Before becoming a state beach, the land started out as a ranch in the 1800s; despite changing hands, the piece of coast remains a working farm. The Peninsula Open Space Trust bought the area in 1986, in the hope of developing a preserve. Nearly a decade later, the state opened it as a protected state park, providing visitors with a peek into the California coast wildlife.
The Cowell-Purisima Trail, beginning at the state beach overlook, makes up approximately 3.6 miles (5.7 kilometers) of the entire California Coastal Trail—a 1,200-mile (1,931.2-kilometer) path that stretches through the various waterfront landscapes of the Golden State. The Cowell-Purisima Trail, which follows along farmland and the state beach’s cliffside, gives travelers just a small sample of what experiencing California’s coastline is like.
Locals know that passing the whimsical whale gate along the half-mile path to the beach means that the steep staircase, built right into the seaside cliffs, lies ahead. While approaching the dramatic wooden stairs that take visitors from the bluff-top trail to the sands below, the vastness of Cowell Ranch quickly comes into view. Two pocket beaches, split by the jagged coastline bluffs, lie to the north and south end, both teeming with wildlife and ocean swells.
Seal Beach, at the south end, serves as a seal preserve where herds of harbor seals and their pups make their home. This area of Cowell is closed off to the public. However, seals swimming in the water or sunbathing on rocks are easy to see from the publicly accessed north end. During the early spring months, newborn seal pups occupy most of the preserve’s rocks as their mothers gather food.
The northern beach, walled-in by bluffs and hills, feels like a tucked away cove, popular for sunbathing. Typically, this region is where beach-dwellers will hang out, picnic at the nearby tables, play beach games, and dip their toes in the lapping shore. Many birds native to California spend time on the northern beach and throughout all of Cowell Ranch. The beach and surrounding trails are a bird-watching hot spot for Half Moon Bay locals.