Half Moon Bay is one of many gems along the Pacific Coast Highway and home to dozens of pristine beaches. Many of these beaches feature tide pools, but not all are worth visiting. In this guide, we want to show you 4 pools near Half Moon Bay that are filled to the brim with diverse plants and animals. All of these pools are less than 20 minutes away from downtown Half Moon Bay!
Best time to visit tide pools near Half Moon Bay
Timing is so crucial for the optimal tide pooling experience. You need to ensure that you are visiting the Half Moon Bay tide pools during low tide. Only in this narrow time window are the tide pools exposed and ready to be explored. Simply use this tide chart to determine when the next low tide will be and plan your road trip accordingly.
4 Best Tide Pools in Half Moon Bay
The tide pools in Northern California are exceptionally diverse, but not all of them are easy or legal to access. The following 4 tide pools are world-class and can be easily reached within a few minutes from the beach parking lots. Be prepared to encounter exotic animals that you usually only get to see in aquariums or preserved in museums!
1. Pillar Point
Pillar Point is a beautiful coastal area with stunning mountain views. It also features a few tide pools in two different locations. At low tide, the rocky outcrops are vast, and you can walk hundreds of feet in all directions. A real paradise for tide poolers. You will likely encounter plenty of sea urchins, starfish and groups of sea hares (especially during their mating season!). Here is an index of potential species that have been spotted in the tide pools at Pillar Point.
You may also spot seals and rare birds relaxing on the rocks. In total, over 650 species of animals have been found in these tide pools. Unfortunately, the pandemic causes too many people to visit these tide pools, and the biodiversity of the pools has reportedly suffered because of this. Hundreds of people have been observed tide pooling at the same time. And even post-pandemic, it can get insanely crowded, so we suggest venturing there when there is a low tide in the early morning. The beach is also incredibly family-friendly as there are no big waves, and it is protected from the wind.
- There are no restrooms at the beach, but there are portapotties at the parking lot.
- Dogs are allowed here
- Free Parking
- Restaurants nearby
It will only take around 10 minutes to get here from downtown Half Moon Bay. There are plenty of parking opportunities on both sides of the peninsula, but we recommend this parking lot:
From there, it is only a short walk to the tide pools. To the right, you will see the closed Air Force Tracking station, and to your right will be the access to the tide pools.
Other recommended activities
- Mountain biking
- Whale watching
- Getting lost in the stone labyrinth on the right flank of the beach
- Picnicking (plenty of picnic tables that overlook the bay)
- Watching Big Wave Surfers riding the legendary waves of Mavericks beach. (only during the big wave season in winter)
- Sampling craft beer in the Inn nearby.
2. J V Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
This reserve contains a massive beach called Moss Beach. It is home to hundreds of tide pools of all shapes and sizes and one of the hotspots to take in the biodiversity of the shores of the Bay Area.
Animals and plants you may find
- Purple shore crabs
- Ordinary brown crabs
- Hermit crabs
- Feather boa kelp
- Snails with colorful shells
- Small colorful fish
- Sea cucumbers
- Habit seals
- Mussel beds
- Sea sponges
- Red abalones (very rare!)
- Sea grass
- Kelp crabs
- Fossilized whale bones!
- Other fossils that are up to 5 million years old.
Beyond the tide pools:
- Harbor seals, typically offshore but sometimes also sunbathing next to the tide pools
- California gray whales
- Pelicans (during fall)
- Dogs are only allowed on one narrow trail, and this rule is strictly enforced
- If you plan on visiting with more than 10 people, you will have to make a reservation.
- The tide pool area is open between 8 am and 5 pm, so you can’t stay until sunset.
- The dead algae make the rocks very slippery, so hold your kid’s hands and wear anti-slip shoes.
- Very windy, dress in layers and have an attire that covers your ears (i.e., ear muffs, ear plugs, or a beanie)
- Come two hours before low tide to secure an official parking spot, so you don’t have to park on the road and risk getting fined.
- Plenty of restrooms available. No showers, though.
You can reach the reserve by car within 15 minutes from Half Moon Bay. If you’re visiting from San Francisco, it will take around 45 minutes or longer, depending on the traffic. Parking can be a challenge here. The official parking lot is free, but very small. It can only accommodate around 50 cars and is located here:
Many families that cannot get an official parking spot in time for low tide will park on the street. This is risky because the rangers have a habit of fining every car parked on the dirt road, even though the parked cars evidently do not impact the safety of the road. From the parking lot, it is a few hundred feet to reach the famous intertidal zone.
