Half Moon Bay is one of many destinations along the Pacific Coast Highway that offers eager tide-poolers a chance to explore the underwater world of crabs, urchins and even octopuses at low tide. We’ve picked out 5 of the cleanest, most critter-packed tide pool beaches in the area, all within 20 minutes of Half Moon Bay. When you’re done reading through, be sure to check out our selection of the best tide pools in Santa Cruz and Bodega Bay.
Before we begin exploring Half Moon Bay, though, let’s have a look at what a tide pool is for those new to the term.
What Is A Tide Pool?
Tidepools are naturally formed dips or gaps in rock, or spaces between them, that hold seawater when the tide goes out twice-a-day at low tide. Tide pools are divided into habitat zones. Sea life which can exist out of the water for long periods, such as barnacles, snails and crabs, tend to be found in the spray zone, which is higher up the beach. Other animals prefer to be covered by water constantly, such as sea urchins and fish, and you’ll find these in the low tide zone further out to sea. This is where you should start exploring, as low tide only lasts an hour, and when those waves start rolling back in, the low tide zone is a dangerous place to be!
When Is The Best Time To Explore Tide Pools In Half Moon Bay?
Tide pools only appear when the tide goes out twice a day (morning and afternoon). At other times, they are fully submerged. The best low tides are the “negative” ones, when the tide pulls out furthest from the land. These happen in the early morning in spring, and in the afternoon in late fall and winter. Check low tide times with local marine businesses, or look online before you head out.
TIP: Try to get to your chosen Half Moon Bay beach an hour before low tide starts, to get through the rigamarole of parking and getting down to the beach (which, in the case of Half Moon Bay, often involves steep climbs down). It will also give you a headstart on the waves and more time to explore. Remember – once the tide goes out, you’ll only have an hour before it starts creeping back in. Always keep your eyes on the waves and the time so you don’t get stuck or dragged out to sea!
What Can I See In the Half Moon Bay Tide Pools?
Get ready to see, in real life, in their own habitats, the kinds of wonderful creatures you’d normally only see on TV or in a man-made aquarium. The critters in those magical microcosms known as tide pools have a hard time of it, being bashed back and forth by waves twice a day, sometimes enjoying the cool, dark depths, other times stuck in a salty, evaporating shallow bowl slowly warming in the sun. And yet they do survive, giving us a very special opportunity to observe them and marvel at their strange, other-worldly forms and bright colors.
California’s tide pools come filled with shelled sea creatures like chiton and tightly-packed communities of mussels, rock-loving barnacles and limpets, shy hermit crabs and periwinkle snails, spiky sea urchins, soft sea anemones, sea cucumbers, sea sponges, red trumpet tubeworms, and masses of bright orange and pink sea stars. On a lucky day of exploring, you might find octopuses and nudibranchs too!
Tide Pooling Safety Tips
Tide pools attract thousands of visitors every year, and that can result in damage to these precious areas. All it takes is a careless step to crush or trample an innocent sea creature, or to get hurt yourself! If you remove the animals from their homes, or move the rocks they shelter under, they will be exposed to both predators and the hot sun. We must treat tidepools with care and respect so that others can enjoy them too, so before we share Half Moon Bay’s top tide pool beaches with you, check out our useful safety tips:
- Enjoy watching the tide pool critters, but don’t touch – Some of them are delicate, and others might pinch or stab you. Just enjoy seeing how they live without getting your hands in the way. And no, they don’t need to be rescued or moved to the sea – nature has them right where they are supposed to be!
- Keep an eye on the tide – waves can sneak in on you, and fast. Many careless tide poolers have lost their lives to the power of the Pacific before!
- Avoid flip flops. Instead opt for tennis shoes, surfer boots, or sports shoes with a good grip so you don’t slip or cut your feet on the rocks.
- Dress for the weather. Pacific beaches are notoriously cold and windy – and you will get wet!
There are numerous tide pools along the rocky Half Moon Bay coastside, promising not only a plethora of opportunities to explore and discover hundreds of sea creatures, but also some beautiful views of the Pacific, and areas of sandy beach to rest and picnic on. Note that most California tide pools are protected, so, like anywhere in the wild, you should take only pictures and leave only gentle footprints. Let’s look at where you can best do that – here are our best 5 Half Moon Bay tide pool beaches.
1. Redondo Beach
10-minutes south of Half Moon Bay, Redondo Beach, also known as Wavecrest Beach is a big, quiet, clean, sandy beach dotted with rocks, and at low tide boasting a large tide pool reef to explore.
- Kite flying (yes, it is windy here!)
- Hiking and biking on the old roads nearby
- Walking along to the Ritz-Carlton and taking the perfect photo
Good To Know
The best way to access Redondo Beach is from the parking lot at Poplar State Beach, from which you then walk south for a mile along the beach until you reach the tide pools. The alternative is a very steep climb down the dunes from the parking lot closer to the tide pool, which requires sturdy footgear (not flip flops!) – though you’ll need those anyway for the tide pooling!
There are no bathrooms.
There are no lifeguards on patrol here, so take extra care while exploring.
Dogs and horses are allowed.
2. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
This is our favorite of the Half Moon Bay tide pool destinations – head to Moss Beach where you’ll find hundreds of tide pools, of all shapes and sizes, packed with the sealife listed above, and more! Added to that is the thrill you’ll get if you spot a whale bone – or even better, a live gray whale on the horizon on its migration route. You can consider yourself even luckier if you see seals sunbathing beside the tide pools.
And don’t forget to look up – in the summer and fall, brown pelicans like to fish on the waves here.
- A walk through a century-old forest of Monterey cypress and eucalyptus trees
- Running and hiking the trails
- A visit to the Moss Beach Distillery
Good To Know
Make a reservation if you’re going to visit with more than 10 people.
Park officially – road-side parkers will be fined! Note, though, that the parking area is small (50 cars), so we advise you to get there a few hours before low tide to have a chance at grabbing a space.
There are restrooms near the parking lot.
Open between 8am and 5pm.
The rocks are slippery – wear shoes with good grip!
Dogs are allowed on one trail only.
3. Pillar Point
10 minutes from downtown Half Moon Bay, the popular and family-friendly Pillar Point has two different tide pool areas, offering not only great chances for some fun sea life discovery over hundreds of feet of rock, but also great views of the harbor, bay and Pacific Ocean.
Over 650 species of animals have been documented in the Pillar Point tide pools, particularly urchins and sea stars, while sea hares are known to gather here in “daisy chains” in spring and summer during mating season.
And we always say – don’t forget to look up! Not only to keep an eye on the waves that might sneak in (time flies when you’re having tide pool fun!), but also because there is plenty of other marine life outside the pools to enjoy, among them seals sunbathing, whales passing on the horizon, and birds resting from their fishing on the rocks.
- A calming walk through the stone-and-sand labyrinth near the beach
- Picnicking as you overlook the bay
- Sampling craft beer in the nearby Inn
Good To Know
There are porta-potties in the parking lot.
There are plenty of picnic tables and also restaurants nearby.
Dogs are allowed.
4. Cowell Ranch Beach
Just a mile south of Half Moon Bay, this two-part, tranquil beach offers a rare glimpse into marine life, with a dedicated and inaccessible Seal Beach, where harbor seals go to rest and give birth, and a second (northern) quarter-mile beach for low tide pool exploration. It’s a steep walk down from the overlook trail, and a worse climb up, but you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the beach time and tide pooling! Note – it is only open on weekends and holidays!
Keep your eyes peeled for blue herons, and, for your safety, sneaker waves – sadly, a number of people have lost their lives here in the past due to the ocean catching them off-guard.
- Hiking or biking the 3.6-mile bluff-top Cowell-Purisima Trail with its interpretive panels (which, out of interest, crosses the site of the former rail bed of the Ocean Shore Railroad)
- Checking out Seal Rock below the southern overlook (inaccessible, but bring your binoculars and you might see some newborn seal pups!)
- The view over the farm fields to the mountains
Good To Know
Free (but limited) parking half a mile from the beach.
Porta-potties are available in the parking area at the top of the stairs to the beach.
Open 8am to sunset.
Dogs and horses are not allowed.
5. Pescadero State Beach
20 minutes south of Half Moon Bay, at the end of a road lined with redwoods, on Highway 1, Pescadero State Beach is a mile-long, white sand beach popular with locals for walking, meditating and watching the sunset. It rarely gets crowded, and makes a great place for tide pooling – with pools of salty water teeming with anemones, urchins, crabs and other shellfish.
“This beach has so much beauty and character. Paths, rocks, seashells, tide pools, crabs, harbor seals, and more. Pescadero State Beach is a great little place to visit another world.”– JDZatSF/Tripadvisor
Watch for feeding marine birds and the harbor and elephant seals (December – March) who also like relaxing on this beach. Great to watch, but don’t go close! And beware of grumpy seagulls when you lay out your picnic!
- Butano State Park’s redwoods
- The wildflowers and succulents on top of the dunes
- Watching the sunset
Good To Know
Parking costs around $8 per vehicle in the official parking lots, or you can park along the Pacific Coast Highway and walk down and through the dunes to the beach.
A bathroom is available near the parking lot, as are picnic tables.
No fires allowed on the beach.
The weather can change quickly here, and fog is common, so come prepared for cold, wind and wet – and always watch out for rogue waves that can sweep you away.
Dogs are not allowed in order to protect the wildlife in the nearby Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve.
Tide Pool Rules
- Don’t touch the marine life! Picking up the tide pool critters or putting them in buckets even for a few minutes can hurt them or cause the kind of stress that can kill them. They may also be affected by bacteria or chemicals (from sunscreen, for example) on your skin.
- Never tug on animals that are stuck to the rocks, or try to open closed shells.
- Don’t move rocks, as this may disturb, hurt, or expose the creatures trying to hide underneath.
- Tread carefully as you move around the tide pools, trying not to step on the plants or sea creatures living there.
- Take a trash bag with you to pick up any litter you find – and always pack out what you pack in!
New Moon Bay has some wonderful sea life to discover on its rocky, tide pool beaches. Wrap up warm, be prepared to get wet, and take along some binoculars for the perfect morning or afternoon exploring that other world.
While we at Traxplorio do our very best to give you the most up-to-date information, we always recommend you do your own research before you travel to a particular area, and check conditions with official sites. Thanks for understanding, and enjoy your adventure!