San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle

DIY Hike: Pillar Point: Enjoy a Scenic Walk Along the Beach

Protected by Pillar Point Harbor, Pillar Point is part of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, which extends from the Montara light station south to Pillar Point. You won’t see surfers on this walk, but you might see snowy egrets and great blue herons. It’s also a place to spot endangered brown pelicans, the kind flying around on Muni buses this month. (More at

Once the home of Ohlone Indians, the Pillar Point region was frequented by Russian fur trappers in the early 1800s. The waters are also known for many shipwrecks, including the Rydal Hall, a sailing ship that broke apart on the reefs off Pillar Point in 1876. Its 2-ton anchor is on display outside the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co.

Today this area is home to surfers, beachgoers, residents of Half Moon Bay and visitors who come for the pleasure boating, dining and hiking. The walk is a little over a mile, out and back.

What you’ll find

Exit the parking lot on the wheelchair-accessible dirt trail. Pillar Point Marsh is on your left with informational signs describing this sensitive habitat, which is fed by both salt and fresh water. Enjoy a sweeping view of Pillar Point Harbor, with its fishing piers and bobbing boats. Sandy cliffs on your right block access to the Pillar Point Air Force Tracking Station, which is closed to the public. The tranquil sandy beach with its serene water is popular with toddlers as well as dogs – signs directing that they be on leash are “honored more in the breach than the observance.” There are also lots of shorebirds: sandpipers, plovers, willets and loons.

Just past a grove of cypress trees, you will see a labyrinth created from stones and sand. The spot is ideal for meditation – walking the maze or sitting on one of the two benches facing the harbor with the Santa Cruz Mountains off in the distance.

When you come to a jetty that serves as a breakwater enclosing the harbor, visit the modest stone memorial to the famous Hawaiian big-wave surfer Mark Foo, who died surfing Mavericks on Dec. 23, 1994, at the age of 36. Don’t walk on the jetty, as an errant wave can sweep you off. Instead, continue on the beach, enjoying the foghorn sounds and seaweed smells. You may see sea lions bobbing in the water. The surf contest is held just beyond a dramatic rock chain, with the largest of the rocks, Sail Rock, about 60 feet wide and 30 feet across. When the dramatic cliffs stop your progress, turn around and return to the parking lot.

After the walk

Return to Capistrano Road to enjoy a stroll around Pillar Point Harbor. A fishing pier is at the west end of the harbor; no fishing license is required. A little farther east, walk down bustling Johnson Pier to buy fresh live crabs right off the boat. Capistrano is filled with restaurants and cafes. Crowded restaurants flanking Johnson Pier offer fish and chips and clam chowder. For a cold beer, try the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. (390 Capistrano Road; For tasty fish tacos in a less touristy atmosphere, try the Cafe Capistrano (460 Capistrano Road).

Getting there

By car from San Francisco, take Interstate 280 south, merging onto Highway 1 south (signs for Pacifica) toward Half Moon Bay. Just north of Half Moon Bay, turn right at the second Capistrano Road sign (the one with a traffic light). Pillar Point Harbor will be on your left. Turn left onto Prospect Way, an almost immediate left onto Broadway and then an immediate right onto Princeton Avenue. Turn right onto West Point Avenue. The parking lot is on your left after about 0.3 of a mile.

If you are already in Half Moon Bay, SamTrans route 17 stops at Prospect and Broadway, walking distance from the parking lot.

Photo: Don Debold via Flickr

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