Half Moon Bay State Beach
A stretch of broad sandy beaches curving around the
scenic Half Moon Bay. The sands of the unit are
largely derived from local bluffs and sediment from
Pilarcitos and Frenchman’s creeks and other nearby
streams. The local State Park Ranger Station is
located at the southernmost beach, Francis Beach,
which offers overnight camping. A group campsite is
located at nearby Sweetwood Park. The other
beaches—Venice, Dunes, and Roosevelt—are day-use
Operating hours: Day-use area, 8:00-sunset.
Location/Directions: The beaches have separate
access points and parking.
• Francis Beach is at the west end of Kelly Avenue,
in the City of Half Moon Bay, 1. 5 miles from
• Venice Beach is at the west end of Venice Boulevard off Highway 1.
• Sweetwood is accessed by a dirt road off Highway 1 slightly north of the traffic light at
Ruisseau Francais Road.
• Dunes Beach is at the west end of Young Avenue off Highway 1.
• Roosevelt Beach parking also at the west end of Young Avenue, north of Dunes Beach.
A fee for day-use parking is charged. Self-registration fee envelopes are available when the
entrance stations are closed.
• Francis Beach has picnic tables and barbecue grills, flush toilets, an outside shower, and a
campground with 52 individual sites, some suitable for tent camping, others for trailers or
recreational vehicles. Campsites are reserved through Reserve America—1-800-444-7275,
or www. reserveamerica. com. Although hookups are not available, there is a dump station.
Coin-operated hot showers are also available.
A Visitor Center houses exhibits on local cultural and natural history, as well as a
There are designated handicapped parking spots, wheelchair access to the beach, and a beach
wheel chair available at the entrance station.
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• Venice Beach has outside showers, flush toilets, and a pay phone.
• Dunes Beach has flush toilets.
• Roosevelt Beach has chemical toilets.
• Sweetwood Group Camp can be used for tent camping only, by groups of up to 50 people.
It can be reserved by calling 1-800-444-7275. Facilities include tables, a fire ring, barbecues,
chemical toilets, and a large grassy area suitable for a variety of activities. There is parking
space for only 12 vehicles.
The Coastside Trail runs along the eastern boundary of the Half Moon Bay State Beach,
providing close to a three-mile stretch to walk, jog, or ride bikes
A horse trail parallels the Coastside Trail from Dunes Beach to Francis Beach. While in the
State Park, horses are restricted to the designated horse trail and are not permitted on State
Dogs are prohibited on the beaches at all times. Dogs are permitted in the campground, in the
day-use picnic areas, and on trails, including the Coastside Trail, provided they are controlled
with a leash of no more than six feet at all times.
The open areas of the sandy beach and dunes attract
numerous shorebirds, which feed on the abundant
invertebrates. The most notable bird found on the beach
is the western snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus),
which inhabits the beaches year round and nests on
Francis Beach between March and September.
The western snowy plover (see picture) is protected as a
threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species
Act. State Parks sponsors a volunteer program to help
study and protect the plovers. Their traditional nesting
areas in the Francis Beach dunes are protected with a
cable “symbolic fence” and “exclosures” are erected
each spring to protect individual nests.
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Several species of gulls can be seen on the beaches and offshore. Other shorebirds are migratory
visitors or winter residents, including whimbrels, sanderlings, black-bellied plovers, marbled
godwits, and willets, with sanderlings being the most common. Snowy plovers and sanderlings
roost in some of the same areas and are often mistaken for each other.
In the dunes along the beach, even reaching into the sandy areas sometimes swept by the high
tides, you will find the beach’s hardiest plants, including native plants such as yellow sand
verbena—sometimes called “beach pancakes” because of their round, flat leaves—beach
morning glory, silky beach pea, and the beach strawberry. Non-native dune plants include the
sea fig, or ice plant, and searocket. The State Beach’s Dune and Bluff Restoration Project is
replacing the non-native plants with native dune plants.
