Montara Beach on the San Mateo Coast of California, south of San Francisco
Montara Beach on the San Mateo Coast of California, south of San Francisco
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by Lee Foster

The spirit of Billy Ralston is the best introduction to San Mateo County, the strip of land immediately south of San Francisco.

Billy Ralston struck it rich in the silver rush that followed the Gold Rush. Ralston was a wise investor in the Comstock Lode silver holdings in Nevada.

In the 1870s Ralston became a symbol of the good life. He raced the train on his horses from San Francisco to Belmont, often beating the train with relays of mounts. At his fabulous Ralston Hall mansion he entertained notable travelers of the era with sumptuous feasts, setting a style for California hospitality.

Even Ralston’s death was symbolic of his desire to live fully. After rigorous exercise, it was his custom to go swimming in chilly San Francisco Bay. One day he had a heart attack and drowned, or so the doctor said. The event coincided with the impending bankruptcy of the Ralston ventures because of changing and unfavorable business conditions.

Today you can go to the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, stand in front of Ralston Hall, and meditate on Billy Ralston, symbol of the good life on the peninsula. Today the peninsula is home to thousands of upscale commuters who work in San Francisco.

Getting to San Mateo County

The San Francisco Airport, located in San Mateo County at Burlingame, offers easy access to places described below. The airport is just off Highway 101, the north-south highway running through the region. Scenic Highway 1 runs along the coast.

San Mateo County’s History

The fitting place to begin an exploration of peninsula history is on Sweeney Ridge, a two-mile long, 1,200-foot-high ridge above Skyline Drive in San Bruno. From Sweeney Ridge, Gaspar de Portola and his party in 1769 became the first Europeans to see San Francisco Bay. Portola and his 63 men walked all the way from San Diego through the road-less wilderness to Sweeney Ridge, where they were confronted with a large body of water never before reported. For 200 years sailors had passed near the Golden Gate without discovering the Bay. You can get up to Sweeney Ridge by driving to Skyline College, parking in Lot B, and ascending through the gate and up the winding gravel road to the ridge.

The San Mateo County History Museum, located in the old Courthouse in Redwood City, offers another introduction to the area.

A large reed canoe shows how the Ohlone Indian fishermen maneuvered in the bay and ocean. In 1777, the Ohlone population in the greater Bay Area was estimated at 9,000.

An exhibit on the Mexican period details the trading pattern of Boston ships, whose captains sought cattle hides in exchange for goods such as tea, sugar, spices, and clothing.

In the American period that followed the annexation of California, the industries of lumber, oysters, whaling, and farming flourished here.

In nearby Pacifica, visit the whitewashed Sanchez Adobe, completed in 1846 during the Mexican era. Today the adobe serves as a museum where the daily life of the early settlers is preserved.

San Mateo County’s Main Attractions

Attractions include the Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education in Belmont, plus the Filoli Estate and the Tripp Store, both in Woodside.

Just south of the airport, off Highway 101, lies Coyote Point Park and the Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education. The museum celebrates the connections between man and nature and explains through its exhibits the need for clear, long-range thinking in managing the natural environment. You enter the museum at the simulated crest of the mountains running along the spine of the peninsula, and proceed down three levels to the ocean and the bay, through broad-leaved and coniferous forests, past chaparral and grasslands, to the baylands and coast.

In addition to the museum, Coyote Point has a public marina, picnic areas, biking and walking paths, and a short nature trail.

The Filoli Estate in Woodside is a 43-room mansion with 16 landscaped acres of gardens built 1916-19. This preserved home and gardens of William Bourn, heir to the Empire Gold Mine and head of the local water company, is one of the few grand houses that remain from early 20th-century peninsula life. The estate is open for guided tours, with reservations required.

The Tripp Woodside Store, a general store opened in 1854, is now a museum housing many artifacts from the era. The history of the store and area focuses on lumber, and inside you’ll find the lumbering saws and oxen harnesses used when draft animals pulled logs down the mountain roads. The Tripp Store museum is meant to be a hands-on experience, so you can examine closely the bean sorter, apple press, scales, blacksmith tools, traps, and furs. The store is located at the corner of Kings Mountain and Tripp roads in Woodside.

Nearby Trips: Coastside San Mateo County

The San Mateo Coast is a special getaway for a San Francisco/Bay Area traveler looking for a bucolic, cool, green, seaside encounter. The attractions lie north and south of Half Moon Bay.

The October Art & Pumpkin Festival is the main annual celebration in Half Moon Bay. Highways in and out will be slow during this celebration.

When you get to the San Mateo Coast, north to south, here are some choice discoveries for a discerning visitor.

