There are benches and interpretive panels along the trail to the beach overlook. The trail crosses the site of the former rail bed of the Ocean Shore Railroad.

A variety of plants, both native and exotic, border the trail.  Many seed-eating birds, such as finches, feed among the plants along the trail while hawks hunt rodents over the agricultural fields.

Bird interpretive sign (Photo: CSPA archive)
Agricultural sign. (Photo: CSPA archive)
Staircase leading to beach (Photo: CSPA archive)

Look for the harbor seals, either in the water or basking on the rocks off Seal Beach. Harbor seals spend equal time in the sea and on land, hauling themselves onto the rocks to rest, give birth, and shed their fur in an annual molt. Unlike sea lions and elephant seals, they rarely vocalize.

Dogs are prohibited at all times. Horses and hiking are allowed on the trail leading to the beach, but horses are not allowed on the Cowell-Purisima Trail.

Seal Beach, no access. (Photo: CSPA archive)
Harbor seal interpretive sign.
(Photo: CSPA archive)
Harbor seals may be spotted hauled out onto the rocks. (Photo: Avis Boutell)


Cowell Ranch has been farmed since the mid-1800s, first by a 16-year-old immigrant from Germany, but later by Henry Cowell who acquired the property due to foreclosure.

When the Cowell Foundation decided to sell the ranch in 1986, it was purchased by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a nonprofit land trust serving San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. To assure permanent protection for this land, POST sold conservation easements—permanent deed restrictions, which include the development rights on the property—to the California State Coastal Conservancy. POST also donated beach access to the State of California, providing a unique agricultural view trail to the new Cowell Beach. After protecting the land and assuring recreational opportunities, POST sold the ranch to local farmers.

California State Parks opened access to the beach in 1995.

Coastal trail farm sign (Photo: CSPA archive)
Cowell Purisima trail open hours (Photo: CSPA archive)
Coastal trail sign (Photo: CSPA archive)

Coastal Trail

The section of coastal trail known as Cowell-Purisima Trail is approximately 3.6 miles long and is open for public hiking and cycling. Under the terms of county and state permit approvals, horses and dogs are not allowed because of food-safety concerns related to the adjacent farm fields.

The trail has several bridges and one section that isn’t wheelchair accessible. There are great views of the beaches and bluffs as well as the farms and inland hills.  Seal Rock is below the southern overlook. There are no access routes to the beaches below the trail due to the steepness of the bluffs and because the beach below is closed to humans to preserve habitat for the harbor seals.