Most plants that live in this harsh environment are
low growing and have deep taproots and stout
stems to help hold them in place and survive being
buried and exposed by blowing sand. All these
plants help bind the sand and stabilize the beach.
Between the dune and the Coastside Trail is an
area of coastal scrub, where the Dune and Bluff
Restoration Project is working to return the land to
its natural state. Native plants that can be seen
there include the yellow bush lupine, lizard tail,
Hooker’s Evening Primrose (see picture), yarrow,
California poppy, coyote brush, and coast
Non-native plants that are being removed include
the wild radish, field mustard, Cape Ivy (formerly
known as German ivy), and New Zealand spinach.
The coastal scrub is the largest terrestrial animal
habitat at Half Moon Bay State Beach. There
are several resident species of mammals,
including the Botta pocket gopher, ground
squirrel, brush rabbit, black-tailed hare, striped
skunk, long-tailed weasel (see picture), and, in
more sandy areas, the broad-handed mole.
Numerous reptiles living in the scrub habitat
include the northwestern fence lizard, California
horned lizard, California alligator lizard,
California striped racer, western yellow-bellied
racer, coast mountain king snake, and coast
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Bird life in the coastal scrub is dominated by seed-eating species and occasional migrant species,
which may stop over on their journey north or south. Common species inhabiting this area are
the red-winged blackbird, American goldfinch, house finch, white-crowned sparrow, brown
towhee, and Anna’s hummingbird. Raptors are often seen in the area, including red-tailed
hawks, northern harriers, white-tailed kites, and kestrels.
In the summer, barn swallows (see picture) make their
nests under the eves of the park maintenance building
and ranger station at Francis Beach and hunt for insects
over the nearby fields and beach.
The riparian habitat along Pilarcitos Creek and
Frenchman’s Creek includes a different group of plants,
particularly willows, and supports a variety of animals.
The moist habitat attracts mammals such as the raccoon
and opossum. Reptiles that may be found in the riparian
areas include the western pond turtle, garter snakes, and
the Pacific ring-necked snake. The endangered San
Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtaslis tetritaenia)
may inhabit the Pilarcitos Creek area, since it is found in
the upper drainage of the creek. Amphibians likely to be
found here include the California slender salamander,
California toad, the Pacific tree frog, and the threatened
California red-legged frog.
Silver salmon and steelhead trout
(see picture) migrate up
Frenchman’s and Pilarcitos
Creeks to spawn, providing that
the sandbars that form at the
mouths of these streams are open
to fish passage.
Steelhead are considered to be an
indicator species for coastal
streams because they use the
whole watershed—the small
streams and pools where they
spawn, the main channels they
use to migrate, and the estuaries where they acclimatize to saltwater. A healthy steelhead run
usually means a healthy stream for other fish. Locally, steelhead are also found in Butano Creek,
Pescadero Creek, San Gregorio Creek, Pomponio Creek, Mills Creek, Whitehouse Creek,
Frenchman’s Creek, and maybe Little Butano Creek.
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The Native American inhabitants used the beaches for clam digging and fishing. Streams
furnished fresh water, and also added to the habitat where food could be gathered. At least two
prehistoric sites have been found near Frenchman’s Creek.
Francis Beach was named for Manuel Francis, whose
family in the 1870s lived near what is now the State
Beach. The level marine terraces of the San Mateo
coast were converted from a native coastal scrub plant
community to agricultural fields in the early 1800s.
The State of California acquired the local state beaches
and adjacent land in 1955. Cultivation of the terrace
ceased and the fields soon were dominated by exotic
(non-native) grasses and weeds, which are now being
removed to restore the natural habitat (see picture,
right, at Roosevelt Beach).
The Ocean Shore Railroad, which operated from San Francisco to the coastside between 1908
and 1920, generally followed along the path of the present Coastside Trail. The railroad
encouraged development on the coast. One of the subdivisions laid out at that time—the city of
Naples—was at the site of the present Roosevelt Beach. According to Barbara VanderWerf, in
her book The Coastside Trail Guide Book, local farmers sold their land to developers in
anticipation of the coming of the railroad, and by 1908 most of the frontage on Half Moon Bay
had been subdivided into streets and building lots.
