By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: I am out exploring California as I update my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition. This chapter is about the San Mateo Coast.)
In Brief: Coastal San Mateo, south of San Francisco on Highway 1, is a joy to drive. It presents lighthouses and historic shipwrecks as well as ethnic history (such as Portuguese farmers), small towns, and appealing beaches, some with tidepools.
The Historic Story: The San Mateo Coast between the Montara and Pigeon Point lighthouses offers a bucolic seaside drive dotted with beaches, cabbage-family farmlands, and small coastal towns, such as Half Moon Bay and Pescadero. In the busy summer travel season, morning fogs tend to burn off by noon, so plan this as a late morning/early afternoon outing in summer.
The road is relatively straight, compared to the roller-coaster rides found along the Mendocino/Sonoma coast north of San Francisco or in Big Sur, south of Monterey.
Pick up Highway 1 on the southwest side of San Francisco and drive south.
The first glorious seashore is Montara Beach, with safe access down the bluffs from the north-end parking lot. Montara is a long and wide beach for a leisurely, sandy walk.
In Montara, the historic stop is the Point Montara Lighthouse, with a well-signed turnoff at 8800 Cabrillo Highway, alerting you to the comfy all-ages Hostel. Both the Montara and Pigeon Point Lighthouses now function as comfy, all-ages Hostels.
After several major shipwrecks along this coast, the Point Montara Lighthouse was built in 1875, first as a fog signal station with a deep whistle run by coal-generated steam power.
Proceeding south, at the fishing village of Princeton, watch the boats return and see what the sea has offered up as prizes. Several sport-fishing charters leave from Princeton. Shops and restaurants offer delicious local freshly caught seafood.
Next you’ll encounter the original and main coastal community, Half Moon Bay, once called Spanishtown and populated by the Spanish as early as the 1830s. Today floriculture is big business here, managed in massive greenhouses. If you exit the region after this drive on Highway 92, you will see many retail nurseries along the way.
Take a stroll on Main Street, where the blue Zaballa House (326 Main Street) is the oldest building.
The town of Half Moon Bay is compact and easy to explore on foot along Main Street. As you enjoy this walk, you may see many historic buildings that have been carefully preserved. At 270 Main Street, the Greek Revival-style house from the 1860s was the home of Pablo Vasques, son of the original land-grant owner.
At 448 Main Street, Cunha’s is an old general store where Portuguese and Italian farmers once gathered. Formerly, you could buy just about everything here, from your jeans to your cowboy boots. Today the specialty is made-to-order deli sandwiches with multiple ingredients, delicious for a picnic farther south, perhaps with a bluff-top panoramic view at San Gregorio State Beach.
At the south end of the town, turn east to the hills on Higgins Canyon Road to see the white Johnston House, poised on a hillside. It’s amazing that this pre-fab, catalog-bought, New England-style “saltbox” house could have been built in this roadless, isolated area in 1853. Hand-hewn timbers were floated ashore from ships at high tide. The setting exudes a certain longing for past roots, such as one feels in Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World.
Many beaches attract visitors south of Half Moon Bay, with San Gregorio and Pescadero among the most popular. The bluffs at the north end of San Gregorio Beach are a pleasing place to sit and pause for a picnic.
Consider a one-way drive south along the coast. Then return on the parallel elevated inland road, known as Stage Road, which runs from Pescadero north and back to Highway 1. Where Stage Road meets La Honda Road, another interesting stop inland is the San Gregorio General Store, formerly the Peterson & Alsford General Store, built in 1899. They once sold everything from seeds to kerosene lamps, but now provide mainly a friendly ambiance for locals and visitors around a bar.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, five miles south of the Pescadero turnoff, is one of the major architectural legacies among lighthouses along the U.S. Pacific coast. Be sure to see it. Built in 1872, the brick structure, the second tallest lighthouse on the coast, is open on weekends. Wooden houses on the site function as an all-ages hostel, similar to the Point Montara Lighthouse. Pigeon Point has informative signage explaining the lighthouse rationale, based on shipwrecks. The Fog Signal Building is now an interpretive center with the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens on display. The ingenious Fresnel lens could magnify and project a small kerosene light far out to sea. The light station keepers were called “wickies” because they managed the wicks of the kerosene lamps.
The Pigeon Point Lighthouse needs restoration badly and seeks donors actively. In this respect, the parallel Point Arena Lighthouse on the Mendocino Coast has surpassed it, with careful restoration and ample local volunteer support.
After visiting Pigeon Point, backtrack on the coast and turn inland for a mile to the small community of Pescadero, which means “fishermen” in Spanish. You pass Pescadero Marsh, one of the most important remaining habitats along the coast for birdlife (180 species have been recorded here). Be sure to pack your binoculars. Duarte’s restaurant (see below) is a great place for a seafood lunch or dinner in this region.
A generation of houses in Pescadero were painted white after the SS Columbia wrecked along the coast in 1896, floating landward its cargo of white paint. The importance of lighthouses along this treacherous coast can be seen in the place names. Franklin Point recalls that the clipper ship Sir John Franklin ran aground here with major loss of life in 1865.
All along this drive, the broad marine terraces of the San Mateo Coast present opportune agricultural bench lands that attracted early ethnic farmers. The land is not always exceedingly rich, but the climate provides a long, cool, fog-moistened growing season ideal for artichokes, Brussels sprouts, other cabbage-family plants, and commercial flowers.
Getting There: Drive Coast Highway 1 south from San Francisco to see Coastside San Mateo. Return on Highway 92 across the low mountains to Freeway 280.
Be Sure to See: The best stops going south would be the Montara Lighthouse, the town of Half Moon Bay, San Gregorio Beach, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and the town of Pescadero.
Best Time of Year: Half Moon Bay hosts several major festivals each year. They include the Portuguese Chamarita Festival in June, the Coastside Country Fair on the Fourth of July weekend, and the Art and Pumpkin Festival in October. The newest festival, Farm+Fish+Flowers, in July, offers the public a once-a-year opportunity to tour local nurseries/greenhouses, the working harbors, and farms. Many of these businesses are not ordinarily open to the public, but invite all for a “behind the scenes” look at that time.
Traffic congestion can be a major issue. A sunny weekend in summer will attract many visitors, making an hour-long traffic jam on Highway 92 a possibility. Also, allow plenty of time getting there and back at festival times because the narrow roads can be overwhelmed with visitors. Visit on an off-day if possible.
Lodging: Beach House Half Moon Bay Hotel in Princeton, near the north end of this route, is a good lodging choice. This modern hotel offers you a room with a view of the water, plus easy access to a walking/biking path along the water that can take you to the fishing boats and nearby micro-brewery or restaurants along the Princeton harbor. Beach House Half Moon Bay Hotel is at 4100 Cabrillo Highway North, 650-712-0220, http://www.beach-house.com/half-moon-bay.
Dining: Duarte’s Tavern (650-879-0464, 202 Stage Rd, http://www.duartestavern.com) has been a popular seafood/Portuguese restaurant in Pescadero for generations. The website oozes with nostalgia. You can get a few things here that you may not find on menus elsewhere. Try the fried smelt as well as the calamari for an appetizer. All the regional coastal fish are fresh, such as halibut, sole, ling cod, sea bass, and salmon. The local olallieberry pie is the dessert of choice.
For Further Information: Visit the regional tourism website for in-depth details at http://www.visithalfmoonbay.org.