Start at Montara Beach, one of the more expansive vistas along the entire Northern California coast. From a small parking lot above the beach, you can peruse this sandy domain. The view is particularly lovely at sunset. Walk down the steep path or the convenient adjacent steps and walk the beach at your leisure. This is the place to fine-tune your appreciation for the crashing surf.

Moving south, make your next encounter the Montara Lighthouse, a historic building. The Lighthouse support buildings, which have quaint names such as the Fog Signal Annex, now serve as meeting spaces and a Youth Hostel. Lighthouses saved many ships, but not all, from going aground along this coast in the 19th century. Farther south, Pigeon Point recalls an ill-fated ship, the Carrier Pigeon, which was lost on the rocks.

The next stop, Fitzgerald Marine Life Refuge, is not well marked. Look for a sign displaying binoculars indicating wildlife viewing. Turn right on California Street and then right again at the end of the road on North Lake. If you happen to arrive at high tide, there is less to see. However, at low tide the many resilient life forms that survive in the intertidal zone can be observed, from purple sea urchins to mussels. Twenty-five species of invertebrates and plants, new to science at the time, were discovered here.

Continuing the drive south, watch for the Moss Beach Distillery sign, indicating a restaurant bearing that name. This is a favored lunch and dinner place, with a cozy outdoor area over the water.

From the Distillery you can walk farther south on the bluffs and in winter view the famous Maverick surfing competition. At auspicious times, November to March, there is a confluence of lunar pull and the natural upwelling of waves on a coastal shelf, creating some of the highest waves in the world. Extreme surfers who love to ride these 50-foot-high waves are alerted by email and told to come within 24 hours to the competition. They arrive from Australia and elsewhere. It helps to have a powerful spotting scope to see them because the action occurs a half mile offshore.

Not only during the blustery Mavericks period, but all year, weather on the San Mateo Coast can be chancy. Come prepared to enjoy all kinds of weather. Wind is a constant in every month. Protective wind jackets and wind pants can make a visit here a lot more fun, even in summer. Dress warmly, in layers, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. A fog cover and wind can have an unpleasant effect on the unprepared. From October to May there could be rain, so wind/rain gear will be needed. Some days can be gloriously sunny, with a slight, cool wind. Those are the most pleasing days for most travelers.

Montara Beach San Mateo Coast CA
Montara Beach,.San Mateo Coast of California, south of San Francisco

Beyond the Distillery, driving south, you’ll encounter the Half Moon Bay airport. The airport seems like a throwback to an earlier era. You might imagine Howard Hughes descending in a small biplane, wearing a leather helmet and goggles.

Across the road from the airport lies your first encounter with the fertile coastal bench-lands that grow an abundance of leaf crops and cole family vegetables, from spinach to broccoli. The broad marine terraces around Half Moon Bay are not exceedingly rich, but the climate provides a long, cool, fog-moistened growing season ideal for artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and cut flowers.

The commercially serious agriculture along this coast is the under-glass growth of flowers and other ornamental plants, which can be quickly shipped worldwide from the San Francisco Airport, just over the hill.

Next on this southbound itinerary is Princeton Harbor, where you can buy fish directly from a fishing boat in the morning hours or perhaps have a grilled salmon or halibut with the fisherfolk on the Formica or oilcoth tabletops at Princeton Seafood or next door at Ketch Joanne. Walk around the harbor to admire the working fishing boats and the abundant pleasure craft. Three fancier restaurants catering to travelers flourish on the north edge of the Harbor. Barbara’s Fishtrap is good for down-home fresh fish. Mezza Luna is Northern Italian fine dining. The Half Moon Bay Brewing Company crafts its own beer, serves brewpub food, and hosts some musical performance almost every night, making it the happening nightspot in the area.

A substantial shopping center at the Princeton Harbor, complete with hotel and restaurant, forces a traveler to think about growth and progress on this relatively undeveloped coast. The same issues are raised if one looks at the many modern homes tucked here and there along this route. Growth vs No Growth is the incendiary point of discussion here, especially considering the tension between limited water resources of the coastal region and the strong desire of many Peninsula residents to move west across the mountain for a more scenic, green environment.

A half mile south from Princeton Harbor is the Beach House, one of the choice lodgings in the region, putting you close to the water, with a patio or balcony. You have views of the sunset and harbor, plus peace and quiet. The Beach House is within a short walk of the restaurants at Princeton Harbor. The walking and biking path immediately in front of the Beach House could take you out exploring for many miles.

Proceeding south, after passing more farm fields and floriculture greenhouses, you enter the region of the small town of Half Moon Bay. Three beach access roads on your right present the Half Moon Bay State Beaches. The Young Avenue and Venice Boulevard Beaches are more secluded, but the beach at the end of Kelly Avenue is the main attraction, with an inviting campground for tent and RV folk, hot showers, a day picnic area, and plenty of sand play areas. The view is lovely to the north as the coast winds in a wide arc.

