Coast Life

A day away in Pescadero: Elephant seals at Año Nuevo, an award-winning tavern and baby goats

Looking south from Pigeon Point.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The 30-mile stretch of coast north of Santa Cruz between Año Nuevo and Pescadero offers a wealth of options for families and groups, couples or those flying solo. With spring bird migration, elephant seal molting and goat kidding seasons at their peak, Ashley Spencer offers a variety of ways to enjoy a day away.


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“Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished” — Lao Tzu

The 30 miles of Highway 1 between Pescadero and Año Nuevo State Park cuts through dunes, marshes and farmland, with a backdrop of stunning coastline. It’s a pretty drive, ripe for exploration — and yet most of us have only whizzed past the road signs.

I beg you to stop and look around, for this stretch of coast is, in many ways, the essence of Santa Cruz. This is where strawberries and artichokes, Brussels sprouts and the Slow Food movement hail from. The many beaches are not ideal for swimming or tanning, as they tend to be windy with shockingly cold water and dangerous rip currents, but most are wide, flat and walkable.

What to bring

Days away — and particularly this one along the coast — beg for a tote bag of extras: a warm layer, walking shoes with good socks, definitely binoculars, a hat that won’t blow off, sunscreen and a full water bottle. Note, cellphone service along Highway 1 can be spotty.

We are in the midst of a big, bountiful spring in California and this section of coast is a joy right now. Female elephant seals are going through their annual catastrophic molt at Año Nuevo State Park. It’s migration season for hundreds of species of birds that stop to rest at Pescadero Marsh. Nearby Harley Farms is at the peak of goat kidding season. The farm has welcomed 108 babies thus far this year, with half a dozen added just last Saturday morning. (The baby goat count is updated here.)

This day away is a gem. The food is outstanding, intensely personal and unassuming. Options for great walks are plentiful — it’s an overstatement to call them hikes, for the terrain is beach-adjacent and flat unless you happen to wander over a sand dune.

This is a day that embraces the pleasure of observation, lovely when it is sunny, but equally compelling with a jacket in the fog.


9 a.m.: Coffee sets the mood

The Westside's Alta Coffee and its Saturday parking lot plant sale.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Westside of Santa Cruz is resplendent with options for morning coffee: Verve, Companion Bakeshop, Cat & Cloud and 11th Hour are all handy, but consider a stop at Alta Organic Coffee Warehouse and Roasting Company on your way out of town.

This is its roasting and distribution location: low-key, friendly and, on Saturday morning, also home to a weekly plant sale. Alta wants us to know and appreciate that coffee is seasonal and that beans are produce, like lettuce and berries. It’s a new concept to me to consider enjoying coffee from different geographies around the world as rainy seasons roll through and local harvests are dried and roasted.

On Saturdays, Alta is open the same hours as the farmers market (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) for a full range of coffee drinks. Pick up a pound of a new varietal or blend to try — the staff makes good coffee.

If your next stop is Año Nuevo, putter over to the farmers market and get a breakfast snack for the ride. Companion Bakeshop and the Adorable French Bakery have stunning baked goods.


Never been to Año Nuevo?

The surf break at Año Nuevo State Park.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I have to admit that Año Nuevo State Park, a well-worn school field trip, is a destination I have long avoided. My loss — the park is beautiful, interesting, meticulously cared for and kindly staffed.

A very friendly ranger will welcome you at the entrance kiosk and ask you to pay for parking ($10 without an annual state parks pass) and if you’d like, a free permit for a self-guided tour to see the elephant seals. They may be observed from ranger-staffed overlooks between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The walk out to one of two observation points is a 3-to-4-mile trek, depending on where the elephant seals happen to be lazing that day. (A staffed tour that costs $7 per person is mandatory from December to March, during the breeding season.)

The Marine Education Center at Ano Nuevo State Park.
The Marine Education Center features a 20-minute movie describing the lives and adaptations of elephant seals.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Before you go, visit the Marine Education Center to watch an informative 20-minute movie describing the lives and adaptations of elephant seals. The exhibits and photographs are interesting as well. These are curious creatures that have made a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction.

A well-groomed Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant and stroller-accessible trail leads for well over a mile along the coastline. There is ready access to a walkable beach down small, uneven steps. The beach is infrequently populated by elephant seals (off limits when it is). Año Nuevo has well-kept bathrooms and more than a dozen picnic tables (available on a first-come basis) with glorious views. If you’re traveling with small children, it’s not a bad idea to gather a farmers market bounty and enjoy it right here on a mild day.



