By Lee Foster
Pacifica, along the coast at the southwest edge of San Francisco, is a pleasing oceanside destination in itself and also a potential alternative to lodging in the metropolitan downtown, about 20 minutes away by car.
Pacifica locates you along a scenic stretch of the Pacific Ocean. You can open your hotel window at Rockaway Beach and be lulled to sleep by the steady waves and luxuriously fresh sea air. Prepare yourself for the absence of police sirens that sometimes intrude in downtown San Francisco.
Sunset during a winter storm at Pacifica, CA
In our new “Uber” era, you don’t even need a car to get to Pacifica. Take the BART. An Uber ride from the Daly City/Colma BART station to Rockaway Beach will cost you about $12.
Rockaway Beach is the place to stay to put you within walking distance of everything. There are decent hotels, such as the Best Western Lighthouse and a Holiday Inn Express. Add to that two fine-dining restaurants, starting with the folksy Nick’s, with its signature Crab Sandwich, which has been pleasing customers here for 90 years. Across the street is the upscale and romantic Moonraker, the place to be for dinner with lights shining on the incessant incoming waves. In season, try the luscious Dungeness crab, whether your choice is a quick-and-easy crabcake starter or a delicious crack-and-pick half-a-crab entrée.
Sunset falls on the rocks during a winter storm in Pacifica, CA
The morning breakfast hangout here is Breakers, again just a few steps from everything, where the hearty sausage, eggs, and hash brown offering sticks to the ribs. Also, consider a possible later-afternoon wine-tasting pause at a spot called Grape in the Fog, which does acknowledge in its name that fog is a local factor, especially in summer. Grape in the Fog can set you up with a flight of quality regional California wines. Across the street is an un-pronounceable Japanese restaurant, Uoyakutei, which I would enjoy returning to for another lunch of tempura udon.
The best thing about Pacifica is that great nature experiences are available right out the front door of your lodging. The ocean is a joy, as you walk the beach and gaze at the surfers and paddle board folks doing their non-consumptive recreation, catching the next incoming waves.
A five-mile paved path along the ocean takes you north or south around the seaside hills and to new beaches. Adjacent to Rockaway is the lovely Mori Point hill and overlook, an excellent hike to consider.
A beachgoer enjoys the sunset during a winter storm in Pacifica, CA
Throughout the year, this Mori Point promontory is rewarding. I witnessed it in a glorious winter storm, with the life-giving rain pelting away. I hope to return in spring to see the lupine and other wildflowers. Poppies and farewell-to-spring are said to appear in abundance here. I would also be looking for a possible sighting of an endangered California red-legged frog. Though found in the wetlands, I have heard they like to hang out also in high-risk areas near the golf course. Another local nature celebrity is the “tie-dyed” (and endangered) San Francisco garter snake. It was colorful even eons before the 2017 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Summer of Love.
Now, with National Park status as part of the Golden Gate National Recreations Area (GGNRA), Mori Point and other choice spots along the coast near San Francisco get ever more political protection.
However, the under-appreciated nature story here is the return and survival of large whale populations. From mid-December through April, California gray whales are visible all along the Pacifica shore. The top of Mori Point, observing two bays, is one of the choicest binoculars-worthy outlooks. The gray whales narrowly survived extinction.
In the mid-19th-century, whaler Captain Charles Scammons discovered their migration route. He learned that they journeyed all the way from the Arctic to tepid Scammons Lagoon, in mid Baja California, Mexico, each winter, to give birth and mate. He bottled up the narrow entrance to the lagoon and slaughter many. Fortunately, Scammons missed a few whales, and the survivors lived on to preserve the species. The gray whales came back and have been a wonderful aspect of the California coast wildlife and conservation success story.
A Dungeness crab at Nick’s in Pacifica, CA
But it is the summer whales that are the new story, meaning the recent presence at Pacifica of humpback and blue whales in summer. A baitfish population explosion along the coast, perhaps a global warming effect, has attracted these summer visitors, and Mori Point is a good place to view them. You can look north to the Pacific Pier and south toward Linda Mar Beach, scanning the horizon in summer for whales.
