Oftentimes, when people picture California beaches, they picture the classic sands of Southern and Central California. But here in Nor Cal, ours look a bit different. In the summer, they can be foggy; in the winter, they can be filled with surfers; but they always offer some of the most dramatic, wave-crashing, jaw-dropping views.
You’ll find beaches for hiking, sunbathing, fishing and even dog-walking. You’ll find destinations perfect for picnics, ideal for camping and even suited for a classic beachside firepit. But no matter where you are in the Bay — East, North or South — there’s a place for you to enjoy the sands and maybe even dive in the water.
Check out our list of the region’s best beaches and let us know which one you’re visiting next!
Best for group outings
Ocean Beach is one of the city’s most popular destinations for beach events and gatherings — just check out Corgi Con if you don’t believe us. As part of Golden Gate National Park, it’s often crowded during the sunny fall and winter months and you can gather around a beach fire during the colder months thanks to fire rings on the north end. Crowded or not, you’re guaranteed one of the most expansive ocean views in the Bay.
If you’re looking for surf, Ocean Beach is not recommended for beginners. The fast-changing currents can make the water and the waves fickle. Winter swells can bring huge surf, but the water will be freezing and the riding may be dangerous.
Best for Golden Gate views
While Ocean Beach lies along the Pacific on the west side of San Francisco, Baker Beach faces the Golden Gate Bridge and views of the Marin Headlands across the water. Tucked into the shoreline, it’s often more protected from wind and waves than many other SF beaches. So, although large waves, undertow and rip currents make the water unsafe for swimming, the beach is a great spot for picnicking and sunbathing! In fact, the northernmost end of Baker Beach is frequented by clothing-optional sunbathers.
Best for summer afternoons
Featured on our list of the Bay Area’s best swimming holes, Crown Memorial in East Bay offers warmer waters than most other beaches in the region. Because the water stays fairly shallow, it’s a safe option for families hoping to spend a day in the water. On the west end, you’ll find a bathhouse with changing rooms as well as a picnic area with bbq pits. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can hit the ocean in a rented kayak, sailboard or raft!
Best for beginning swimmers
The shallow waters at Cull Canyon are perfect for little ones who are just getting used to the water. During the summer swim season, lifeguards are on duty nearly every day and the whole family will have access to a bathhouse, vending machines and the 1.5-acre swim lagoon. There’s no parking fee at Cull Canyon, but you will have to pay $2.50 – $3.50 for everyone over one year to access the beach. Any children under one year are admitted for free!
Best for fishing
This Peninsula beach is one of Pacifica’s most popular destinations. Just 15 minutes from downtown San Francisco, the sands here are black due to a high concentration of the iron oxide magnetite. Walk the scenic pier to stand above the waters and cast in your fishing line for some of the region’s best fishing. During summer months you’ll see salmon and striped bass, while winter brings the Dungeness crab — and you don’t need a fishing license to cast from the pier!
Best for learning to surf
Also called Pacifica State Beach, the southernmost of Pacifica’s large beaches is popular year-round whether you’re looking for whales in the spring, surfing in the summer, picnicking in the fall or dog-walking in the winter. Beginning surfers will find some of the best waves and classes here! Check out Adventure Out to schedule your first lesson or rent your surfboard and wetsuit from nearby Nor Cal Surf Shop.
Best for camping
What pairs best with camping? No, it’s not a tent — though you’ll need one of those too! At Kirby Cove along the Marin Headlands, you get to camp with a starry view of the Golden Gate Bridge and a morning sunrise on the water! The cove is 300 yards long, packed with chestnut-brown pebbles and is protected from the wind by rock outcroppings on both ends.
Kirby Cove Campground is open April – November and offers a day-use site for up to 35 people and five overnight campsites which can each accommodate 10 people. Make your required reservation online. You can camp for $25 per night and reserve the day-use area for $35.
Best for dog walking
Rodeo Beach is a picturesque stretch of sand and pebbles separating Rodeo Lagoon and Rodeo Cove in Marin. A popular beachcombing and surf spot, it’s the most accessible of the beaches between the Golden Gate and Stinson Beach to the north. Because it’s one of the National Park Service’s dog-friendly beaches, your furry family member is invited to gambol in the sands off-leash as long as they’re well-behaved and under voice control. Just keep them out of the lagoon and have a fun dog day on the beach!
Best for families
Located inside Tomales Bay State Park, the waters at Heart’s Desire Beach are calm, great for wading and swimming and are often warmer than those of the Pacific. The beach is protected from motorized boats, but feel free to bring your kayak or canoe and paddle with the kids! You’ll also find amenities including restrooms, drinking water and an extensive network of picnic areas with tables and charcoal grills perfect for lunchtime.
Best for hiking
Nothing feels more beachy and exciting than a pirate’s cove — especially one you have to hike into! Starting at Muir Beach, you’ll take the fire road to the crest of the trail, snap a photo (because you won’t be able to resist), then head down the steep rock steps to the sand. Round trip, the hike is just under five miles so you’ll have plenty of energy left over to explore. As a precaution, stay out of the water as it’s likely to be rough. You’ll probably even be misted by crashing waves against the sea stacks just offshore! However, there’s basically no beach during high tide so check the tides before you leave home.
Best for secluded picnics
This beach is located 10.5 miles south of Half Moon Bay on Highway 1. Though the main beach is often crowded, many visitors don’t spend time exploring. For a more secluded lagoon spot, walk past all the people and continue south beyond the outlet for the lagoon. On this wilderness beach, you’ll be at the base of the sandstone cliffs where you can find a cozy nook to eat your picnic!
Best for beachside entertainment
Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Main Beach in Santa Cruz is home to the famed Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk where you’ll find heaps of classic California beach culture. As though straight out of a Hollywood movie, you can shop, roller skate, watch live entertainment, ride a roller coaster and play carnival games on the boardwalk all while the tide rolls against the sands on the beach. And you can always venture down to dip your toes in the water! Stop by on a Wednesday night during the summer to catch a free movie.
If we missed your go-to Bay Area beach, let us know in the comments below!