A young Costanoa guest practices corn hole on the lawn, near the activity cabin.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Costanoa eco-adventure resort really does have something for everyone: a hotel with a full spa, tent cabins for glamping, hookups for recreational vehicles and tent platforms. The communal bathrooms are large, spotless and well stocked. Cascade Restaurant & Bar offers seasonal fine dining with a mouth-watering menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner (most of it available for tak-out).

Costanoa aims to create a community that visitors can easily plug into with a wealth of activities, from massages and facials to kayaking, yoga and hiking. Its general store is stocked with gourmet nibbles, wines and locally sourced kitchen supplies. The game store has shelves full of puzzles, kites, balls and nature kits. It also offers craft projects, corn hole, lawn games and bike rentals.

Costanoa’s casual Pine Tent restaurant: live music on weekends, with a full bar and great tacos.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For casual food, Pine Tent offers a full bar with tasty-looking cocktails and local beers. Most weekend evenings there’s a live band.

It’s a diverting, family-friendly place to stop and spend an hour if you prefer a full breakfast on the way up. Hiking the dunes is a serious workout on a nice day, one that can end happily at Pine Tent with a cold beer and a live band.

*Note: The dune hike involves crossing Highway 1 by foot and is not recommended for children.


Pescadero Marsh

The 235-acre Pescadero Marsh is the largest and most biodiverse wetland on the San Francisco Peninsula.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pescadero State Beach encompasses the 235-acre Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, the largest and most biodiverse wetland on the San Francisco Peninsula. It supports 200 species of birds that rest here along the Pacific flyway, a major north-south route for migratory birds that extends from Alaska to Patagonia.

Park at any of three parking lots marked Pescadero Beach (the middle one is inexplicably free) and walk north on the dedicated, protected walkway next to Highway 1, which takes you over the bridge and loops under to connect with the start of the Sequoia Audubon Trail without crossing the highway by foot.

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The mile-long walk through the wetlands is gorgeous and teeming with birds. It is also hilariously and accurately referred to by one Bay Area hiking site as a “trudge,” for the marshland is predictably flat and speed is not valued among birdwatchers. Great blue herons, great egrets, double-crested cormorants, wrens and harriers are frequently spotted here, as are California red-legged frogs and garter snakes.


The best lunch

Duarte's Tavern is one of the oldest restaurants in California.
(Duarte’s Tavern via Instagram)

Duarte’s Tavern opened in 1894 as a saloon and barbershop — the original owner was both bartender and barber to Pescadero’s townsfolk. The tavern is often referred to in guidebooks as “an historic drinking establishment.”

Lest you think that spot-on cocktails and local beers describe the place, know this: Duarte’s (pronounced DOO-arts) was honored with an American Classic Award by the James Beard Foundation, touted as the equivalent of an Oscar in the food world.

Sauteed sole with a side of artichokes. Peppers and greens were grown in the Duarte’s kitchen garden, open to guests.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Check out a current menu, a showcase of locally sourced ingredients (many from the tavern’s adjacent garden) from the pork chop with homemade applesauce, to the abalone sandwich, baked local oysters and in-season Dungeness crab in both cioppino and an open-face melt.

Honestly, everything is delicious and never fussy. The kids menu is a good one, ranging from real food— fish and veggies —to a world-class peanut butter and locally made strawberry jam on sourdough. All meals at Duarte’s finish with pie — it’s often still warm and best served a la mode. Try the strawberry-rhubarb, olallieberry or pear. Or better yet, take a pie home.

Duarte’s doesn’t take reservations and can be very busy on summer weekends. Arrive at noon when it opens or opt for a late lunch. Sitting at the counter or in the bar are both good options. Be sure to ask if either is available when you check in.

Taqueria De Amigos
Taqueria De Amigos, an unassuming taqueria located in Pescadero’s only gas station with popular tacos featuring locally sourced ingredients.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Another destination lunch spot, earning consistent five-star raves for shrimp tostadas and chile rellenos, is Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos, an unassuming taqueria located in Pescadero’s only gas station.

