San Francisco Coastal Drive - Pictures & Map (stunning!)
Gorgeous views into the ocean - a 30-minute drive from San Francisco!
One of the nicest things about living in San Francisco is the gorgeous natural beauty around it. No matter which direction you head, you're bound to find plenty of visual richness to take in. Heading North, you can enjoy the Marin Headlands, Mount Tamalpais (Mt Tam), and the lush greenery of Marin County. To the East, you have the Oakland Hills, including Mount Diablo. To the West, well, you have the expansive Pacific Ocean, with the Farallon Islands a few hours away by boat.
But to the South, you can hug the coast along Highway 1 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway), a picturesque road that goes all the way down to Southern California. Just south of Pacifica and before you reach Half Moon Bay, there are some truly mesmerizingly beautiful spots where you can relax, take in the natural beauty, and be relatively unbothered by noise, crowds, and other drawbacks of city life.
A quiet, but expansive, white sand beach hugged on both sides by towering bluffs. Beautiful wooden steps lead you down from the road.
Sheer cliffs from this point going southward. The last one, right before you reach Gray Whale Cove, has a WW2 military bunker & unbelievable views
Without a doubt, the Devil's Slide range of cliffs has some of the most dramatically beautiful ocean views so close to San Francisco. Check out the pictures to the right if you don't believe me.
I strongly suggest visiting on a day with decent weather, heading down Highway 1 from Pacifica. It is a short, 5-minute drive south from the "center" of Pacifica (where Linda Mar Boulevard and Highway 1 meet). You will pass the Tom Lantos Tunnels (still currently under construction) twice: once on the Bay side, and again on the ocean side. The very next turnoff on your righthand side is where you're going to want to stop. You'll recognize the place because you'll see a lone bunker perched at the end of the cliff.
Park your car, and walk up the sandy paths to the bunker. Be very careful! This area is not well-protected, so don't take any risks! There is plenty to see and enjoy without jeopardizing your safety.
Military bunker: The bunker is a bit of history, even in its current dilapidated condition. Apparently, in 1940, the US War Department purchased close to 10 acres along the Devil's Slide area, to build base end stations overlooking the ocean in the pre-radar era, which were completed in 1943. Military personnel stationed in this bunker and 2 others along the coast would use binoculars or a telescope, and a compass to relay information about incoming ships to a central command center. There, triangulating with the measurements from the 3 bunkers, a precise position and trajectory of the ship could be calculated. Naturally, modern technology eventually obviated the need for outposts like these, and this type of setup, in use in the US since the 1890s, was discontinued in 1946.
Beautiful flora: If you're here during the summer in particular, you'll notice incredibly vivid colors all around you. The area is blessed with a multitude of brightly-hued plants, including (see picture to the right):
- the intensely bluish-purple Douglas iris
- and the glistening Bluff Lettuce, with bright yellow flowers, and bright red, almost prehistoric-looking, stem (this is my personal favorite, hence, the closeup!)
- the lavender-colored Farewell-to-Spring
- the white, ball-shaped flower clusters of the Coastal Angelica
If you're a total botany buff and would like to identify loads more, check out this site which catalogs most of the wild plants you'll see in the area.
Photo opportunities: Because of the tremendous light and natural contrasts of this terrain, you can take some pretty awesome pictures. I took all these photos with my camera phone! Granted, the phone I have has a pretty nice 8MP camera, but the pictures demonstrate you won't have to lug around an expensive DSLR to take memorable photos.
There are a couple of stretches that go to the edge of the cliff, right down below the bunker. You can (carefully!) walk...or crawl...to the end of one of them, and have someone else take pictures from the other, or from the base, that are almost melodramatic. See the pictures to the right to see what I'm talking about!
Gray Whale Cove State Beach
Just about a half-mile down the road from the Devil's Slide bunker is the Gray Whale Cove State Beach. There will be a parking lot to your left. Park, and carefully cross the road to the other side to make your way down the paved path until you reach the top of the wooden staircase.
The wooden staircase will slowly take you down the ravine into the beach, where clean, white sand awaits you.
The setting for the beach is almost as nice as the beach itself. It's nestled between the Devil's Slide to the north, and other promontories to the south as you make your way towards Montara. Behind is the vast McNee Ranch State Park, which is one giant agglomeration of green. Tucked in from the noise above and with any sense of civilization completely out of view, you can feel like you and other beach visitors are on "the Island" from Lost.
On a bluff right above the beach, there's a picnic area that's well-shielded from the surf, even during high tide, so feel free to bring a blanket and a basket full of food if you want to have a pleasant, seaside picnic.
While you can bring towels, blankets, and picnic food, there wasn't anywhere to dispose of garbage except at the top of the staircase, so you should plan on bringing your litter back up with you. It's also supposedly a dog-free park (although we did see people bring their dogs), and fires are forbidden (rules).
What is it called "Gray Whale Cove"? Apparently you can occasionally see gray whales from the shore here. We were not that lucky, but apparently the season to see them is:
- mid-January (southern migration, from Alaska to Baja California)
- mid-March (northern migration, from Baja California back to Alaska)
- late-April/early-May (to see mothers and their calves)
I personally find the water too cold to take a swim in, but it can be nice to walk along the water's edge barefoot. There are all sorts of interesting-looking seaweed, including the odd "sea sacs" (or sea nipples, Halosaccion glandiforme) which look like elongated green orbs filled with water & air in varying proportions.