Travel & Day Trips

Why is Half Moon Bay Called Half Moon Bay?

Half Moon Bay, a small city on the California coast, is known for its stunning beaches, quaint downtown, and prime pumpkin growing conditions.

Its name, evocative and picturesque, is equally intriguing. This article explores the origins of the Half Moon Bay moniker, weaving a tale that stretches from the time of native peoples to Spanish explorers, and beyond.

The Natural Half Moon

Geography and Shape

Half Moon Bay owes its name to the crescent shape of the bay it’s nestled against. A glance at a map or an aerial photograph shows the bay looking remarkably like a half moon.

This likeness isn’t contrived but a product of natural phenomena, such as coastal erosion and geological processes, that have shaped the Pacific coastline over millions of years.

A Nautical Perspective

The waters around Half Moon Bay could be trecherous. This ship ran aground in 1921.

From a nautical perspective, the half moon shape of the bay also offered a natural harbor for ships in what were otherwise treacherous waters. In the early days of California’s history, this sheltered haven was a godsend for mariners, offering refuge from the might of the Pacific currents and storms.

This distinguishing crescent-shaped landmark was hard to forget for seafarers and hence, made the name Half Moon Bay stick.

Historical Context

Native American and Spanish Influence

Long before European settlers arrived, the Ohlone people called the area home, living along the California coast from the San Francisco Bay area to Big Sur. Although they didn’t label the area Half Moon Bay, their legacy remains an integral part of the region’s history.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the area extensively. Initially, they named it “Bahía de San Benito,” in honor of the mission in nearby San Juan Bautista.

For a period, the region was also known as “Spanish Town” due to its settlement by Spanish-speaking immigrants, adding another layer to its rich historical tapestry. Over time, however, the name evolved to reflect more directly the distinctive geographical shape of the bay, hence, Half Moon Bay. The name became official in 1874.


The story behind the name of Half Moon Bay is as fascinating as the city itself. Rooted in the natural half-moon shape of the bay, the name also bears the imprints of historical transitions, from the days of the Ohlone people, through the era of Spanish exploration, to the multicultural present.

So, the next time you stroll through the streets of Half Moon Bay or bask in its beach’s beauty, remember the blend of geography and history that has shaped its name.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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