Do not underestimate the quality of these tacos; the ever-present line is testament to the high standard set by owners Norman Contreras and Uriel Galvan. Their business approach is typical in Pescadero — they source locally, focus on family recipes and support their community. Contreras says he does all he can to source from local farms and fishermen in an effort to keep the money in Pescadero.


Wine tasting and petting zoo

Sante Arcangeli's new tasting room is in a 140-year-old barn on the Harley Farms property in Pescadero.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)


Most of this day can be spur-of-the-moment, with a few exceptions: Harley Farms Goat Dairy schedules up to four baby goat tours a day ($55 per person), which sell out quickly (drop-ins can take a self-guided version and see the goat kids with less interaction and farm information; this option is better for small children).

Reservations for a generous wine tasting with cheese (goat, naturally) at Sante Arcangeli Family Wines must be made a full day in advance. Walk-up wine tastings are welcome, but do not include nibbles.

A relaxed afternoon tasting flight? Sante Arcangeli Family Wines makes very good wines from its vineyards in Corralitos and has a popular tasting room in Aptos. Signature Split Rail Pinot Noir and other reds in our tasting earned impressive 93-95 ratings from Wine Enthusiast.

Its new tasting room location, a 140-year-old barn on the Harley Farms Goat Dairy property, has an immensely pleasant vibe. We were welcomed with a beautiful snack tray and six mini-carafes of wine to sample. With glasses in hand, we petted baby goats eager for attention and chatted with other guests as the staff mingled and kept the tastings moving along.

Formal tours of the goat farm, dairy and cheese-making operation at Harley Farms book up fast this time of year. Guests without reservations are welcome to walk around and follow the self-guided tour signs, a decent option on days when the farm isn’t actively processing milk to cheese. The baby goats are available to interact with anyone who treats them kindly (pro tip: Walk over to the Arcangeli tasting room and find a second group of friendly babies).

Baby goats at Harley Farms Goat Dairy.
(Via Harley Farms)

At the height of the baby goat season, Harley Farms schedules up to four tours a day for $55 per person. The small farm shop sells cheeses, honey, pantry foods and farm swag.


The way home

The Sunshine Pescadero
The Sunshine Pescadero makes for an interesting stop on the way back to Santa Cruz.
(Ashley Spencer / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Stop in for coffee and gorgeous pantry items such as small-batch krauts, dried beans, chocolates made with coconut cream, organic veggies, fruits and herbs at The Sunshine Pescadero, a visually interesting and eclectically curated grab-and-go store that is open reliably Friday through Sunday and, according to its website, other days “totally at random.”

It’s hard to drag yourself away from the appealing tumult of The Sunshine, where the engaging approach to feeding people and sustaining a small business in a small town is charming and consistent. The store sports a .love URL.

What’s a visit to Pescadero without artichoke bread? People who can’t remember the name of the town light up in recognition when these fresh-baked loaves from Arcangeli Grocery Company are mentioned. The full-service grocery also makes sandwiches at the deli and features a compelling selection of wines, including, of course, Arcangeli Family labels.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
(Via Arlene McMahon)

Two familiar places that are emblematic of the area might seem to have been overlooked: Made in Pescadero and Pigeon Point Lighthouse. To our disappointment, Made in Pescadero has closed. The showroom next to Duarte’s was a calm, light space full of handcrafted products that felt good in the hand and smelled wonderful. It now accepts orders for custom Craftsman, Mission and Shaker furniture via its website.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse is temporarily closed for refurbishment and is looking for docents. If you’ve always had a yen for lighthouses, this one is still in use, albeit with an LED beacon— and one of the tallest in the country. Sign up for the June 17 training or take a virtual tour.

The farmstand at Swanton Berry Farm has become a routine stop on the drive home from points north and is a near-miracle cure for a bad school day.

Fresh berry cobblers with whipped cream, berry cheesecakes and chocolate-covered strawberries are always in the cool cases. The indoor tables have vintage cards and games to play, and the calming Pacific is well within view. This is a perfect place to clear your head, indulge in a straight-from-the-field treat and support the country’s first unionized organic farm.

Most of the time Swanton is out of cellphone range, which adds to the appeal. The farmstand offers Alta coffee and fresh-picked berries in season. You’re also welcome to grab a basket and head to nearby U-pick fields. Either way, take home a few baskets.

When you arrive back in Santa Cruz, may your back seat hold a pound of new coffee, a Duarte’s fruit pie and a few pints of Swanton strawberries for tomorrow’s breakfast.