Just 15 minutes down the road from the city but seemingly worlds away is Pacifica, San Francisco's under-the-radar beachfront suburb. Known for its dramatic shoreline, world-class fogbanks and the world's only oceanfront Taco Bell, Pacifica is the gateway to the San Mateo Coast and, with a population of almost 40,000, the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
Pacifica is also one of the Bay Area's youngest cities, incorporated in 1957, which doesn't mean it lacks for history. By the time nine small coastal communities came together to become one city, the former Costanoan tribal village had amassed a history as colorful as any in San Mateo County.
Imagine this: it's a foggy night in 1923. Mori Point, now one of Pacifica's most significant and beautiful coastal hiking trails, is the site of the Mori's Point Inn, a roadhouse run by Stefano Mori and his son Jack since the 1890s. On this night, federal Prohibition agents are moving in. See, Jack was serving bootleg whiskey at the roadhouse, smuggling illegal hooch from Canadian boats anchored just offshore. He had cases of the stuff – 24,000, the feds later said – stored in the roadhouse and on the beach.
Jack's luck ran out that night. He was arrested and eventually forced to turn over the Inn to his brother Ray. In 1966, Mori's Point Inn burned to the ground. Today, all that remains are the few stairs, one flight leading to the former Inn entryway and another leading to the beach.
Modern Pacifica is many things: it's an inexpensive place to buy a home within easy commuting distance of San Francisco and a quiet alternative to the hustle of the Bay Area. Most of Pacifica was developed after its incorporation, so instead of Victorians and Craftsmans, its hillsides and canyons are lined with post-war subdivisions – one- and two-story mid-century residences and California ranchers, low-rise apartment buildings and interesting terraced neo-cottages, leaving plenty of room for the quirkiness that is Pacifica's trademark.
Take Vallemar, for example; entrance to this district is a narrow road disappearing into a canyon. Follow it and you'll find Pacifica's version of Laurel Canyon, a funky, almost rural neighborhood of winding roads and one-off custom homes. In Pedro Point, at Pacifica's southern end, pre-war shacks share space with stark contemporary masterpieces, all overlooking the sea. In Pedro Point your neighbor might have 5,000 square feet and endless Pacific Ocean views… or he might have llamas.
Hidden at the western foot of Pedro Point is another Pacifica oddity, Shelter Cove. In the early 1900s a favorite spot for day-trippers who took the ill-fated Ocean Shore Railroad from San Francisco, Shelter Cove lost its link to the outside world when its access road washed out during a 1983 storm. Since then, residents of its 14 beachfront cabins have brought food, furniture and themselves into the cove either by boat or on foot. Public access has been restricted since 1975. The only way to see this hidden gem is to either live there or know someone who lives there.
Life is easy in Pacifica. You won't find any Michelin star restaurants here, but you will find local legends (besides Taco Bell) like Gorilla Barbecue, Vallemar Station, Camelot Fish & Chips and Lovey's Tea Shoppe. Outdoor activities are a priority for residents, who have several local parks to choose from and an abundance of protected open spaces like the aforementioned Mori Point, Milagra Ridge, Point San Pedro and Sweeney Ridge, a massive hilltop space that separates Pacifica from inland San Bruno. The city also has its own skatepark, Sharp Park Golf Course and, of course, acres and acres of beaches.
So it gets a little foggy. Don't fight it; celebrate it. That's what they've done in Pacifica every September since 1986, when they hold the Pacifica Fog Fest with music, food, arts and a parade down Pacifica's Palmetto Avenue, sometimes with favorite native son Rob Schneider as Grand Marshall. Between 1996 and 2011, Oceana High School graduate Schneider's Rob Schneider Music Foundation raised almost $2 million for public middle school music programs in Pacifica.
With all of that fog, it's easy to overlook Pacifica, but do so at your own risk. This sleepy, off-the-beaten-track town only 15 minutes from San Francisco has plenty to offer for those who take the time to look.
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