There are so many stops along the Pacific Coast Highway worth seeing, and many of those are located along the stretch between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.
This is the perfect day trip for anyone traveling from the San Francisco Bay Area who wants to see it all without staying overnight.
I’ve been curating a short list of things I wanted to see in both Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, but I couldn’t find the perfect blog that looped both of these places together as a day trip.
Visiting both in one day is absolutely possible if your plan is to see the highlights of all locations and not linger too long in one spot. I know I wanted to see a little bit of everything, so if you’re tight on time, then this guide is for you.
From Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz is about an hour South (without traffic), but there are plenty of stops along the way that break up the drive.
When To Go
There’s really no bad time for a drive down the coast. For optimal weather, Spring and late Fall are great. Summers can be foggy, but warmer and sometimes more enjoyable for a beach day.
September would be a perfect choice, but this is often the height of fire season which can affect many of the coastal towns in California.
For those of you traveling from San Francisco - play it by ear! It’s a short drive so check the weather for a nice day. Zach and I went in early November and in December and loved both months, but we're looking forward to going in the Spring and seeing healthier greenery and wildflowers.
Another thing to note: if you go in the summer you’ll have a lot more daylight to explore!
The handful of times Zach and I have driven to Half Moon Bay or Santa Cruz have always been on a weekend, but we’ve been lucky and only ran into heavy traffic once.
Once you get closer to Half Moon Bay, you’ll notice there aren’t many ways in so those small little streets can get very congested.
Try to visit on a weekday
Avoid Holiday weekends
Start your day early - we’ve seen the most traffic around lunchtime
*October weekends can also have slowdowns due to Half Moon Bay having so many great places to get pumpkins! Just be prepared and check Google Maps the morning you plan on going.
Here's the deal. You can either start your day in Half Moon Bay and drive down the coast for the sunset in Santa Cruz, or you can begin in Santa Cruz and end in Half Moon Bay.
There is no right option, it really just depends on your preference and the sights you prioritize. For example, the first time I visited, I knew I wanted to see the sunset at Shark Fin Cove (close to Santa Cruz), so I started my day in Half Moon Bay.
If you want to check out the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Capitola, I’d start in Santa Cruz and drive up the coast, ending at Half Moon Bay.
I recommend this for warmer months so you can spend more time on the beaches and Boardwalk near Santa Cruz during the day.
If you want to start your day with a nice coastal walk and lobster rolls, then end with a sunset at Shark Fin Cove, then begin in Half Moon Bay and drive down the coast.
This is the route I took during my first visit. I’m happy I did because I caught a great sunset, but I don’t know that I fully maximized my route. Shark Fin Cove is before Santa Cruz on the map, so since I wanted to see the sunset there, I didn’t get to see enough of Santa Cruz.
I’ve seen daylight and sunsets in both places, and I really loved them both. You can’t go wrong!
If you want to maximize the sights you see and your driving time, I might have to choose starting in Santa Cruz and ending with an amazing sunset in Half Moon Bay.
Bonus: the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay has fire pits for making s’mores! Perfect for some evening fun.
Things to Do & See
Here are the top things to see and do during your day trip, in order! This order begins with Half Moon Bay, but if you decide to start in Santa Cruz, you’ll just begin from the bottom of the list.
Lunch at Sam’s Chowder House or the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Swanton Berry Farm
Shark Fin Cove
Natural Bridges State Park (optional w/ Shark Fin Cove)
Santa Cruz Boardwalk
That’s quite the list for a day trip! Don’t worry - you don’t need to get to every spot. You’ll see beautiful views along the drive so I fully encourage you to stop wherever and whenever you’d like.
Lunch at Sam’s Chowder House
Start your day with some incredible lobster rolls! Are they as good as the ones in Maine? Well, no. But they’re still worth the splurge and this place is a classic along the coast in Half Moon Bay.
They open at 11:30, so plan on getting here slightly before then because it gets crowded on the weekends. Since the wait for a table was around 45 minutes, Zach and I opted to order from their to-go window.
If you’re not into lobster rolls, head right to the next stop, the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail. This walks you through the Ritz where you can enjoy lunch and views on their outdoor patio!
Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail
This is an easy, paved trail that follows the coast through the Ritz Carlton grounds and golf course. I wouldn’t call it a trail, more of a nice walk.
Park at the end of Redondo Beach Road, then start walking to your left to reach the path! There is plenty of parking in the lot and along the side of the road.
It’s only a couple of miles round trip and the views are similar to ones you’d expect to see in Ireland. Seriously - the cliffs are amazing!
You can also spend more time along this path and have a drink (with great views!) at the Ritz outside patio.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
After exploring Half Moon Bay and making any stops you’d like, drive down the coast (or up, depending on your route) and make a stop at Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
This stop should only take you 10-15 minutes as there isn’t too much to explore, but I thought it was cool to see the lighthouse.
Swanton Berry Farm
This is something I had on my list that we drove right by but didn’t end up stopping, but I wish we did.
This little farm right along the highway is known for having the best pies. Stop in and get one for later! They are also known for having U-Pick strawberries, but check their website before going - I know last season they did not offer U-Pick due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Check out their website here.
Shark Fin Cove
Shark Fin Cove is without a doubt my favorite stop along this route. In case you didn’t know, this spot got its name from the rock formation in the water that looks like a shark fin!
Zach and I have been here for the sunset but we’ve also spent half a day here just laying in the sun. It’s such a beautiful, unique spot.
There is parking along the side of the road and we've never had an issue finding a spot. It's a little rocky and uneven, but fine for most cars.
Once you park and walk towards the entrance, you'll notice some old train tracks that are fun to walk along. You can head towards the coast once you see the Shark Fin if you want views from above, but I also recommend trekking down onto the beach for up close views.
The path to reach the beach isn't super obvious, but you'll notice it once you get closer to the views in the middle of the cove.
The path is very steep and sandy/rocky. Not super strenuous, just a little slippery. Zach had no problem in flip flops, but we went slowly. Getting back up was actually easier!
After you visit Shark Fin, you'll see why we spent so much time here!
Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, & Capitola
Since we were at Shark Fin Cove for a while, we didn’t have time to stop at my last 3 spots - another reason why it might be best to begin with Santa Cruz rather than Half Moon Bay.
Natural Bridges State Park is similar to Shark Fin in the sense that it has a rock formation in the water that looks like a bridge. This is definitely one of the top things to see near Santa Cruz!
The Santa Cruz Boardwalk was closed for the season when we visited, but it’s on my list to go back.
Make a stop in Downtown Santa Cruz for some shopping and dinner. After the sunset at Shark Fin Cove, we got pizza at Pizza My Heart and it was pretty decent for west coast pizza! (We’re born and raised east coasters, so our standards are high).
Finally, add Capitola to your list. It’s a little past Santa Cruz, but the pretty colorful houses on the beach make it worth a visit.