The 50 miles of coastline between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz are one of the great surprises of the California coast: The virtually unspoiled miles offer rocky tide pools and driftwood-strewn beaches beneath sculpted bluffs topped by rolling green fields of brussels sprout, artichokes, and U-pick berry patches. Access to the water is not always easy, and while surfers seem to park along Hwy-1 and walk across the fields to wherever the waves are breaking, for visitors it’s best to aim for one of the half-dozen state parks, like San Gregorio, Pomponio, Bean Hollow, or Año Nuevo.

The biggest town hereabouts, Pescadero (pop. 643) is a mile or so inland from Hwy-1 and well worth the short detour for a chance to sample the fresh fish, great pies, and other home-cooked treats at Duarte’s Tavern (202 Stage Rd., 650/879-0464, daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner), at the south end of the block-long downtown.

Less than 10 miles south of Pescadero, the photogenic beacon of Pigeon Point Light Station has appeared in innumerable TV and print commercials. The graceful 115-foot-tall brick tower is closed, but the grounds are open for tours (at 1pm Thurs.-Mon. 10am-4pm, donation), and the adjacent lighthouse quarters function as the popular HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel (650/879-0633), which has dorms beds, family-friendly private rooms, and a hot tub perched above the crashing surf.

Map of Pacific Coast through San Francisco.
Map of Pacific Coast through San Francisco.