The Northern California beaches, with a few
are not great for swimming, but they are fantastic for photography,
bird-watching, tidepooling, and exploring. For these reasons, here are
some of the better beaches:
- Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
This is an incredibly scenic beach, but you need to be willing to take
the trouble to get to it. It's almost a secret, probably deliberately.
No signs point to it (at least when I was there a few years ago). The
road to it, Sycamore Canyon Road, is about a mile south of the entrance
to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The paved, but narrow one-lane road
down to the beach. There are numerous turnouts to let on-coming traffic
pass. There's a paved parking lot at the end of the road. There was
of parking when we visited it late in the afternoon, but I got the
that it gets filled up in mid-day. The path to the beach passes by a
creek-fed lagoon. The beach is surrounded by steep rocky cliffs. Waves
crash on the off-shore rocks. The surf hits the curving the beach to
left. The beach in the center (see the picture above) is protected by a
rock ridge, which is pierced by sea tunnels. To the left of that, the
has blown the sand far up the cliffsides, forming slopes that kids can
climb up and roll down on (which is where the above picture was taken
The beach curves to the right, with tidepools and a sandy beach favored
by those who can't seem to afford a swimsuit.
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, south of Big Sur
This state park is south of Pfeiffer Big Sur. The
Hwy 1 to reach it is one of the most spectacular drives in California.
The park entrance and parking lot is on the inland side of the highway.
A short trail leads under Hwy 1, past a Pelton Wheel exhibit, and ends
up at a lookout over the beach, with a rare sight: McWay Creek shoots
a cliff and takes an 8-story plunge as McWay Falls and crashes directly
onto the beach or into the ocean, depending on the tide. It's the only
major waterfall in California to directly drop into the ocean. The
above the falls are great for winter gray whale watching. The looks
from the road, but actually encompasses 3600 acres, most of which is
The park has inland hiking trails through redwood forests, steep
canyons, oak woodlands, and open grassy slopes.
- China Cove, Point Lobos State Reserve
Point Lobos State Reserve is one of the crown jewels of the state park
system. Most of the shoreline is made up of sheer cliffs or rocky
However, in a protected grotto, surrounded by sea caves and tunnels, is
tiny China Cove. A long wooden staircase leads down to the beach,
by cliffs covered with colorful succulents. With its white sands and
green waters, it looks like it was transported from a mythological
- Russian Gulch Cove, Russian Gulch State Park,
The entire Mendocino Coastline is like one giant
mile brings incredible scenery into view. One of the most scenic spots
along this coast is Russian Gulch State Park. It's a long thin park
mostly follows Russian Gulch and spreads out at the headlands. Inland
lead through dense fern-covered redwood forests to Russian Gulch Falls.
The graceful arch bridge of Hwy 1 spans the sandy beach where the creek
empties into the protected cove. Children play in the calm waters here,
while divers swim out in search of prized abalone. The headlands offer
views of the cove (see above) and coast. On the headlands is the
Punch Bowl, a collapsed sea cave that has formed an inland bowl. Water
surges in and out of the tunnel and creates a blow-hole effect under
- Lover's Point beach, Pacific Grove
Just down the road from the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Point. The rocks there are fun to climb on. They form high vantage
to watch for sea otters and sea lions. At low tide, offshore rocks form
a network of tidepools, great for observing (but not touching) tidepool
life. Next to that is the small sandy beach shown above. It's on
Bay and faces inland away from the open sea, so the waves are gentle.
to that is a swimming beach shown in my page on Best
places to go swimming in Northen California.
- Angel Island
Angel Island is a jewel in the middle of San
accessible only by boat or ferry. Much of its shoreline is steep and
with incredible views of the Bay. There are some sandy beaches however,
particularly near the visitor's center at Ayala Cover. For more
see my Bay Area Hiking - State Parks
on Angel Island.
- Fitzgerald Marine Refuge, Moss Beach
This beach is one of the best places on the coast
It's easily reached. It's just off Hwy 1 north of Half Moon Bay. A huge
expanse of flat rocks provides nooks and channels to capture seawater.
Low tide reveals a massive complex of tidepools accessible even by
children, who love to look at the teeming sealife in the pools. (Look,
but don't take. It's against the law.) There's also a wide arc of sandy
beach nearby, as well as coastal bluffs.
- Baker Beach, San Francisco
This beach is part of the Golden Gate National
Area. It's located in the Presidio of San Francisco, near the Golden
Bridge, as you can see by the picture. Baker Beach and neighboring
Beach (see below) have some of the best and most scenic views of the
when it's not obscured by the famous San Francisco fog.Since it's near
the Golden Gate, Baker Beach a hot spot for catching striped bass on
spawning migration up into the Sacramento River Delta.On warm sunny
the beach can be jam-packed with sun-starved San Franciscans. On cool
mornings, however, you can almost have the beach to yourself. In the
behind the beach are some old concrete gun emplacement bunkers. In one
of the bunkers is a huge cannon, called a disappearing rifle. Kids can
climb onto the gun and play war games. In one of the bunkers is a small
museum showing the old coastal defenses in the area. Farther back from
the beach are cypress-shaded picnic areas. For more information on the
GGNRA, see my Bay Area Hiking - National
and Monuments page entry on it.