The park at Sweetwood was home to one of the last holdouts, Frank Martin, who owned the land
on both sides of the Frenchman’s Creek. VanderWerf notes that Martin let Ocean Shore trains
run across his property, but he refused to subdivide. She speculates that he planted the parallel
rows of cypresses and pines, which can still be seen there (pictured above), to screen the train as
it puffed its way along the bluffs. After changing hands several times, the Sweetwood property
was sold to the State of California in 1967.
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Burleigh H. Murray Ranch
Purchased by the State of California in 1983, this historic ranch property is hidden in a pristine
valley south of Half Moon Bay. The area offers solitude and a rich assortment of plants and
wildlife. The ranch is sheltered from wind and fog, and is often several degrees warmer than the
town of Half Moon Bay. With the addition of Rancho Raymundo at the eastern boundary, park
property extends from Higgins-Purisima Road in the west to Skyline Blvd. in the east.
An old ranch road winds its way along Mills Creek for about
one mile up to a 1930s bungalow that serves as a park residence.
At this point the trail veers off the road and bends down to cross
the creek, allowing the visitor to look back in time while
viewing the Mills Barn and surrounding outbuildings. Banana
slugs (see picture) are a common sight along the trail.
Continuing on the road beyond the barn, the valley narrows
between steep, chaparral-covered hills. The walking is good for
an additional half mile above the barn past wooden tanks, which
supply water for the park residence, then the trail fades away
into the dense growth of stinging nettles, poison oak, and coyote
Operating hours: Day-use area, 8:00-sunset.
Location/Direction: Just over a mile south of the Half Moon Bay intersection of Highways 1
and 92. Turn east off Highway 1 onto Higgins-Purisima Road. Proceed just over 1. 5 miles to
the park. Visitors may park in a small gravel parking area on the left side of the road, just inside
the park gate.
Free entrance and parking.
Chemical toilets located near the parking lot and the barn. Picnic tables are near the barn. No
water or public phones.
Dogs are prohibited at all times.
Hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding are allowed on trails and roads. The main trail is a one-
mile dirt road from the parking lot to the barn. A trail goes past the barn about a half-mile up the
creek to some water tanks, but the trail closes in soon after that. Additional trails are planned for
Visitors to the park should be aware that there is a shooting range near the park residence,
reserved for state ranger, police, and sheriff practice.
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The unique Mills barn on the Burleigh Murray Ranch was placed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 1989, 100 years after its construction began. It is an example of an English
Lake County bank barn. A bank barn is a two-story barn set along a hill or slope. This design is
most common in the English and Welsh Lake Counties. The barn at this ranch is the only
identified example of an English bank barn in California.
The barn curves along the hillside. Its second story can be reached by an access road, and
allowed for a very efficient way of feeding the animals inside. The hay wagon was pulled up to
the second floor by horses. Hay was loaded on the wagon on top of ropes, and the ropes were
wrapped around the load. An additional rope was tied to the load and through the opposite barn
window, attached to a team of horses outside on the first floor. The horses pulled the hay off
into the barn. The hay was then pushed down through the floor of the second floor via chutes
that funneled into the cow stalls. Thus the barn, which has been called a “feeding machine,”
relied on gravity (and horses) more than human power.
The barn was originally 200 feet long and housed 100 dairy cows; however, 35 feet of the barn
were removed, perhaps to supply lumber for building other outbuildings or sheds.
While the barn builder is unknown, Guiseppi Martini did the impressive stonework on the
foundation and also built the nearby, unreinforced arched stone bridge, using Italian masonry
techniques dating to Roman times. (He also built the foundation for Mills’ Half Moon Bay
creamery in 1893.)
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The local newspaper reported in 1894 that torrential rains
destroyed the arched bridge. The current bridge was probably
rebuilt that summer, and Martini made sure the new bridge was
made to last. Much of the grout in the stonework has been lost
but, for the most part, the stonework remains very stable.