Other recommended activities
- Strolling through the ancient forest featuring stunning Monterea cypress trees and eucalyptus trees
- Trail running and hiking
- Surfing (beginner level, too boring for seasoned surfers)
3. Pescadero State Beach
This is another lovely white sand beach near Half Moon Bay that’s popular for its tide pools. It is never too crowded and is mostly frequented by locals, who enjoy taking long walks while listening to podcasts, meditating, or reading a book here during sunset. Even the drive to this beach through the redwoods is an attraction in itself. The beach is clean, has good facilities, and has a conveniently located parking lot.
The tide pools are home to plenty of bottom-dwelling invertebrates. When we inspected them closer, we found the ecosystem in the pools to be very stable, featuring a healthy variety of critters and plants. You should take your time and try to spot the following:
- Starfish in various colors, including ochre sea stars feeding on mussels
- Turkish washcloth
- Sea Urchins
- Various anemones (Giant green anemone, cloning anemone, and sunburst anemones)
- Dungeness crabs
- Rough limpets
- Striped shore crabs
- Blue band hermit crabs
- Uniquely colored rocks
- Chitons (flat mollusks)
- Black tegula snails
- Gooseneck barnacles
- Little brown barnacles
Beware that sometimes the tide pools will be occupied by harbor or elephant seals. The harbor seals usually only relax on a small section to the right of the tide pool area, but the mighty elephant seals are a different story! The elephant seal season starts in December and ends in March.
Various rare bird species frequent the beach and the tide pools for lunch!
- There are 4 picnic tables next to the parking lot.
- The toilet is a bit filthy
- Trash cans are available every few hundred yards
- Dogs are not allowed, since they would greatly disturb the seal population of the birds in the adjacent Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve
- Drones, bonfires, camping, and fireworks are also forbidden.
- This is the official site for Pescadero State Beach
The drive from Half Moon Bay to Pescadero State Beach takes around 20 minutes but can be scary at night due to careless cyclists and winding roads. The official parking lot costs $8 per vehicle, but bear in mind that you can use the same ticket on the same day for other beaches in San Mateo County. Alternatively, you can park at one of the free parking lots along the Pacific Coast Highway. We recommend this free one:
From there, you can walk down the carved out path towards the dunes. The path itself can be slightly overgrown with succulents but is easy to navigate and only a few hundred yards long. After visiting this beach, you may want to drive into the Pescadero to refuel your car and have a snack, and then continue to Butano State Park – an underrated, stunning park with redwood trees!
Other recommended activities
- Exploring the trails and photographing the beautiful wildflowers and succulents on top of the dunes
- Visiting the redwoods nearby
- Long beach walks
- Watching the sunset
4. Redondo Beach
There is another Redondo Beach near L.A., so don’t mix them up! This one in Half Moon Bay is vast, sandy, and dotted with eroded rocks. The beach is relatively low-key and, even on weekends, never gets crowded. People with mobility issues may have difficulty climbing down to the beach from the parking lot. The beach is well-maintained, and while it lacks facilities, it is exceptionally clean. It is also the starting point of numerous trails and has a large tide pool reef.
Dogs are also allowed off-leash, and we enjoyed letting him roam freely. Since the cliffs block the access to the parking lot, we didn’t have to worry about him running towards the road. Please refrain from taking them to the tide pool area. Tide pools are fragile ecosystems, and the ones at Redondo Beach are home to peaceful large crabs, colorful sea anemones, nightmarish-looking sea hares, and various species of mussels that would be easily disturbed by curious pooches.
- Also known as Wavecrest Beach
- No sanitary facilities
- No lifeguards
- Dogs and horses are allowed
- Can get chilly, so dress in layers
- You absolutely need sturdy footwear for the following reasons:
- The tide pools are slippery due to brown algae
- The sand has many small, sharp shell fragments that will peel your foot. (some beach goers enjoy this. We didn’t!)
- The climb down from the parking lot will be impossible in flip-flops!
Redondo Beach is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Half Moon Bay. It is just south of town, and there are two ways to access it. Either from the South parking at Redondo Beach Road or from the North starting from the Poplar Beach Parking Lot.
The first option is quicker but requires you to stumble down the dunes. You will park here:4
The latter involves parking at the following spot and then walking around a mile along the coast to reach Redondo Beach.
If you have mobility issues or want to bring bulky objects, like umbrellas, beach chairs, or coolers, pick the second option!
Other recommended activities
- Horseback riding
- Kite flying
- Mountain biking on the old roads