Noe Valley Voice October 2004

Family Adventures Close to Home:
Look Deep, Deep Into the Tide Pool, My Pretty One

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

Witches are popping up in shop windows, mail-order catalogs are filled with cozy wool sweaters, and kids' school papers are festooned with stickers of pumpkins and colorful autumn leaves.

But October in San Francisco is a funny thing. It resists the call of autumn, serving up one warm sunny day after another. If it were July or August (and by some meteorological fluke the sun were shining), we'd call these beach days. Fortunately, we live in California, home of all things fusion, so we decide that we can combine the spookiest season with a trip to the beach.

We arrive at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach at high tide when the beach's legendary tide pools are completely under water, the perfect time to explore the hiking trails in the woods that line the cliffs above the beach.

From the parking lot, we cross a tiny wooden bridge over a gurgling creek and follow a path up to the edge of the bluff, where we are treated to a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. But this is not scary at all, so we choose a path that leads into the grove of cypress and giant pines.

"I've been in these woods before," says Zoe.

The way she says "these woods" reminds me of scary movies--the kind in which the little girl knows more than she should.

"Did you see anything scary or weird?" I ask.

Zoe rolls her eyes.

The sunlight comes through the gaps in the trees in dusty, golden shafts, and Zoe's mom Laura and I make spooky shadows and sound effects until Miles and Zoe beg us to quit.

Next to a trio of palm trees, we discover the ruins of an abandoned cottage. All that remains is the wooden threshold and the concrete slab foundation, upon which we can discern the four rooms of the old building.

"This is the room where they cooked the children," says Laura in a spooky voice.

The kids scream and jump around in their swimsuits.

"Stop it," they holler. "It's too close to Halloween!"

I've seen the Blair Witch Project, so I have to agree. Abandoned houses in the middle of the woods, even ones without walls or eerie black handprints, make me nervous.

We find a spot on the beach next to a smooth white tree trunk that must have tumbled over the cliff decades ago.

"Deadwood," I can't help observing.

"Mo-om," Miles says. "Beaches aren't spooky, so don't even try."

We collect dozens of flat rocks to create a miniature art gallery comprised of precariously balanced rock towers. A ladybug appears and lands first on Zoe's arm and then on one of the sculptures. Zoe says that it's a baby ladybug because it has no spots.

A seal pops up in the water just a few feet from the shore and watches us for a while before disappearing below the surface. A minute later, he pops up again with a second seal right next to him. The two disappear and then reappear with a third seal. We all laugh and the seals seem pleased to have entertained us.

"It's like a magic trick," I say.

"Not a spooky one," Miles adds.

The tide recedes enough that an outcropping of rock is revealed at the southern point of the beach. The sky and water are dotted with sea and shore birds that get their meals more easily at the low tide. Pelicans barrel into the water and emerge with silvery fishes as terns pick at the newly exposed tide pools.

The rock outcroppings that are home to dozens of intertidal plant and animal species are wide and flat and easy to negotiate with bare feet, and on a sunny afternoon it's almost easy to imagine that the water lapping around our toes isn't absolutely freezing. By now, the tide seems to be going out at an accelerated rate, so that more and more of the tide pools are popping up.

Tide pools don't offer themselves up quickly, like store windows or television shows. In order to discover the variety of life that is present in each depression in the rocks, you have to squat down, watch the water, and be still--no easy feat for a pair of 8-year-olds. Still, it does have its rewards.

Before too long, Miles notices a pair of sculpins, fish whose camouflage perfectly matches the rock, zigzagging around the pool. Then he notices a cluster of tiny turban snails that looks like black polka dots. A line of sea anemones clings to the shady side of the pool, their gelatinous arms swaying with the swells of the water. A lone limpet juts out from the sunny side, its conical shell looking like a funnel.

Zoe and Laura make their way across the rocks, pausing to exclaim over hermit crabs, mussels, jagged barnacles, and swaying surf grass.

The longer we stay, the more the tide recedes, revealing endless opportunities to observe marine life close up, but our adventuring has made us hungry, so we collect our things and head up the road to the Moss Beach Distillery for fortification.

Laura and I take our glasses of wine to the outdoor deck that sits below the restaurant's main dining room, which is a little too nice for our group of sandy beachcombers. The view of the beach below and the Pacific beyond is magnificent. Woolen car blankets are strewn across the weathered wooden deck chairs, but on a warm October afternoon, they're more decorative than necessary.

Miles and Zoe explore inside around the casual downstairs bar, and it doesn't take them long to find the posters and memorabilia about the restaurant's resident ghost, the Blue Lady.

Legend has it that the Blue Lady was the lover of a man who played piano at the Distillery. She was killed on the beach a few yards from the restaurant more than 70 years ago, and since that time, customers and employees have reported seeing her and feeling her presence.

"She walks up to people and slaps them on the back of the neck," Zoe reports breathlessly.

"I felt that when we were inside!" says Miles. "I felt someone slap me."

The kids share a screech and dash back inside for more ghost-busting as Laura and I watch the sunset.

On the way home, we pass several of Half Moon Bay's famous pumpkin farms.

"Let's stop," Miles begs, but it's still too early for me to bring home a pumpkin. I'm not ready to let summer go.

"We'll come back down in a couple of weeks," I promise.

"Can we visit the tide pools, too?" he asks.

I keep myself from telling him for the millionth time how lucky he is to live where he does--a place where pumpkins and beaches and ghosts come together to make the best kind of autumn I can imagine.

Who needs falling leaves and a crisp wind out of the north? *

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail us at


The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is located on the San Mateo County coast in Moss Beach, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. The entrance to the reserve is at the western end of California Avenue off Cabrillo Highway (State Highway 1). Look for the large highway sign "California Avenue" and the smaller sign "Marine Life Refuge" just below it.

The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is free and is open from sunrise to sunset daily. But before you go, be sure to check the visitor and tide information found online at

The Moss Beach Distillery has a kids menu and a full-service restaurant and bar. Take Highway 1 to the Cypress Street exit (marked by a huge Moss Beach Distillery sign) and follow the green and white signs to the oceanfront restaurant.