George Borden, who owned a lumber mill, was the most likely
tenant at the time the barn was being constructed. Redwood
lumber for the barn probably came from his mill. The owner of
the property, Robert Mills, owned a shingle mill up Purisima
Creek, which was the most likely source of the shingles.
The ranch includes a sensitive riparian corridor along Mills
Creek, which contains a wide range of plants and animals and
provides a large bird breeding area. Mills Creek is also
sensitive because it is home to the California red-legged frog
and to a small population of steelhead trout, which have been designated as threatened by the
federal government. To eliminate an obstacle to their migration, a small, unused dam upstream
of the barn was removed in 2000.
After California became a state in 1850, the Burleigh Murray Ranch was first owned by Robert
Mills, who was an influential figure in the development of San Mateo County. Mills was born in
England, and he came to California in 1852 seeking gold. Like so many others, he didn’t find
gold, but he did manage to strike it rich. Settling in San Francisco in 1856, Mills tried many
trades and eventually became a successful ornamental glazier, making decorative glass windows,
doors, and lamps. During this time, San Francisco was growing quickly, and Mills found lots of
work with affluent homeowners, churches, offices, and hotels.
San Francisco real estate was at a premium, and Mills saw the investment potential of the largely
undeveloped peninsula and coastside. Still living in San Francisco, Mills bought his first
peninsula property in 1857. Adjacent to the small village of Belmont (along what is now El
Camino Real), this first piece of land was 216.8 acres of the Pulgas Rancho, which he bought for
$733. 60. Other land barons in the 1860s also started gobbling up peninsula real estate, which
jumped in value when the railroad between San Francisco and San Jose was completed in 1864.
In 1862, Mills bought his first coastside property, a 320-acre ranch, for $510. By 1865 he was
considered one of San Mateo County’s richest men. Twelve years later, he bought 320 acres
from his friend Rowland Chatham for $2000. He received a patent on an additional 320 acres
immediately south of Chatham’s. This property is the nucleus of the current Burleigh Murray
Mills never lived on the coast; he leased the ranch out as a farm and dairy. At the time, land
speculators who leased their properties to farmers and ranchers owned much of the coastside
land. At least 13 different tenants worked the Burleigh Murray Ranch from 1877 to 1979.
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In 1877 Mills moved from San Francisco to Belmont and started lending money in addition to
buying a property to lease out. Records show Mills’ loans totaled around $175,000, with about
two thirds of these loans going to coastside residents. Mills charged interest rates as high as
18%, although most were significantly lower, and sometimes foreclosed on borrowers. Many
borrowers were small business owners or farmers who bought land. The money he invested in
the coastside was instrumental in developing the isolated area. Mills was also a key player in the
Spanishtown South subdivision, another major factor in the development of Half Moon Bay.
In 1890, the same year he helped found the Spanishtown South subdivision, Mills married
Mirranda Murray, the widow of Lemuel T. Murray, a prominent San Mateo pioneer. Lemuel T.
Murray was born in Vermont in 1829 and, just like Robert Mills, he came to California in 1852
to look for gold. He did not find gold, either, but decided to settle. He went back east and
bought sheep and cattle, which he and his brother drove across the country in 1857 to the original
Murray ranch in San Mateo County, where he started a dairy farm.
Murray went east again to marry Miranda Chase. One of their three children was Burleigh
Charles Murray--the father of Burleigh Hall Murray, who eventually came to own the Burleigh
Murray Ranch. The Murray ranch, located in San Mateo near where the Hillsdale Mall is now
on El Camino Real, grew to over 800 acres. It was less than a mile north of Mills’ Belmont
In 1886, Lemuel Murray died at 57. In 1889, widow Miranda Murray was involved in sale of a
subdivision that included some of the Murray ranch. Mills showed up at that sale, and he and
Murray began a short courtship. They married on 2 August 1890 in San Jose. He was 67; she
When Mills died in 1897, his properties went to his widow, Miranda Murray, and the Burleigh
Murray Ranch was passed down through the family. The Murray family continued to lease out
the farm for agricultural purposes until the estate of Burleigh Hall Murray (Miranda Murray’s
grandson) donated the land to the state in 1979.