Lots of whales in the vicinity are a boon for tourism, if the word gets out, but it can also present some challenges. Whales die, either a natural demise or a hastened death after an unfortunate close encounter with a ship’s hull. The whale may die at sea and remain at sea, or the dead whale may wash ashore. For instance, two dead whales recently washed up on the beach between Mori Point and the Pacifica Pier.
I discussed this matter with the tall and jovial mayor of Pacifica, Mike O’Neil, recently during a 90-year celebration party at Nick’s restaurant. He said, “Lee, do you know how much it costs to bury a whale?”
I didn’t know, so he whispered to me, “About $200,000.”
Travel journalist Lee Foster on a Segway in the rain at Pacifica, CA
The dead whales are buried where they drift up, on the beach, in an extremely deep hole. Lots of digging is required.
Besides the walk north from Rockaway to Mori Point, what does the other direction offer?
Going south, the paved path proceeds to Linda Mar Beach at Crespi Road, about a mile south. This is another satisfying beach to enjoy, a wider beach than Rockaway, and with even more surfers, paddle boarders, and dog walkers. Seagulls are present in great numbers and signs assert that endangered snowy plovers occasionally choose to nest here.
Back from the beach, and across Highway 1 (the Coast Highway) on Crespi Road, is an historic marker. The marker notes that the Gaspar de Portola Expedition of October 31, 1769 camped here and sent out a scouting party to the top of the hills. From a place now called Sweeney Ridge, these scouts became the first Europeans to see a large inland body of water, which we call San Francisco Bay. You can access the Sweeney Ridge Trail from the south edge of Lot 2 public parking at Skyline College.
At Crespi Road there is also another lodging, a resort-style hotel called Pacifica Beach Hotel. It features a fine-dining Peruvian-food restaurant, Puerto27.
Even farther south there is an engaging walk called the Devil’s Slide Coastal Trail, once the old road, now open for hiking. I have done this walk. The main challenge for a visitor is transportation there and back, especially when the small parking lots at either end are full on a sunny weekend.
Back at Rockaway, however, there is a further option for the ambulatory adventurer to consider. You can always walk, of course, all along the five miles of Pacifica’s paved path, which is easy and fun, up to Mori Point to the north or to Crespi and beyond to the south. Is there a bicycle rental? No, unfortunately there is none, at this time. So bring your own bike if that this your wish. However, there is another pleasing alternative, the “personal mobility vehicle” Segway option, offered by Silicon Segway.
Travel Journalists John Flinn, Chris Christensen, and Spud Hilton at Nick’s in Pacifica, CA
Jim Heldberg and Peter Menard run Pacifica’s Silicon Segways, one of about 100 such dealerships around the country. It is likely that one of these two well-informed locals will be your guide, partly because safety and liability are a big deal. Your first Segway trip will include a thorough safety orientation and learning the “suspension of disbelief” required for riding these vehicles. Once you hit the trail, a Segway at 12 mph can cover a lot of territory. Jim was my guide, and he offered much informative local lore.
For example, we rode all the way north to the Fairway Park housing development, which he informed me was a post WW II project aimed at GIs returning from the war and starting their families. The original houses sold for $25,000, and might be available for $750,000 today.
After you become a practiced Segway user, you can take one out on your own.
Pacifica fits into the travel scene around San Francisco in two ways. It is a pleasing oceanside getaway in itself. And it will appeal to some San Francisco visitors who want to spend their nights at a remote seaside location while perusing The City.
Pacifica: If You Go
The local visitor info website has details on all the folks mentioned in this article. See the Pacifica Chamber of Commerce info at http://pacificachamber.com/ or http://visitpacifica.com and stop in at their local storefront at 225 Rockaway Beach Ave., Suite 1, to get their helpful map of the town.
San Francisco and the CA Coast are prominent in my books/ebooks. One is titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.