Surfing, Seals and Sunsets in San Mateo County

By Drew Gilligan

Seals at Ano-Nuevo. photo by Drew Gilligan.
Seals at Ano-Nuevo. photo by Drew Gilligan.

San Mateo County lies just south of San Francisco. Its Eastern side forms the northern reaches of Silicon Valley and is loaded with high tech companies, highways, and houses, while the Western side is loaded with beaches, redwoods, and farms.

Both sides have distinct beauty and charm, but the misty western side awoke my inner adventurer. I also wanted to see the biggest wave on the west coast.

The Home of the Wave

It is known simply as Maverick’s and tucked away behind a military communications center just north of Half Moon Bay. Somehow a wave that breaks between twenty and sixty feet remained virtually unknown and unsurfed until the early nineties.

Only Jeff Clark surfed here from the mid-seventies to the early nineties. To most people Maverick’s wasn’t a wave you surfed, it was a navigational hazard endangering the boats entering Half Moon Bay.

When Jeff Clark brought surf journalist to Mavericks in the early ’90s, it quickly became recognized as one of the preeminent big wave surf spots in the world.

I visited Mavericks on the right day. It was breaking around forty feet and some of the world’s greatest surfers were there for the Maverick’s Surf Contest. This global contest happens when the conditions are right and surfers around the world get 24 hours notice to get to San Mateo County.

When they arrive they will face the best surfers in the world to win big wave surfing’s ultimate prize. The monster wave breaks a few hundred feet from the beach, but that didn’t stop a few thousand binocular clad surfing fans from attending.

The wave dwarfed surfers the way the Empire State Building dwarfs people on the street. However, you do not have to be an intrepid surfer to feel Mavericks power because it can literally shake the ground if the tide is right.

Luckily, when the tide is right you walk closer to the giant wave and explore crabs, sponges, starfish, sea anemones and mollusks living in the many tidal pools.

The Jetty

Sunset at Half Moon Bay. photos by Drew Gilligan.
Sunset at Half Moon Bay. photos by Drew Gilligan.

Seeing such an immense wave and such immense surfing talent made me want to surf myself. About half a mile south of Mavericks lies a tame beginners beach known to locals simply as “the jetty.”

This jetty forms the protective barrier from the harsh waves of Mavericks to the more subdued Half Moon Bay. The jetty deflects the energy from strong ocean currents to create a gentle wave perfect for beginner surfers. The friendly folks at HMB surf shop hooked me with a nice warm wetsuit and surfboard to explore the waves on my own.

As it turns out, surfing is much harder than it looks. Trying to balance yourself on an unstable plank through a moving wall of water just isn’t that easy. Despite the difficulty learning I found surfing completely enjoyable and gained respect for those who could take on Mavericks.

Local Cuisine and Creatures

A hard day surfing makes one extremely hungry and luckily there are plenty of good places to eat. The best place to eat along the beach and also take in some local lore has to be the Moss Beach Distillery.

It stood on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean since the days of prohibition where it quickly gained a reputation as a local hotspot. The rocky shores and hidden inlets of Moss Beach made it an ideal place for smugglers to drop off illegal hooch without having to tangle with the authorities.

The enterprising owners of that day didn’t let the Canadian hooch go far as they created a swinging jazz age hotspot where celebrities, politicians, and San Franciscans escaped for wild nights. There are even whispers that restaurant had adjoining apartments that served as elite bordello.

The Moss Beach Distillery also has whispers of the paranormal and is

apparently haunted by a scorned woman known as the “Blue Lady.” Her tricks baffled bartenders and police officers earning the “Blue Lady” television time on “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Whether or not you believe in ghosts you will have enjoy the food and scenery at the Moss Beach Distillery. I recommend the nori wrapped shrimp followed up by a famous west coast sunset.

The Distillery provides benches and blankets making it an excellent spot for a sunset and for spotting migrating grey whales.

Look for spouts a few hundred yards away from shore to see males or closer to shore to spot the females with their calves. Grey Whales can be seen along the California coast as they migrate from Mexico to Alaska from February to July.

Riding on the beach at Half Moon Bay CA. photo: Drew Gilligan.
Riding on the beach at Half Moon Bay CA. photo: Drew Gilligan.

Ano Nuevo Seals

If you’d like to see more large animals on California’s coast check out the Ano Nuevo reserve. This 4,000-acre reserve is the largest mainland breeding area for Elephant seals. The male elephant seals can grow to eighteen feet long and weigh several tons.

Informative walking tours are available during breeding season and you can see these beautiful animals interact. The walk is over a mile long, so you should be prepared to see birds and sea creatures as well. Along with Whales the Elephant Seal will head toward Alaska for a season of intense feeding before returning south to breed.

Half Moon Bay

If all the surfing, eating, and wildlife viewing has you tired out it is time to check out Half Moon Bay. This is one of the more luxurious areas on the West Coast and is complete with a Ritz-Carlton. In Half Moon Bay you can shop along its bustling Main Street or take a leisurely stroll along the bluffs over the beach. Benches line the bluffs so you can take a restive stroll perched above the Pacific.

If you like to enjoy the coast at a faster pace I’d recommend going horseback riding. It’s a romantic notion that lives up to imagery from novels and films. No matter what level rider you are the Sea Horse Ranch can you started. After a quick lesson, they will have you trotting along trails and through the ocean in no time. If you want a little less romance and more exercise I recommend riding a mountain bike up Montara Mountain.

It’s consistently rated as one of the top trails in California and puts you on top of the bay area. You begin at sea level and from its summit, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Oakland, and the Farallon Island a few miles out in the Pacific. The guys at A-Bicyclery in Half Moon Bay will make it easy for you rent a bike if you cannot bring your own.


With the many splendors of nature to enjoy in San Mateo County, it can be tough to stay inside. In fact, I recommend spending at least one night under the stars. The best place may be a secluded state park called Butano. It’s a few miles down Gazos Creek road from the town of Pescadero in a secluded canyon.

Be sure to stock up in Pescadero at Arcangelli Grocery’s and try their homemade chipotle Barbecue sauce. The park allows hiking and camping in the redwoods in a way that’s not possible in the more popular and crowded John Muir Woods in Marin. Pop into the wonderful Duarte’s bar for a beer and some Cioppino, the wonderful seafood stew this joint is famous for.

If your budget is small and you want to sleep inside, San Mateo County has two youth Hostel’s in picturesque lighthouses along the coast. Point Montara lighthouse lies in the northern half of the county and is closer to Mavericks, Montara Mountain, Moss Beach and Half Moon Bay. A little further South lies the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which is closer to Ano Nuevo and Butanto State Park. This hostel is slightly prettier and more secluded.

If your budget is bigger you can always stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay where you will find a world-class spa and golf course. The Ritz is at One Miramontes Point Road in Half Moon Bay. Telephone: (650) 712-700 Website:

Surfing, Seals and Sunsets  in San Mateo County 2
Drew Gilligan is a lawyer in San Francisco.