Half Moon Bay is a favorite getaway destination for the stressed-out San Francisco Bay area workforce. The town and its surrounding area offer everything you could possibly want to spend a few cheerful hours between weeks of crushing work. Fine dining, local attractions, organic produce, shopping, surfing, rich colorful nature and spectacular beach scenery are some of the more popular things people come for. Among all this buzzling activity, you will still be able to find solitude on the trails.
Half Moon Bay is also famous for their yearly pumpkin festival and the numerous pumpkin patches all around the town. Street photographers will have a good time as the town drowns in orange and the streets are full of happy people smiling a broad smile into your camera.
Obviously, if you aren’t restricted to weekend short trips, or if you are visiting from further away, you should come here during the week, to enjoy everyhing the town has to offer without interruption and traffic jams.
How to get there
From San Francisco you could simply take scenic Highway 1 south to Half Moon Bay. From Santa Cruz, take Highway 1 north.
Highway 92 is usually your best bet of getting here from the Bay, except during the Pumpkin Festival, where 92 will be very busy.
My favorite, scenic alternative leads north on Highway 280 for about 8.5 miles, until I get to the Highway 35 (Skyline Blvd.) exit. Following Highway 35 for approx. 4.5 miles, I turn left on Sharp Park Road, which takes me down to Highway 1 at Pacifica. Stay in the right lane on Sharp Park Road, if you wish to use the pullout, that offers you a great birds-eye view of Pacifica. Then head south on Highway 1 toward Half Moon Bay.
There are several ways to get to the trail described in the second part. You could take the road to Pillar Point and park at the south side treailhead, but this parking spot is often crowded, especially on sunny weekends.
Instead I prefer to drive north on Highway 1 until I get to a sign for the Distillery (restaurant) on the west side of the road. This will take you to Cypress Avenue. Take the first right and follow the road uphill. You can find many parking spots here, just don’t park near the restaurant.
Bobs Pumpkin Farm:
Trail Parking Pillar Point:
Trail Parking Distillery:
How to photograph Half Moon Bay
During October, people from all over the San Francisco Bay flock to Half Moon Bay’s famous pumpkin patches. The weekend of the pumpkin and arts festival draws the largest crowds to this tranquil coastal community, flooding the streets with tourists.
If you like to photograph events, this will be ideal for you. Otherwise, I would avoid this weekend in favor of quieter shooting.
- Change your perspective: Crouch down closer to the ground to emphasize the foreground. This works great if you want to make the pumpkin field appear very large and show the size of some pumpkins. Climb on haystacks to get a higher point of view (I took the picture at the start of this section from higher up). People are not used to these kind of perspectives, which makes the pictures appear more interesting. They grab attention.
- Close-ups of the colorful pumpkins (see above) can result in interesting patterns and photographs suitable as backdrops for themed artwork.
- Look for interesting subjects. Most pumpkin patch owners cater well to photographers by placing a tractor or old cars on their fields (image in introduction section). However, there may be other, less noticeable subjects that can enhance your work (wheelbarrows in image above).
- Frame tight. The two images in this section give no hint at the size of the field or the small pumpkin display. Our minds subconsciously extrapolate beyond the frame borders.
- If you photograph children or other persons in the fields, limit the depth of field to isolate your person of interest from other people in the background.
- Witch children, I prefer focus tracking (maybe in sports mode on your camera), as children move around fast.
- Always watch for background objects that creep into your picture. Sometimes they can distract from your main subject or even give it a different appearance.
- Incorporate the decorations into your photographs.
On the Trail
I took the pictures in this section with my cellphone, as I was unprepared for photography and just out for a nice stroll. However, I think they still demonstrate the impressive scenery.
This picture of Pillar Point is from the small outcrop south of the Distillery, on Jean Lauer Trail. This easy, comfortable to hike trail offers many good views of the cliffs below and Pillar Point to the south. If you venture a bit further east, you will also get a birds eye view of the airport and Highway 1 below.
Pay attention to the signs indicating private property boundaries. Those boundaries are not perfectly clear at all times, but at least we should try to observe the lines as best as possible.
The trail is appealing even during heavy fog that is so common in this area. The wind-beaten trees and shrubs are atmospheric, spooky subjects on such days. Pay attention to the drop and the potential unsafe cliffs during your hikes.
As you get further north, you will see why the cliffs can be so dangerous. Part of Ocean Boulevard has collapsed. You can still hike the mangled, overgrown road and take wonderful pictures of the bend asphalt, but it makes one wonder about the houses built relatively close to the edge.
My favorite part of the hike is just north of Beach Way. The Bluff Trail leads through a spooky forest that occasionally opens to fantastic views of the beach below, until it finally gives way to an open section (see above).
A long stairway leads down to the beach that is part of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. The relatively quiet beach has some of the better tide pools around. Use your tripod and polarizing filter to cut through the glare of the shallow puddles and to enhance the colors. Look for good foreground subjects, like a gnarly piece of driftwood, to enhance your shots. Using a wide-angle lens and setting up a low point of view, will result in some of the most dynamic landscape shots you can take at a beach.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
Spring and fall are ideal times to visit Half Moon Bay. Summer days can be amazingly cold, due to the typical fog, whereas especially early fall offers warm days and colorful subjects that will make your visit more enjoyable.
The Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival is on the weekend following Columbus Day. Get there early to beat the crowd and still have a chance of finding full pumpkin patches. You can even come here a week earlier, but you will miss on some of the fun of the street fair.
In most cases, the light during the afternoon will be better, but you can always find great spots during other times and a full field simply looks best.
The street festival will be between 9am-5pm.
The Mavericks surf contest is held between December and March, depending on weather conditions. Check out the links below to find out more.
You could easily spend the entire day here. The crowds will definitely slow you down, so plan for it accordingly.
- Leave the heavy equipment behind if you want to photograph the street fair
- Use a single, fast lens
- A polarizing filter to bring out the colors of the pumpkin patch and eliminate glare in windows and tidepool puddles
- A tripod for tidepools and sunsets only
- A small pocket camera (so you don’t have to use a cellphone like me)
- A sweater, especially in summer where it can get amazingly cold, even with 90 degrees or more just over the mountain
- Picnic items if you go hiking
There are no fees to see any of the places described in this article. You can always find free parking, even during busy days.
- Skyline Blvd
- Devils Slide
- Ano Nuevo
- Big Basin Redwoods State Park
- Santa Cruz Natural Bridges State Beach
- Santa Cruz Pier and Boardwalk
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