Back down Kelly Avenue, cross Highway 1 and head into town, stopping at Main Street. This is a fun street to browse because of its many small shops run by people who care about books, art, nature, yarn, and music, among other things. At the Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel you can buy animal hides. Historic houses along Main Street include the San Benito House and the Zaballa House.

The iconic store on this street is Cunha’s Country Store, which has served generations of Portuguese and Italian families. Tragically, this store burned in May 2003, but there was such an outpouring of community grief that it was quickly rebuilt and reopened in May 2004. Ground level is an upscale small supermarket. Upstairs is the dry goods of the general store era, which tend now more toward gift items, but in the back you can still get boots, cowboy hat, and blue jeans. Ask to see the scrapbook about the fire and citizen support.

Main Street continues to evolve. Gone now is the fine dining leader of the region, the San Benito House restaurant, closed by the proprietors after decades of service. In its place, a block away, is the Half Moon Bay Inn restaurant, with its large, friendly bar and dining area. Try the shrimp pasta. Restaurants Pasta Moon and Cetrella get high marks, as does the breakfast spot known as the Half Moon Bay Bakery.

As you leave Half Moon Bay, looking to your left there is an important stop to make at a lonesome white house on the hill. Drive up to see this gem, the Johnston House, a New England “saltbox” style structure, bought as a prefab and shipped around the Horn to this area in 1853. The house boards were dropped from a ship, rafted ashore, dragged up the hill, and assembled. The region was then a road-less area with only a few Spanish Mexican families living in the current downtown area near what is now the San Benito House and adjacent Zaballa House.

Continuing south, you can enjoy the landscape and let the miles whiz by. There are alluring and ample beaches to the right, such as San Gregorio and Pescadero, and on the left there are grassy hills and more bench-lands with agriculture.

Two essential stops await you in this southern area.

The Pigeon Point Light Station could be defended as the most glorious example of lighthouse architecture along the California coast. Like the Montara Lighthouse to the north, it now serves as a Youth Hostel. The main competitor for most-photogenic lighthouse is Point Arena, south of Mendocino.

For the appreciator of nature, a trip to the Ano Nuevo Reserve is highly recommended. This is the protected home of the elephant seal, which came close to extinction in the late 1800s. The best time to visit the reserve is during the winter months when many elephant seals come ashore to give birth, mate, and molt their fur. Because of their size (bulls can measure 16 feet and weigh three tons) and numbers (1,000 seals on the beaches in winter), a reservation is required for the guided hikes offered December through March. For travelers not up for the walk out to the point, there is a short walk from the Visitor Center on the New Year’s Creek (Ano Nuevo) Trail to the ocean edge, which displays the grandeur of the scenery.

Turning back to the north, at Pescadero Beach, veer right and drive inland a mile to the small town of Pescadero. The drive passes Pescadero Marsh, a favored birding area with a walking path through the lush wetlands. There are opportunities to see as many as 200 bird species here, especially late fall and early spring. Great blue herons, kites, and egrets share the space with deer and raccoons. The marsh includes two large saltwater ponds and lush flowing creeks where steelhead trout spawn each winter.

Duarte’s is the famous restaurant in Pescadero, good for local fish and crab in season. Inquire about the side road to Harley Farms if you want to see a place where artisan goat cheese is made. You can buy directly, at the farm shop, their flower petal and herb-decor cheese. Also near Pescadero, a mile into the hills toward La Honda, the Phipps Ranch is a fun place for berry and strawberry picking in season, plus nursery plants year-around. A menagerie of farm animals on display makes Phipps a satisfying stop for children even if the berries aren’t ripe.

Drive back north from Pescadero along the inland road, Stage Road, lying parallel to the main highway, Highway 1. You’ll pass miles of bucolic countryside, some of the most gorgeous countryside and winding back-roads available in California. It’s a marvel that such a road still exists so close to the urbanized Bay Area, offering the urban person an antidote to human encounters. Stop at the Peterson & Alsford General Store, built in 1889, which sells everything from Levi’s to nature books, kerosene lamps to vegetable seeds. The local populace enjoys a lively social life around the bar inside the store.

For a cool, green, rural daytrip from the Bay Area, the San Mateo Coast has no equal.

Visitor information for San Mateo County comes from the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.visitsanmateocounty.com
Visitor information for San Mateo County comes from the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.visitsanmateocounty.com

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San Mateo County: If You Go

Contact the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, 111 Anza Boulevard, Suite 410, Burlingame, CA, 94010; 650/348-7600, www.visitsanmateocounty.com.

Coastside information comes from the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce & Visitors’ Bureau, 235 Main Street, Half Moon Bay, CA 94019; 650/726-8380; www.visithalfmoonbay.org and www.halfmoonbayecotourism.com.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal.

The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page

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