- China Beach, San Francisco
This beautiful little beach is in the Golden Gate
Recreation Area, like its bigger neighbor Baker Beach to the north.
much harder to find, however. It's almost a secret. A tiny parking lot
is on the cliffs behind the million-dollar houses in the Seacliff
A walkway leads down to the beach, where there is a large building with
restrooms and changing areas.
- Indian Beach, Tomales Bay State Park
Tomales Bay State Park has some of the best beaches
California. Heart's Desire is the most popular and the best for
You can see it on my "Best Places to Go Swimming
in Northern California" page. Heart's Desire Beach has parking
lots, picnic grounds, restrooms, and showers, so it's the most crowded.
However, a short and easy stroll through the shady woods takes you
beaches that you can sometimes have almost to yourself. Tiny Pebble
is to the south. Much larger Indian Beach is to the north. A bridge at
the south entrance to Indian Beach crosses the creek (see the picture
that drains into Tomales Bay. You can wade in the creek or explore the
marsh upstream. Some reconstructed Indian bark teepees are on the
A long sandy beach, much longer and wider than at Heart's Desire,
along the bayshore. This is a favorite place for kayakers to put
The beach becomes rocky and narrower at the northern edge, but at low
you can explore more of the shores of Tomales Bay, along the base of
cliffs. For more information on Tomales Bay State Park, see my Bay
Area Hiking - State Parks page entry on it.
- Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore has miles of
Ten-Mile Beach is the longest, on the ruler-straight northwestern face
of the park. It's scenic and uncrowded, but the waters are much too
for swimming. Drakes Beach (see the picture above), on the other hand,
sandwiched between the point at Point Reyes and the mouth of Drakes
faces south into Drakes Bay and is more protected. It's the most
swimming beach.There's a parking lot there, restrooms, a visitor's
and a cafe. Limantour Beach is another nice beach, much larger and less
crowded than Drakes Beach. It's on the northeastern curve of Drakes
Between Limantour Beach and the southern edge of the park are miles of
rocky, rugged coastline, reachable only by long hikes. These are some
the most scenic beaches in the area, with sea caves, tunnels, and
so they're worth the effort to reach them. For more on Point Reyes, see
my Bay Area Hiking - National Parks and
Monuments page entry on Point Reyes.
- Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur
You have to hike a mile or so along an easy, flat
reach this beautiful curving beach, but it's worth it. The Big Sur
enters the ocean here. Bridges cross the river, which is deep enough
swimming and wading. Coastal bluffs frame the beach. For more
see my Bay Area Hiking - State Parks
entry on Andrew Molera State Park.
- Pescadero State Beach, Pescadero, San Mateo County
This is one of the largest beaches along the San Mateo Coast. It has a
wide variety of habitats and terrain. Inland is the Pescadero Marsh
a prime area for bird watching. The marsh is fed by Pescadero Creek,
drains into the ocean here. The creek drainage is a fun and safe place
for kids to wade in or play in the sand. To the north of the creek
is a long stretch of huge sand dunes (see the picture above). A walkway
winds through the dunes. To the south of the creek are rugged rocky
great for fishing, rock-hopping, and tidepooling.
- Rodeo Beach
This scenic beach is in the heart of the Marin Headlands, north of the
Golden Gate Bridge at the end of Bunker Road. It's part of the Golden
National Recreation Area. It's a lovely curving cove, surrounded by the
steep Marin Headlands, and backed by tranquil Rodeo Lagoon. It's a
place to stop while exploring the Marin Headlands area.
- Muir Beach, Marin County
This small, lovely beach is in the Golden Gate
Area, near the tourist-jammed Muir Woods. Trails lead from here into
parts of the GGNRA. There's a creek, a lagoon, and dense woods here.
- Stinson Beach, Marin County
This is probably the most popular beach in the
It stretches straight for 3 miles along Hwy 1, between the Marin
and Bolinas, at the base of Mt. Tamalpais, and is part of the GGNRA. It
gets crowded on sunny fall weekends. It tends to be foggy in the
so it's less crowded then. The waves make it a popular surfing area.
go swimming here, but only briefly, because the water is cold.
- Carmel City Beach and Carmel River State Beach,
This is a very scenic beach, adjacent to the famous
village of Carmel-By-the Sea and north of Point Lobos State Reserve.
city beach follows along the arc of Carmel Bay. The middle section has
a long crescent of wide, sandy beach (see the picture above). The
corner has rocks for climbing and otter-watching. The state beach is
in a corner surrounding the mouth of the Carmel River, easily reached
Hwy 1. It's at the head of deep undersea Carmel Canyon, which makes the
waters here extremely treacherous for swimming.
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Ron Horii, San Jose
Created 10/6/97. Last update: 9/4/98, repaired 5/28/12