Half Moon Bay: It’s All Your Fault!

Jeff Regan
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Editor’s Note: Jeff  Regan is a member of LTV’s sponsored content team, The Leisure Explorers. Do you own a Leisure Travel Van and enjoy writing? Learn more about joining the team.

Half Moon Bay State Beach in Northern California has been our “home park” for over 20 years. It is only 17 miles from our previous abode on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula. Because we lived so close by, our regular trips here hooked us on RVing and were a big reason why we decided to make the move to the Coast in 2019 and the fact it’s like Disneyland for landscape and wildlife photographers.

HMB State Beach has four beautiful beaches, including Francis Beach, which is where we camp. It is also the only RV-friendly State Park campground on the San Mateo County Coast (or San Francisco County, for that matter). What makes RVing here so appealing is the three miles of pristine beaches and bluffs, the seven-mile Coastal Trail, close proximity to quaint Main Street (shopping and dining), and the iconic Pillar Point Harbor.

The RV sites are near the ocean and the beach is popular with surfers. If we reserve early enough through Reserve California, we opt for an ocean view site which is $50 per night and includes 30amp power. Whales are known to swim near the beach while migrating, and there is a protected Snowy Plover nesting area as well. The mostly paved Coastal Trail is perfect for walking, running, and biking. Horseback riding on the beach is even an option. There truly is something for everyone!

Francis State Beach

Our dogs were always happiest when at this place, not to mention their owners. Originally, the park had no power hookups, and our previous motorhome had no solar, so it required us to use our very loud Powertech 7Kw diesel generator for an hour in the morning and evening. It was much like a DC-3 airplane starting up and taxiing to the runway. One night, a couple of campers in an RV that had no generator came to our door to ask if I needed a tool to fix our generator, and I said something about “speaking of tools!” About half the sites now have power hookups, and even without the solar panels on our Unity mean, our generator doesn’t get much use. The air conditioner is rarely needed due to year-round cool temperatures in the 50s and 60s.

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is only 25 miles (40km) south of San Francisco, so it makes a good jumping-off location to see the city and many other coastal sites via nearby Highway One. This crescent-shaped bay was founded in the 1840s as its first name San Benito, later becoming known as Spanishtown, and finally, in 1874, it got the name Half Moon Bay. Many of its non-native early inhabitants were Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian. This bay is known for its pumpkin festival, featuring record-breaking gourds of 2,000 pounds or more, and the Mavericks big-wave surf contest. A few miles southeast is the beautiful Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve on the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Historic Main Street features inns, restaurants, shops, art galleries, wine tasting, and bakeries–all with a nod to the cultural diversity and history of the small town.

Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve
Higgins Canyon Rd, view on the way to Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve

Pillar Point Harbor

The nearby Pillar Point Harbor is picturesque with restaurants and shops, as well as kayak and surfboard rentals. You can even buy fish and crab directly from the fishing boats!

Originally inhabited by the Ohlone Indians, the arrival of Spanish colonizers vastly changed their lives, starting when the Portola expedition camped nearby in 1769. By the early 19th century, Russian fur trappers came to the area. A deep-water landing at Pillar point was a port for lumber and produce destined for San Francisco. By 1944, Romeo Pier was constructed to supply sardines and salmon to the Romeo Fish Market in San Francisco. The “Charlie the Tuna” cartoon character seen on StarKist TV commercials originally came from Romeo Pier, when owner Joe Romeo branded cans of his seafood with a cartoon fish wearing glasses and named it after Charlie, his son. The 1961 catchphrase “Sorry Charlie” came after the fishing side of the business was sold to StarKist Tuna. Romeo Pier was demolished in 2018 due to its unsafe condition, but the Johnson Pier is still a working pier, bustling with activity during crab season.

Pillar Point Harbor
Romeo Pier 2017, demolished in 2018.

