The rugged coastline of Northern California offers beachgoers an extremely wide variety of options for their beach experience. There are vast, deserted beaches, like the 11 miles of The Great Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, and crowded archetypical amusement beaches, like Santa Cruz, with its wooden boardwalk, vintage roller coaster, and carnival games. There are scenic beaches, like Baker Beach, located almost directly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge (easily accessible via public transportation) and remote beaches, like Centerville Beach, close to the Oregon border. By law, all beaches in California are free to access and publicly accessible, and most in Northern California also have free parking. Check out this list of the best beaches in Northern California:
No list of great Northern California beaches can exist without including Santa Cruz. You start with a big beach, wide and flat, with soft, golden sand and reasonably gentle surf. Then you add the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. One of the top attractions in Santa Cruz, the Boardwalk is an old-school, mile-long wooden boardwalk, lined with shops, carnival games, and part of an amusement park. Together, they create a wonderful beach experience with something for everyone. The Boardwalk has been making beachgoers happy since opening in 1907, and two rides, the Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Looff Carousel, are National Historic Landmarks. When you’re done enjoying the rides, there’s plenty of natural scenery to admire. The ocean in front of the beach is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. From the beach, you can see dolphins, otters, sea lions, and whales. The West Cliff Inn, a Four Sisters Inn is a well-managed, popular boutique hotel, on a hill, overlooking the beach.
The Great Beach, aka Point Reyes Beach, is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a national park only an hour from downtown San Francisco. If you want seriously vast expanses of deserted, wide sandy beach, complete with heavy, pounding surf, this is for you. The Great Beach is 11 continuous miles of undeveloped, unspoiled beach. Access is easy, with two drive-up parking lots at either end, right at the sand. Because of the rough waves, this beach is better for walking and exploring than it is for swimming. The Lodge at Point Reyes is a mid-range hotel close to the park entrance. This popular property charges a premium for its convenient location but makes up for it with a free breakfast and free, fast Wi-Fi.
Three Rocks Beach in Half Moon Bay delivers on all the key ingredients for a great beach. Half Moon Bay is about 30 minutes south of San Francisco and less than an hour from downtown, and the beach is relatively undeveloped (there are homes but they’re all set back a few hundred yards), yet easily accessible. There are wide, flat sandy sections and other areas with huge boulders and rocks. It’s also nice as there are tall cliffs, with hiking trails at the top. The beach is a public park, but it’s almost a part of The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. The luxury resort is perched on top of the cliff, with dramatic views of the coastline in both directions, and the building has the feel of a Victorian seaside resort done in a modern, luxurious style.
Northern California’s answer to England’s White Cliffs of Dover, this beautiful, wide beach has the same striking, white sandstone cliffs as the English coastline. Drakes Beach is another beach that is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore and located almost next to Point Reyes Lighthouse. The waves are rough, and the water is very cold, rarely above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. People do surf and enjoy some water sports here, but a wetsuit is necessary for any extended time in the water. The beach has easy drive-up access, a visitor’s center, and a small beachside cafe.
This mile-long beach is part of the Presidio, a former military fort and now a public park and commercial development. The big draw here is that it’s right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, offering postcard-like views of the iconic structure. You can also see the Marin Headlands and Lands End. There is a picnic area with barbecue grills and picnic tables. This is more of a walking beach; the water is rough and cold, and not really suitable for swimming or wading. It’s within the San Francisco city limits and also easily accessible via public transportation. The Travelodge at the Presidio San Francisco isn’t fancy, but it’s within walking distance of the Presidio and puts you in a good location to explore the rest of the city.
This nine-mile-long, windswept beach is part of what’s called the Lost Coast, vast stretches of raw, undeveloped Northern California coastline in both Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. Centerville Beach is a county park and has tall cliffs with many hiking trails. Both horses and dogs are allowed on the beach, as are vehicles and ATVs. It’s a wide, flat beach, but the water is both very cold and very rough, making it not the best beach for watersports. Centerville Beach is near the charming Victorian town of Ferndale, about a 4.5-hour drive north from San Francisco. The Gingerbread Mansion Inn is a bed-and-breakfast in downtown Ferndale, created in a Victorian mansion.
With a name that sounds like an amusement park, Fort Funston is actually part of the massive fortress-like defenses that surround San Francisco. Mainly built in the 19th century but used through the Cold War, the area is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a national park. The Fort Funston beach is bordered by steep, 200-foot-tall cliffs, and it’s very windy. The cliffs and the wind make it one of the most popular areas for hang gliding and parasailing. The surf is rough and not suitable for swimming, also it’s a very steep hike to access the beach from the parking area.
This beautiful and fascinating beach is unique, as it’s a former bottle dump. Glass Beach is now a protected state park beach, but centuries of pounding waves broke up the bottles and then smoothed the fragments into small, rounded glass pebbles. Almost completely covering the sand are marble-sized, deeply-colored glass stones of blue, red, green, and shades of brown. The beach is part of the MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg, about 3.5 hours north of San Francisco. Shoreline Cottages is a retro hotel with individual cottage accommodations. Most units are cozy and well-furnished, and many come with kitchens.
This beach seems to be Marin County’s best-kept secret. It’s only 35 minutes from downtown San Francisco, yet it offers a true, Northern California, rural beach experience, with no big hotels, no modern beach mansions, just some cool, mid-century residential developments and some great local stores and restaurants. The white, powdery, soft sand is perfect for sunbathing, and the surf here is gentle, making this a great swimming beach. The beach itself is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and it’s right next to Mt. Tamalpais State Park and the giant redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument.
Bodega Dunes is a classic, sandy beach on Bodega Bay, sloping gently into the ocean. As you move away from the shoreline, the wide beach becomes a series of low, grassy dunes, broken up by walkways and the occasional wooden boardwalk. Bodega Bay is in Sonoma County, about 90 minutes from San Francisco and close to Napa Valley. The Bodega Dunes campground has almost 100 spaces (for tents, campers, or trailers), with hot showers and restrooms. It offers a great, camp-on-the-sand experience. For a much more luxurious beach getaway, the beachfront (well, it sits on a bluff overlooking the beach) Bodega Bay Lodge resort has a popular spa and its own golf course.
Monterey State Beach is a wide, gently sloping and curving beach directly across the bay, a 15-minute drive from the popular Cannery Row area of downtown Monterey. Appropriately enough, the beach is in a town called Seaside. The water is cold, but the surf is gentle, so it’s great for brave swimmers. Monterey State Beach has several areas of restrooms and showers. The Monterey Tides, a Joie de Vivre hotel is right on the sand, and the rooms facing the ocean have spectacular views of the bay. It’s an older hotel, but recently renovated and very well managed.