On Saturday, my husband and I took advantage of the negative tide and beautiful weather to visit Pescadero State Beach; this mile long beach is one of our favorite California beaches, perfect for long walks and, at low tide, observing marine life normally hidden from view.
Our adventure began with a scenic drive through the redwoods on California Highway 84 (also known as Woodside Road). This narrow, two land road winds it’s way up and over the Santa Cruz mountains and can be quite thrilling – even nerve wracking – in places. Popular with cyclists, motorcyclists and car enthusiasts, this is not a route either one of us is willing to drive in the dark, so we’re always sure to be home by nightfall.
At the top of the climb, where Woodside Road intersects with Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35), you’ll find Alice’s Restaurant and Penelopes’s Den – a cozy gallery devoted to local artists and a destination in and of itself. Continuing on, the downhill portion of 84 (now called La Honda Road) transitions from steep redwood forests to rolling hills and farm land. Grassy hillsides are dotted with grazing cattle and in the distance, where the road meets Highway One, you’re greeted with a view of the ocean and San Gregorio Beach.
After turning left onto California Highway One – one of the most scenic coastal roads in the United States – we continued driving south, enjoying spectacular ocean views. This drive alone ranks as one of my all time favorite peak life experiences. Two or three miles down the road, we arrived at our destination. After paying the $8.00 parking fee (good for all California state beaches in San Mateo county on the same day, including Half Moon Bay, San Gregorio, Pomponio, Pescadero and Bean Hollow), we parked our car and took in the glorious view from the top of the bluff.
Then we headed down the steps to explore the beach.
Being careful to follow basic tide pool etiquette (tread carefully and lightly, look closely and quietly, touch gently or not at all, show respect and never turn your back the ocean), we saw all sorts of fascinating marine plants and animals.
I can’t get enough of the beautiful color and texture of kelp; the flat blades are wonderfully smooth to touch.
It’s okay to gently touch the outer surface of a sea anemone, but avoid touching the inner feeding tentacles as they contain stinging cells that can irritate sensitive skin. (Note to all parents: please don’t allow your children to poke or harm tide pool inhabitants.)
I may be wrong, but I think this is a cloning anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) rather than a giant green anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) because, although the tentacles of a giant green anemone may be green, blue or white, they are never pink at the tips. Regardless, isn’t it lovely?
When I look at this colony of sea anemones, I see a smiling face.
An anemone and an ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus).
Ochre sea stars feed mainly on mussels, as seen here.
Another ochre sea star feeding on mussels. When tide pooling, please resist the urge to pick up marine life. Prying sea stars loose can fatally damage them.
I was thrilled to see a chiton – the oval, flat mollusk with eight overlapping shell plates or valves seen in the center of this image. This one is smaller than the mussels located near it. Chitons cling to hard surfaces via a muscular foot and feed on diatoms and algae. Amazingly, several species are known to exhibit homing behavior, journeying to feed at night and then returning to the exact spot it previously inhabited during the day.
As you can see in the above photograph, the extremely low tide made it possible to reach what we call “bird rock” – normally an island inhabited by cormorants and pelicans.
Difficult, but not impossible.
Afterwards, we took our nephew tide pooling and, further down the beach, we even saw several harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks. He later told us that his visit to Pescadero Beach was one of the highlights of his trip. That’s high praise, coming from a typical not-always-easy-to-please teenager.
If you are visiting the San Francisco Bay area or are planning to drive up the coast, I highly recommend stopping at this lovely beach. If you do, please remember that dogs are not allowed on the beach, or in the nearby Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve (a popular spot for bird watchers). Picnic tables and benches are located near the parking lot, but fires are not allowed. Also, please help keep the coast beautiful by collecting trash and disposing of it properly. If the on-site trash cans are full, please pack out your trash and dispose of it at home (or at your hotel), and encourage others to do the same. This not only keeps the beach clean, it protects the wildlife who call the ocean home.
If you get hungry, the nearby town of Pescadero is an excellent spot to grab a bite to eat or pick up picnic supplies. We love the carne asada super burrito (large enough for two people to share) at the corner gas station / Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos. Seriously. These “gas station burritos” are the best!
We also like Norm’s Market / Arcangeli Grocery and bakery. Although they’re known for their freshly baked artichoke bread, we actually prefer the herb bread, especially when it’s hot-out-of-the-oven and paired with some goat cheese from nearby Harley Farms. That, along with some fresh fruit and cold drinks, is a picnic made in heaven. We usually pick up an extra loaf of bread to take home, along with a jar of their delicious “hot Sicilian” pasta sauce – which we love with Harley Farm’s goat milk ricotta. I’m getting hungry just typing this. Norm’s also makes delicious sandwiches, just get in line at the back of the store.
If you’re more in the mood for a “sit-down” meal, I highly recommend the thin crust pizzas at the Pescadero Country Store; they have a wood burning oven. In addition to indoor seating, they also have a pleasant outdoor area with picnic tables, On weekends, they often have live music and BBQ.
Duarte’s Tavern – voted “an American classic” by the James Beard Foundation – is another “sit down” lunch or dinner option. I’m embarrassed to say that in the five years we’ve been visiting Pescadero, we’ve yet to eat there, though it is on our list. Who knows, maybe next weekend I’ll finally get to try their famed artichoke soup and crab cioppino. For dessert, I hear their olallieberry pie is excellent.
Finally, a trip to Pescadero isn’t complete without a visit to Harley Farms Goat Dairy. Located just outside of town (follow the girl & goat signs), this restored 1910 farm and dairy produces delicious, award winning chevre, fromage blanc, feta and ricotta cheese from their herd of American Alpine goats. We’ve been coming here for the past five years and never go home without a pound of ricotta (when it’s available) or a couple dozen delicious (frozen) homemade ricotta ravioli, which we serve with a brown butter sage sauce – heavenly!
Visitors to the farm can participate in an organized two hour farm tour (advanced registration is required, $20 per person) or you can simply drop by to taste and buy cheese, as well as watch the goats, and their protective llamas, in the pasture. We make a point of visiting every Spring to see the babies and this year was no exception. When we stopped by on Saturday, we not only visited with several pregnant females and two day old babies (or “kids” as they’re known), we also had the good fortune to witness a doe give birth to twins! It was a truly wonderful way to cap off a marvelous day!