Along scenic Highway 1 south of Half Moon Bay and north of Santa Cruz, you’ll find a large, unruly group of locals. Since the 1950s, Año Nuevo State Park has served as a winter haul-in site for thousands of northern elephant seals, one of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world. From December through the end of March, you can sign up for guided walks in the reserve—the only way to visit the seal-swamped dunes and beaches—to observe three-ton male bull seals ferociously battling to defend their harems of pregnant females and to spot baby seals weaning before their mothers head back to sea.
Elephant seal breeding season is also an opportunity to explore the tiny but vibrant town of Pescadero, just two miles inland. Despite its humble size, the historic farming town’s population of about 650 keep the main street stretch bustling with a surprising number of shops and cafes to enjoy between exploring the shoreline and coastal forests.
Jumpstart your morning at Downtown Local, a boutique and cafe with a dozen-seat cinema tucked in the back corner. Fill up on Sightglass coffee and locally made shortbread, cookies and savory jalapeño and cheddar scones as you watch downtown rise and shine. Down the lane is Harley Farms, a family-owned, working goat dairy. On one of the farm’s popular two-hour tours, you can learn about artisanal cheesemaking and meet the happy herd. Hang out in the pasture long enough, and you’ll even encounter a few friendly llamas. The tour ends with a sampling of the farm’s famously soft chevre with additions such as garden-grown lavender and edible flowers.
Año Nuevo State Park is famous for the elephant seal breeding colonies, though depending on the season, the hulking seals are just one type of marine mammal—others include sea otters and California sea lions—that come ashore to molt, mate and give birth on the windswept shore. Elephant seal hikes depart daily. Reservations are recommended for this sought-after excursion.
If the seal hike seems too strenuous, enjoy a peaceful stroll through Butano State Park, an unspoiled, silent, nearly five-acre coastal redwood forest retreat. Watch where you step! Extra-long banana slugs slowly crisscross the forest floor between redwood burls and ferns. Up in the canopy, you might hear the short chirp of the marbled murrelet, an endangered Pacific seabird that nests in old-growth coastal forests including the Butano redwood groves.
Refuel with savory fish tacos from Taqueria y Mercado de Amigos, a cash-only Mexican joint in an unlikely location: the town’s only gas station. Or for something sweeter, stop by the Pie Ranch farm stand, which sells walnut pies, winter squash and citrus fruits. Take your goodies to Bean Hollow State Beach and observe intertidal ocean life when the tide is low. Step carefully on the slippery rocks as you search for intertidal inhabitants such as black turban snails, rough limpets and colonies of aggregating anemone.
Browse Slowcoast for upcycled flannel shirts, hand-poured candles and inspiring, informative books about the sea. Made in Pescadero showcases beautiful, functional furniture by local craftspeople. LunaSea Gallery sells an eclectic mix of artisan wares including ceramic tableware and stepping stones, mixed media artwork and wine barrel Adirondack chairs.
Grab a drink at Sante Arcangeli Family Wines. The tasting room for the local vineyard and winemaker features Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made from grapes grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. For dinner, go to Duarte’s, owned by the fourth generation Duarte family. The cozy tavern has been a Pescadero institution since 1894, serving Portuguese-inspired comfort food.