and there are enough sun-streaked trails to keep you walking or mountain biking for weeks. It’s refreshing, being surrounded by so many layers of forest, and there is no lack of wildlife or edibles to encounter in this bountiful and energized park.

Writer: Ashley Welton Photo: Ashley Welton

Harbor-side in Princeton-by-the-Sea, the Half Moon Bay Brewery is the place to stop for a brew and a bite after a day of fishing or kayaking. The outdoor patio has a welcoming, and warming, fire pit and the interior is cozy with its wooden bar and surf memorabilia décor. Just around sunset is the happening time when the locals come out to swap stories over microbrews and tasty appetizers. You can catch a band here, but the pub shuts down at 10pm, like most of Half Moon Bay, so get there early.

Writer: Ashley Welton Photo: Ashley Welton

Down along the rugged, windswept coast of southern San Mateo County, about 90 minutes from San Francisco, Año Nuevo State Reserve is the site of one of the great spectacles of nature. The beautiful beaches here host the largest breeding grounds for massive northern elephant seals. Every winter, thousands of these once-threatened marine mammals arrive to give birth and mate. Visitors can walk among the seals on two-hour tours with trained naturalists. You can see 5,000-pound males compete for harems of females and 300-pound seal pups being fed by their mothers. The males sing and honk to mark their territory, while pups yelp just for the fun of it. It can be a truly romantic spot for the right couple.

Writer: Leland Malkus Photo: Leland Malkus

The Phipps Farm, a Pescadero fixture since 1969, gave birth to the Country Store in 1978—started by some of the Phipps children as a side project. It has since expanded and grown to be quite an eclectic location. They have a huge selection of dried beans, the colors brilliant against the white bins, a nursery with birds, bamboo, and guinea pigs, and a picnic area behind the store that has become a veritable museum to retired tractors. Berry picking is popular in the summer months, and they sell homemade jams year round. They don’t use a cigar box as a cash register anymore, but they haven’t strayed far from the simple and honest country life.

Writer: Ashley Welton Photo: Ashley Welton

Four little cottages with comfortable living rooms, large communal kitchens, and a hot tub on the cliff comprise the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel. It’s a wonderful opportunity to stay the night at this iconic coastal monument. The sound of the ocean will lull you to sleep and early morning walks open your eyes to a world of wildlife and tranquility. Spend some time at the point, letting the salt-saturated air settle on your face, and it’s possible to feel transported back to a time before modern technology, when captains safely steered their ships to shore with the pulse of the lighthouse as their only guide.

Writer: Ashley Welton Photo: Ashley Welton

Perched on the coast, Half Moon Bay is a great spot for seafood. The kick-back-casual Sam’s Chowder House is the only place for outdoor ocean-view dining between SF and Santa Cruz. Belly up to the bar on a sunny day and sample specialties like spicy ahi-tuna poke, filler-free crab cakes, lobster rolls, ceviches, and freshly shucked oysters. Sam's also does old-fashioned clam bakes for special events.

Writer: John A. Vlahides Photo: John Vlahides

Giant driftwood litters San Gregorio State Beach, which is easily accessible from a small parking lot next to the dunes. A creek spills out of the hills opposite, cutting a serpentine path across the beach — kids love redirecting the watercourse and building forts out of the driftwood beside the creek. The beach doesn’t immediately reveal itself; although you can’t tell from the parking area, this is one of the longest strips of sand around. You can walk for miles, like on the beaches on the south shore of Long Island, but with cliffs in the background, not dunes.

Writer: John A. Vlahides Photo: San Gregorio SB

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