One of the tenants was the family of Eldridge Kitty Fernandez, who was born and raised on the
ranch. His family leased the land from 1902 to 1917. He was eight or nine when his family left
after a family tragedy. His brother got very sick, and the road to town was flooded out. It took
several days before they were able to get his brother to the doctor, but his appendix burst and he
died. The mother no longer wanted to live there, so they moved away.
Fernandez had a lot of fond memories about growing up on the ranch. His father would dam up
the creek in summer to make a swimming hole, and they would invite all the children from town
to come up. The family was very self-sufficient. From the farm they produced their own butter,
cream, cheese, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, beans, peas, potatoes, berries, apples, and plums, and
there was plenty of game. About all they bought was sugar and flour.
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Cowell Ranch Beach
Two secluded pocket beaches
approached from a parking lot on
Highway 1 via a half-mile trail that
leads to bluffs overlooking the
beaches. Seal Beach, south of the
overlook, is a harbor seal protection
area and closed to the public. You
may glimpse newborn seal pups on
the beach in early spring. A steep
staircase provides access to the
northern beach, a quarter-mile-long
sandy cove on the north side of the
Operating hours: Day-use area,
Location/Directions: Off Highway 1, 3. 3 miles south of Half Moon Bay.
Free entrance and parking. Portable toilets.
Two designated handicapped parking spots. The trail to the beach overlook is accessible to
Dogs prohibited at all times. Horses and hiking allowed on the trail leading to the beach.
There are benches and interpretive panels along the trail to
the beach overlook. The trail crosses the site of the former
rail bed of the Ocean Shore Railroad. There is a view of the
Ritz Carlton Hotel on a cliff north of the trail.
A variety of plants, both native and exotic, border the trail,
including coyote brush, California aster, yarrow, field
mustard, poison hemlock, wild radish, and beeplant. Yellow
bush lupine, beach strawberry, coast buckwheat, and clarkia
(pictured at left) can be found along the cliffs. Many seed-
eating birds, such as finches, feed among the plants along
the trail. Hawks hunt rodents over the agricultural fields.
You may also see flycatchers, such as the black phoebe and
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Look for the harbor seals, either in the water or basking on the rocks off Seal Beach. Harbor
seals spend equal time in the sea and on land, hauling themselves onto the rocks to rest, give
birth, and shed their fur in an annual molt. Unlike sea lions and elephant seals, they rarely
The Cowell Ranch has been farmed since the mid 1800s. In 1852 Henry Doebbel, a 16-year-old
immigrant from Germany, arrived in San Francisco and opened the first waffle restaurant. His
earnings helped him establish a prosperous farm near the town of Purissima, three miles south of
the present Cowell Ranch Beach. His new two-story mansion featured a ballroom, running
water, and an innovation—gaslight produced from manure. Financial failures caused Doebbel to
mortgage his farm to Henry Cowell, who foreclosed in 1890. The town of Purissima gradually
declined and in 1930, the last remains of the 17-room mansion were torn down. Only a group of
cypress trees and a small cemetery mark the spot where it stood.
When the Cowell Foundation decided to sell the ranch in 1986, it was purchased by the
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a nonprofit land trust serving San Mateo and Santa Clara
counties. POST wanted the land to continue to be farmed, the beach to be open to the public,
and the beautiful views kept intact. To assure permanent protection for this land, in 1989 POST
sold conservation easements—permanent deed restrictions, which include the development rights
on the property—to the California State Coastal Conservancy, which used funds from voter
initiative Proposition 70. POST also donated beach access to the State of California, providing a
unique agricultural view trail to the new Cowell Beach. California State Parks opened the trail
and beach access in 1995. After protecting the land and assuring recreational opportunities,
POST sold the ranch to local farmers.
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