Mavericks Big-Wave Surf Contest

At the west end of the harbor is Mavericks Beach, famous for its Titans of Mavericks big-wave surf contest, attracting top surfers from around the world. Waves as high as 60 feet (18M) have been documented! The surf is actually a half-mile offshore, caused by an unusually shaped underwater rock formation that was discovered by Half Moon Bay local Jeff Clark, who became the first documented surfer to tackle Mavericks in 1975 at age 17. He was able to keep the existence of big waves in California a secret until 1990. Sadly, notable Hawaiian big-wave rider Mark Foo lost his life there in 1994.

Moss Beach Distillery

There is a restaurant in Moss Beach (where we now live) called the Moss Beach Distillery. Just six miles north of Half Moon Bay, located on a cliff that overlooks the ocean and comes with a very colorful history dating back to Prohibition. It was established in 1927 as a speakeasy called Frank’s Place and converted into a restaurant in 1933. Illegal whisky from Canada was brought from ships to the beach and into vehicles and the speakeasy. Such luminaries as Fatty Arbuckle, author Dashiell Hammett, and San Francisco politicians frequented the place. The Moss Beach Distillery is even more well known for its resident ghost, the Blue Lady, who supposedly still haunts the premises, and the often foggy nights further the scary mood. We have yet to see the Blue Lady, but my wife declines to use the ladies’ room at night to avoid any sightings, just in case. The dog-friendly patio has fire pits, along with a dramatic view, especially at sunset.

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Also in Moss Beach is Seal Cove, part of the JV Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, featuring tide pool habitat, marsh, erosive bluffs, clifftop trail, and cypress and eucalyptus grove. The Ocean Shore Railroad opened in 1905 and extended through the town of Moss Beach, making the reserve location a tourist destination and is now managed by San Mateo County Parks. In 1969, the site was officially designated as a state reserve. It has long been prized as one of the best tide pool habitats in California. Fitzgerald is also home to harbor seals year-round. I can watch the fog roll in from my loft at home a 1/2 mile away, and I love photographing this place as often as possible.

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Cypress grove
Seal Cove tide pools

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

The Pigeon Point Light Station in Pescadero is 22 miles to the south and was built in 1871. This is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States at 115 feet and is also a California State Park and hostel. This lighthouse currently has its original first-order Fresnel lens on display in the adjacent museum. The lens stands 16 feet tall, 6 feet in diameter, and is comprised of 1,008 prisms and will hopefully be reinstalled in the lighthouse tower as part of its multi-million dollar restoration scheduled for some time this year.

There are always photographers here at all hours of the day and night–I know because I’ve shot sunrises, sunsets, and the Milky Way at this spot more than a few times.

Pigeon Point Light Station
Pigeon Point Light Station with the Milky Way


Golfers can enjoy the scenic Half Moon Bay Golf Links, next to the Ritz Carlton hotel, as well as Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica. The Sharp Park course opened in 1932 and was designed by Alister MacKenzie, an architect of Augusta National, home of the Masters. Both courses offer beautiful, expansive views of the ocean and bluffs and the challenge of frequent fog and wind, but the little worry of hot temperatures!

Pacifica Pier

The picturesque 1,140 feet long Pacifica Municipal Pier is close to Sharp Park Golf Course and one of the best fishing piers in the state, where salmon and striped bass can be caught, as well as crab. No admission charge or fishing license is needed. The L-shaped pier was built in 1973 and is a dramatic spot to watch the sunset and high surf conditions. Pacifica is about 16 miles from the campground. It boasts of having the most beautiful Taco Bell right on the beach. There’s plenty of parking should you get a Chalupa craving.

Pacifica Municipal Pier

If it weren’t for RVing, we would not have been able to spend so much time getting to know and taking pictures of this coastal area. A few months ago, we were walking the Coastal Trail around noon with our puppy and saw that there was a vacancy at the campground. We quickly went home and prepped our Unity for the very short trip and were back at the Rangers kiosk by 2 pm. Yes, we camped a whole 7 miles (11km) from home! Hopefully, I have been able to relay some of the beauty and interest of the area and why we were compelled to camp here year after year.

Montara State Beach, 2 miles north of Moss Beach
Susan with LilyBear and Spot on the Coastal Trail circa 2012.
Jeff Regan

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