Thirty minutes south of San Francisco on the San Mateo County coast lies the secluded beach of Gray Whale Cove. Resting between Pacifica’s San Pedro Point and the tiny town of Montara, Gray Whale Cove is well known to the locals but often missed by travelers on Highway 1. The cove is protected from high winds that often plague a coastline known for its inclement weather. On a clear day when the beach is more popular, Gray Whale can be occupied by many beachgoers, both clothed and nude; otherwise, the beach remains largely uncrowded.
Locating Gray Whale Beach is quite simple if you know what to look for. First and foremost, there are no signs reading "Gray Whale Beach." On the east side of the highway, about a mile south of the Devil’s Slide Tunnel, lies a lot marked "Montara State Beach - McNee Ranch." This lot serves as a trailhead for Montara Mountain to the east and is the only parking for Gray Whale Cove.
A precarious jaunt across Highway 1 brings you to a well-groomed trail that leads to the beach. The approach is rather short, but a steep wooden staircase must be contended with to access the shore. The beach is divided by a rock formation to the north, marking an unofficial boundary between the mostly male nudists that frequent the area and other beachgoers. This area can be hard to traverse at high tide when waves crash against the slippery rocks. Before bringing the family, consider that it is legal to be nude on all portions of the beach.
Surfers occasionally brave the rocks and rip currents at Gray Whale Cove for the heavy surf. While there is no competition in the line up, the surfing solitude comes with some risk; a few surfers have required rescue over the years.
Landslides have plagued the cliffs to the north, earning the area's Devil’s Slide moniker. Rehabilitation of the coastline is underway, and old segments of the highway have been replaced with a state of the art tunnel championed by safety advocates and ecologists alike. Atop the most prominent cliff lies a World War II relic used to triangulate threats from across the Pacific.
Note: Break-ins have been on the rise along Highway 1. Don’t leave valuables in your car and keep an eye out for suspicious activity.