Best Things to Do in Pescadero, California

Pescadero is a tiny dot on the coastline, south of Half Moon Bay and well north of Santa Cruz, with one main street, one side street, and several smallish farms. Despite its tiny size, many Bay Area denizens visit Pescadero for the twisty roads that challenge motorcyclists and bicyclists, fresh produce, and the legendary Duarte’s Tavern.

Pescadero State Beach
Pescadero State Beach. Photo © Matt Tilghman/123rf.

What to See in Pescadero

Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero State Beach (Hwy. 1, north of Pescadero Rd., 650/879-2170, 8am-sunset daily) is the closest beach to the town of Pescadero. It’s a great spot to walk in the sand and stare out at the Pacific, but near-constant winds make it less than ideal for picnics or sunbathing. It does have some facilities, including public restrooms.

Bird lovers flock to Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve (Hwy. 1), located on Highway 1 right across the highway from Pescadero State Beach. This protected wetland, part of Pescadero State Beach, is home to a variety of avian species, including great blue herons, snowy egrets, and northern harriers. For the best birding, visit the marsh early in the morning or in late fall or early spring, when migration is in full swing.

San Gregorio State Beach

North of Pescadero, at the intersection of Highway 84 and Highway 1, San Gregorio State Beach (650/726-8819, 8am-sunset daily, $10) stretches farther than it seems. Once you’re walking toward the ocean, the small-seeming cove stretches out beyond the cliffs to create a beach perfect for contemplative strolling. San Gregorio is clothing optional at the far north end and a local favorite in the summer, despite the regular appearance of thick, chilly fog over the sand. Brave beachgoers can even swim and bodysurf here, though you’ll quickly get cold if you do so without a wetsuit. Picnic tables and restrooms cluster near the parking lot, but picnicking can be hampered by the wind.

Driftwood structures on San Gregorio State beach. Photo © Elizabeth Linhart Veneman
Driftwood structures on San Gregorio State beach. Photo © Elizabeth Linhart Veneman

San Gregorio General Store

San Gregorio is a tiny picturesque town of rolling rangeland, neat patches of colorful crops, and century-old homes, including a one-room schoolhouse and an old brothel. Its beating heart is the San Gregorio General Store (Hwy. 84 and Stage Rd., 650/726-0565, 10:30am-6pm Mon.-Thurs., 10:30am-7pm Fri., 10am-7pm Sat., 10am-6pm Sun.). Open since 1889, the store has an eclectic book section and a variety of cast-iron cookery, oil lamps, and raccoon traps.

In the back of the store are coolers stocked with beverages and deli sandwiches made in the back kitchen. The real centerpiece is the bar, serving beer, wine, and spirits to ranchers and farmers out for a coffee break or just getting off work. On weekends the store is packed with out-of-towners, and live music keeps things moving. The deep picture windows out front make for a comfy place to watch the afternoon pass by.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

South of Pescadero is Pigeon Point Lighthouse (210 Pigeon Point Rd., at Hwy. 1, 650/879-2120, 8am-sunset daily). First lit in 1872, Pigeon Point is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the United States. Sadly, the lighthouse is in a state of disrepair, and past earthquakes have made climbing to the top unsafe. Yet the monument stands, its hostel still shelters travelers, and visitors still marvel at the incomparable views from the point. In winter, look for migrating whales from the rocks beyond the tower.

Año Nuevo State Park is known for its elephant seal rookery.
Año Nuevo State Park is known for its elephant seal rookery. Photo © Mariusz Jurgielewicz/123rf.

Año Nuevo State Park

Año Nuevo State Park (Hwy. 1, south of Pescadero, 650/879-2025, reservations 800/444-4445, 8am-sunset daily, $10 per car) is world-famous as the winter home and breeding ground of once-endangered elephant seals. The reserve also has extensive dunes, marshland, and excellent bird habitat. The beaches and wilderness are open year-round.

The elephant seals start showing up in late November and stay to breed, birth pups, and loll on the beach until early March. Visitors are not allowed down to the elephant seal habitats on their own and must sign up for a guided walking tour. Once you see two giant males crashing into one another in a fight for dominance, you won’t want to get too close. Book your tour at least a day or two in advance since the seals are popular with both locals and travelers.

Where to Eat in Pescadero

Once you walk through the doors of Duarte’s Tavern (202 Stage Rd., Pescadero, 650/879-0464, 7am-8pm daily, $15-28), you’ll see why the restaurant has been honored with the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics award. The rambling building features sloping floors and dark wooden walls. Almost everybody in the Bay Area has been to Duarte’s for a bowl of artichoke soup or a slice of olallieberry pie, but it is really the atmosphere that is the biggest draw. Here, locals of all stripes—farmers, farmhands, ranchers, and park rangers—sit shoulder to shoulder with travelers from “over the hill,” sharing conversation and a bite to eat. The greatest assets are the outdated jukebox and excellent Bloody Marys, garnished with a pickled green bean.

The other Pescadero must-eat is inside the gas station across the street. Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos (1999 Pescadero Creek Rd., 650/879-0232, 9am-9pm daily, $7-12) has been written up by the New York Times and is rumored to be the best taqueria between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Not that you can detect any of that notoriety inside. Squeezed in next to coolers of beer and energy drinks, the open kitchen prepares excellent shrimp burritos, al pastor tacos, and not-too sweet horchata. You’ll find mainly locals here, most speaking Spanish, and the wait can be long. But the chips are free and salsa delicious. Cash only.

travel map of San Francisco and the Bay Area
San Francisco and the Bay Area

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