For a few weeks each fall, nature really puts on a show around our sleepy little town of Pescadero. Having lived here for over seven years, I can say with confidence that late autumn is my favorite season and — many of my neighbors would agree — now’s the time to visit.
Autumn signals the return of migratory birds, who find refuge in the safety of our nearby marsh, which, this time of year, is full of vibrant fall colors (try a guided hike). Whales too, heading south to their birthing grounds in the warm waters of Mexico, can be seen from the rocky overlooks along the nearby beaches. And to top things off, local farm stands are still brimming with the final delicious product of the growing season. It all seems to be happening at once.
Pescadero sits just north of POST-protected Cloverdale Coastal Ranches, one of the largest contiguous pieces of protected land on the San Mateo Coast, larger than any park unit along the county’s coastline.
Pescadero sits within a uniquely rural corner of San Mateo County. Surrounded by thousands of acres of ranchland, open spaces, farms, state parks and beaches, there is a strong sense of isolation and peacefulness here — it’s why those who live here love it.
Immediately south of town lies the 6,800-acre Cloverdale Coastal Ranches (Cloverdale), which POST protected from being developed into luxury estates through a series of transactions starting in 1997. If Cloverdale hadn’t been protected, Pescadero would look a whole lot different. Thankfully, this landscape will forever have expansive grassland, farms and wildlife habitat instead of looking like Orange County. I’ve helped manage this ranch since 2014 and the activities I’ve highlighted for you below are centered, much like my life here in Pescadero, around this stunning landscape.
Here are my best tips — the inside scoop — for your next visit out:
Come for the fall colors, migratory birds, whales and seasonal abundance and stay for the charming shops, good coffee, tacos and more.
As much as I love the quaint shops of town and the chance to run into friends, it’s the natural setting of this community that keeps me here. This time of year, the ever-present fog bank begins to loosen its grip so it’s especially scenic. Even standing in the center of town, you’ll enjoy a 360-degree view of working ranches, farms and open spaces. We’re a community that is still very much connected to the land, and we like to keep it that way.
You might be surprised to hear that the local gas station (aka Mercado & Taqueria de Amigos) serves some of the best Mexican food on the coast. In fact, their shrimp tostada is now locally famous. But I’d argue that the artichoke soup across the street at Duarte’s Tavern is equally delicious, and so is the artichoke bread at the Arcangeli Grocery Co. (better known locally as “Norm’s Market”). Artichokes are still grown in the area — so, when in Rome…
The cooler fall temps may demand a caffeine-fueled warm-up and for that I always head to the Downtown Local, where the chilled-out vibe is as good as the coffee. The Harley Goat Farm is also a must see, especially for families with kids. And if you’re looking for local produce, The Sunshine — a new market in town — is now a regular stop for me. Or you can opt to get your fresh veggies direct from the source just east of downtown at R&R Fresh Farms — an operation on Butano Farms, which is part Cloverdale.
With all that in mind, I’ll be the first to tell you that weekends can get crowded in our small downtown, even in the cooler months. It’s good for business, but for the most authentic experience I’d suggest a mid-week visit if you can swing it. Without the distraction of the crowds, you’ll get a better sense of our laid-back, rural rhythm (note that some businesses are closed mid-week so please check hours ahead of time).
When was the taking road less traveled ever a bad idea? Cloverdale Road awaits.
Highway 1 is the better-known route for most folks traveling through our area, an iconic stretch of coastline without a doubt. But there are also a number of smaller side roads further inland that offer opportunities to experience this coastal landscape. Cloverdale Road south of town, in my opinion, is a rare treasure.
Meandering along the eastern edge of POST’s Cloverdale Ranch (see map below), driving this route is like going back in time. It’s hard to overstate the scale of this ranch and its significance to the Pescadero region: 4,500 acres of protected rangeland, rare coastal terrace prairie habitat for numerous species of wildlife including the colorful and endangered San Francisco Garter Snake, more than 15 miles of streams and over 300 acres of prime growing soils.
After protecting this property from development and keeping it as a working ranch, we have leased smaller parcels to local farmers as part of our larger effort to preserve the region’s rich agricultural heritage. Heading south, you’ll pass through what has become a burgeoning network of local, POST-protected farms: R&R Fresh Farms (mentioned above), Fifth Crow Farm, Root Down Farm, Fly Girl Farm, Steadfast Herbs and Markegard Family Grassfed. If you’re into local food, this is a chance to see the landscape where much of it is produced.
Shortly after protecting Cloverdale, POST transferred nearly 1,000 acres of the ranch to nearby state parks and there is ample opportunity to stretch your legs and experience the season. Butano State Park off of Cloverdale Road, is just a short drive from downtown. While it’s less popular and busy than Big Basin, its redwood-lined canyons and clear creeks are just as beautiful. Camping is available here (although currently closed due to the CZU Lightning Complex Fire) and the Candelabra Tree (unfortunately the trail is still closed too) a very peculiar-shaped, old growth redwood is truly a sight to see.
Looking north above Pigeon Point into the seemingly endless expanse of POST-protected Cloverdale Coastal Ranches.
At the intersection of Gazos Creek Road, you’ll turn right and follow the creek before reaching the coast. December through March is mating season for northern elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park. Reservations are required, but a gentle walk along the coastal bluffs this time of year still offers a chance to see whales out in the Pacific. This trip for me is never complete without a visit to POST-protected Pie Ranch for a sampling of the season’s flavors. Note that they only sell whole pies so it’s best to show up hungry.
North along the coastline lies the iconic Pigeon Point Light Station which is another ideal spot to experience the fall whale migration or just enjoy the views. Standing below the lighthouse, I can’t help but imagine what this landscape would look like had POST not blocked a nine-unit motel from being constructed along the banks of Whaler’s Cove, or if luxury estates dotted the hillside of Cloverdale that overlook the Pacific. It’s a unique and important landscape that makes living here, or even visiting, something special.
Some of the best views of the lighthouse are found along the gentle, one-mile out-and-back trail at Wilbur’s Watch. The trail traverses a small portion of Cloverdale and the benches on this walk are worth the effort, offering a panoramic view of this classic Northern California landscape.
Following Highway 1 north from Pigeon Point, the route skirts Cloverdale’s western edge and passes, in my opinion, some of the best beaches on the Pacific coast. The natural shelters of Pistachio, Bean Hollow (dog-friendly) and Pescadero state beaches are perfect for relaxing. It’s always important to check the forecast, but with less coastal fog, fall is one of the most enjoyable seasons to visit.
So, like I said, now’s the time to visit Pescadero.
We’ll look forward to seeing you.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 80,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more