Half Moon Bay is home to many beaches, but for people who are fascinated by fossils, geology, marine mammals, and birds, Cowell Ranch Beach is an ideal stop. This California State Park rests at the end of the Cowell Ranch access trail, a half-mile trek from the parking lot past active grazing land for cattle. During my walk, the air filled with twirling flocks of red-winged blackbirds and the sounds of crashing waves. Then, a staircase led down to the beach.
The Draw: It’s not too busy and there are tidepools, birds, seals, and fossils in the cliff.
Trails: Follow the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail from the parking lot. When you get to the stairs, descend toward the beach; in total, it’s a half-mile from the parking lot. The Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail stretches about 3.6 miles to the south. The beach itself is only about 0.2 miles long.
Access & Facilities: ADA parking spots and bathrooms at the parking lot. No dogs.
Transit: Search “Cowell Ranch Beach Access Parking” to find the parking off Highway 1.
The sand is soft and the beach is wide and not too populated. At low tide—the highs and lows are most significant in winter—look for creatures in the tidepools and on the rocks. Brown pelicans and seals are in abundance.
Any geology enthusiast will notice the colorful layers of rocks that surround the beach. Someone particularly adept at finding invertebrate fossils, like mollusks, will notice that some of the walls are full of them.
Looking for fossils at Cowell reminded me of Mary Anning, the brilliant paleontologist on the “Jurassic Coast” of England who in the early 1800s discovered the first ichthyosaur and plesiosaur, aquatic reptiles that lived at the time of the dinosaurs. Anning made those discoveries along an eroding coast, exposing history.
Here at Cowell Ranch Beach you have easy access to an outcrop of the Purisima rock formation, and parts of the rock break off at a soft touch. But rock collecting is forbidden and can be dangerous: a mudslide in fragile fossil walls that nearly killed Anning took the life of her dog.
Something else to watch out for are rogue waves. Last winter a 12-year-old boy drowned at this beach, so it’s important to be extra careful. The boy’s parents have had life rings installed to protect future beachgoers.