San Mateo Coast Road Trip: Santa Cruz to San Francisco

Genie Davis March 1, 2011 No Comments

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Who’s ready for a road trip? And I don’t mean the kind that strands you on the freeway for miles of unremitting highway and fast food potty breaks. I’m talking about the kind that camera toting adults savor, and little kids will enjoy seeing and stopping at attractions along the way.

Santa Cruz is always a fun destination, with its broad beach and kitschy pier and vast boardwalk amusement park. We like to keep the fun going as we head to the urban enticements of San Francisco by taking the San Mateo coastal route – but this drive is fantastic as a day trip or as a short family vacation in its own right.

Northern California Coast

We love road trips with great views!

So first drive onto Highway 1, also called Cabrillo Highway here. Leaving Santa Cruz, be sure to fill up on gas, because you won’t find a station for another thirty plus miles. You’ll love the untrammeled coast line here. Open the windows and hear the rush of the sea, the lowing of cattle roaming the green fields, and you’ll be enveloped in a beautiful coast line devoid of development, but not as curvy or difficult to drive as the more well known Big Sur coast to the south. You can thank the non-profit group Peninsula Open Space Trust for preserving this stretch of stunning coast line.

If you’re lucky you may see some elephant seals, and you will most certainly see a beautiful lighthouse as your approach Pigeon Point. This is one of the tallest lighthouses along the coast, and welcomed sailors from 1872.

The grounds offer several great picture taking benches with a turbulent sea and wildflowers as background. They also include the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel. If you have a big family and you’re looking for a kitchen, a view, the experience of staying on lighthouse property and a wonderful hot tub – this is the place. The hot tub sits cliff edge right by the sea and is temperate enough to share with toddlers. There are two semi-private suites and one large dorm at the hostel; depending on family size you can even rent the entire facility for a weekend.

You won’t be disappointed by the wild life around Pigeon Point. There are over a hundred different birds that nest or migrate through the area. Grey whales are easy to spot November to May; and just south of the light house there’s the Año Nuevo State Reserve. This is the resting place for what is reportedly the largest sea elephant breeding colony in California.

To the north of Pigeon Point is the quaint town of Pescadero. The small town looks as if it could have been transported from Maine, with its white wooden houses and clapboard church. If you’re visiting in the summer, take a stop outside of town at the Coast Ways Ranch. Buckets provided for the picking of Olallie black berries. Our kids spent many pleasant hours picking and eating the sweet, dark berries.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

We love lighthouses and Route One near Santa Cruz, CA has some beautiful sights.

We bought bread and cheese for a picnic to accompany our berry bounty and headed around the twisty curves of old Stage Road, once a stage coach route and now a scenic mile from Pescadero.

Here you’ll find the historic San Gregorio General Store, offering everything for skillets to candles since farmers first arrived in the area around 1889. The kids loved taking a big fat dill pickle from the wooden barrel and browsing the aisles of books and farming supplies. We visited on the weekend and there was live music to dance to out in the dusty courtyard. It’s a community wide event that appeals to all ages. We stayed for “Sweet Home Alabama” and a few Twinkies.

At nearby Butano State Park we enjoyed the redwoods and a few short canyon trails, spotting a few banana slugs – whose slow moving fat yellow bodies fascinated the little ones for an inordinately long period of time – along the way. Leafy ferns and tall, graceful redwoods provide a shady contrast to the sun dazzled coast line.

Moving on toward the coast again and the town of Half Moon Bay you’ll feel yourself slowly acclimating to modernity. This surfers paradise provides great surf viewing and the mighty waves of the famous Mavericks swell. You might enjoy a tour of the James Johnson House, built in 1853. This New England style home is awesomely isolated with a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean. It’s located just to the east of Highway One, slightly south of the city of Half Moon Bay. The house’s lonely profile makes an impressive, stark sight rising up against a back drop of gentle hills, green when rain-refreshed, golden at other times. A good picture spot and another fine place to stretch your legs.

Time for dinner? Try the Italian-Mediterranean fare at Cetrella, where a savory carrot soup and a fritto misto can be paired or shared with steel-head trout. Our kids kept it simple with a filling focaccia appetizer, the delicious bread spread with cheese and fresh herbs.

We spent the night at Best Western in Half Moon Bay, ocean views, commodious doubles, and a reasonable rack rate made it the top choice for us. Next morning, the breakfast buffet provided make your own waffles, too. Then, before heading into San Francisco, we made a stop to watch the fishermen bringing in the catch at Pillar Point Harbor Watching the careful baiting of crab traps was an interesting learning experience. In season you can take whale watching boats from the harbor here.

The approach to San Francisco becomes less scenic as you drive, but it’s still a very pleasant way to enter the city – no freeway rush hour, and the back end of the Sunset district offers many an enjoyable Chinese or Indian restaurant for a quick dining stop en route to your city hotel. Marvel at the road less traveled and then enjoy yourself in a city often traveled to!

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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