This summer, rather than braving the crowds at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, consider visiting the secluded, little-known refuge of Cowell Ranch State Beach. A few miles south of Half Moon Bay, this strip of shore features some of the area's best tidepools for exploring. A vast expanse of rocky habitat is uncovered at low tide, leaving sea anemones, starfish, crabs, limpets, and other marine wildlife exposed for the curious to discover. Be sure to check the tide schedule and bring appropriate shoes, as the rocks can be quite sharp and slippery. Also, be careful if you go swimming off the sandy, southern part of the beach: The bottom drops off sharply beyond the surf line, producing a powerful undertow.
Stroll along the path between two artichoke fields and descend via a series of railroad tie stairs to the beach. Before heading down to the water, take the time to walk southward along the bluffs. From there, you'll see another beach that is protected as a seal refuge. During the mating season in spring, you can watch harbor seals resting in the sun and diving in and out of the water. Even after you head down to the beach, keep your eyes open for groups of seals playing in the waves offshore.
Getting there: From I-280, take Highway 92 west toward Half Moon Bay. Turn left onto Highway 1 and head south for about 3 miles. Turn right at the Cowell Ranch Beach sign. Sam-Trans 17 also stops at this trailhead.
Hike by Linnea Williams, originally published in the July 2009 issue of Bay Nature magazine