Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to southern San Mateo County is a scenic stretch of California’s coastline. It’s green and blooming after the recent rains, and the road itself is in decent shape.
There’s plenty of jaw-dropping moments as you take in the natural beauty, and lots of opportunities to see wildlife or to eat well along the way. Make time to stop at some of nine state beaches and parks between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.
Your first stop can be Wilder Ranch State Park, just a few miles north of Santa Cruz. Envision a broad, flat expanse with outstanding ocean views, bike trails and beaches on Wilder’s 7,000 acres. There are also a few old buildings to explore, from Wilder’s earlier days as a dairy ranch.
After Wilder Ranch, next up is Davenport, a tiny village with about 400 residents. There are great ocean views to be had, sitting outside in such places as the Whale City Bakery.
Heading north through Big Basin State Park, the destructive power of the CZU Lightning Complex fires of 2020 is still evident. Logging operations of dead trees continue in the hills above Waddell Beach. There’s still plenty of outdoor wonder, and this is a good place to go for a walk, either along the water at Waddell Beach, or across Highway 1 at Rancho del Oso Nature and History Center, where the marsh trail takes 20 minutes.
Hungry yet? Stop to enjoy the baked items at either Swanton Berry Farm or Pie Ranch. Both have outside picnic tables, and Swanton has an indoor area as well. During strawberry season, Swanton has a U-pick strawberry operation. All their produce is organic. Swanton is south of Año Nuevo State Park, while Pie Ranch is just north.
Año Nuevo State Park, 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, is a destination for many on Highway 1. Elephant seal mating season ended March 31, and visitors can tour the reserve without a guide between April and November. Visitors still need to get a permit for self-guided walks at the entrance.
Costanoa, a resort near Año Nuevo, is one of the few lodging options on this stretch of Highway 1. Tent and RV camping is allowed, and cabins and other accommodations are offered. There’s a lodge, spa, general store and a restaurant, along with—big surprise–many stunning views of the ocean.
Another place to stay in this stretch is at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, which rents lodging through a hostel program. Currently only entire houses can be rented. That’s supposed to change this summer, when dormitories and private rooms open again. More info is at hiusa.org.
For those who are making a daytime visit, Pigeon Point is one of the most striking places to get out and walk along this coastal stretch. There are plenty of signs with information about the lighthouse, which dates from 1872.
Animals can be seen at many spots along Highway 1. Sometimes, it’s as simple getting out of the car and noticing your surroundings. At Wilder Ranch, look for rabbits. Or look offshore for migrating whales.
At Bean Hollow State Park, near Pescadero, 30 harbor seals lie on the rocks across the tide pools, glistening in the late afternoon sun.
No coastal journey is complete without a stop in the village of Pescadero, which isn’t actually on the coast, but two miles inland.
It’s worth the detour for a walk down its main street to see the handful of stores and restaurants. Continue after Pescadero for 14 miles to the city of Half Moon Bay, which will seem bustling in contrast to the quiet slow coast that stretches 49 miles south to Santa Cruz.