Just southeast of the surf town of Half Moon Bay, within the folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is one of the Peninsula's great secrets: a preserve with nearly 21 miles of trails that ― get this ― have towering redwood groves and ridgetop views of the Pacific, but without the crowds.
You're going to love Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve.
Half Moon Bay is 28 miles south of San Francisco. Take I-280 south to State 92 west and go 7 miles to State 1 south. To reach Purisima Creek Redwoods, turn left on Verde Rd., which becomes Purisima Creek Rd. Drive 3.7 miles to the entrance. To reach Cowell Ranch State Beach from the preserve, go back to State 1 and head north.
Pack your backpack with fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil panini ($7.25) from Riace Wine Tasting & Deli, the Half Moon Bay outpost of the popular Palo Alto cafe. $; 255 S. Cabrillo Hwy./State 1, just south of State 92; 650/726-4343.
The coastal hills at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve are a sampler of the best of Northern California hiking. A 5.6-mile round-trip hike along Whittemore Gulch Trail gets you a taste of every flavor in the park, from redwood-shaded canyons to sun-drenched hilltops overlooking the sea. The preserve's main entrance is on Skyline Blvd./State 35, but if you enter from Half Moon Bay on Purisima Creek Rd., you can hike uphill first, then enjoy the descent. Ocean views along the North Ridge Trail make for prime picnic spots. 650/691-1200.
On your way back to town, Cowell Ranch State Beach is not only invisible from State 1, but also a half-mile and a steep set of stairs from parking ― all of which deter crowds. You're likely to have the pretty little stretch of sand backed by sage-covered cliffs all to yourself. On State 1, ¼ mile south of Half Moon Bay; 650/726-8819.
ENJOY THE GOLDEN HOUR
There's not a bad seat on the deck at Sam's Chowder House in Half Moon Bay; it overlooks the ocean and Pillar Point Harbor. If you linger, try the blue crabcake sandwich. $$; 4210 N. Cabrillo Hwy./State 1; 650/712-0245.
JULY FOURTH FUN
Unfurl a blanket and dig into a baguette and goat's cheese decorated with edible red, white, and blue flowers at Harley Farms ($25, including tour and cheese; reservations required; 650/879-0480), about 18 miles south of Half Moon Bay in Pescadero. By nightfall, be at Pillar Point Harbor for the only fireworks display on the San Mateo County coast.