The 25+ Best Northern California Beaches

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The beautiful and rugged coastline of Northern California stretches from the Oregon border to just beyond the Golden Gate. How far beyond is a matter of some debate with some choosing to include Santa Cruz whilst others draw the line at San Francisco.

The NorCal scenery is as mixed as it is stunning, with much of it spilling down to the dramatic coastline. Beachgoers will find wide sandy expanses, pounded by the Pacific surf and remote coves backed by forests of Sitka spruce Redwood pine.

Many of the finest beaches along the North Coast are within easy reach of San Francisco with some being virtually under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge itself. What is a little more surprising is that you can find miles of wild beach, possibly to yourself less than an hour's drive from downtown.

Like all of California, the beaches in NorCal are by law open to the public and free of charge. This often extends to the parking.

Read on to plan your day at the beach with our list of the best beaches in Northern California.

  • 1. Stinson Beach

    Stinson Beach
    Mark Gunn
    Great for:
    • Swimming
    • Surfing
    • Kitesurfing

    Situated within California's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Stinson Beach lies approximately 30 kilometres northwest of San Francisco along Highway 1, making it a popular day trip for residents of the city.

    This long stretch of sand offers a relatively shallow entry into the waters of the Pacific, which can be a little on the cold side. However, as one of the region's cleanest beaches it offers a range of… read more »

  • 2. Baker Beach

    Baker Beach
    UltraView Admin

    Situated between San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge to the north, Baker Beach is a flat, wide expanse of golden sand approximately 800 metres in length.

    In the city's Presidio area, its natural vistas are improved by views of the entirety of the Golden Gate Bridge on all but the foggiest of days. Within Golden Gate National Recreation Area, it also boasts a coastal trail that leads up onto… read more »

  • 3. Moonstone Beach

    Moonstone Beach
    © Jar965

    Located in Cambria, San Luis Obispo County, central California, Moonstone Beach is made up of a dark sand the colour of brown sugar. Located within Hearst San Simeon State Park, it has also no facilities.

    However, Moonstone Beach does boast a number of attractions that make it well worth a visit. A mile-long boardwalk runs from Moonstone Beach Park at Santa Rosa Creek to Leffingwell Landing. You can find parking at… read more »

  • 4. Bowling Ball Beach

    Bowling Ball Beach
    Brocken Inaglory
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    The intriguing name of this California beach comes from the rounded boulders up to a metre in diameter which sit on its cliff-lined sands. Part of Schooner Gulch State Beach, Bowling Ball Beach lies a short distance south of Point Arena along Highway One. To reach it from the highway, you need to take the right-hand trail.

    The unusual geological phenomenon responsible for the near-spherical rocks is known as "concretion" and… read more »

  • 5. Shark Fin Cove

    Shark Fin Cove

    Located just a few miles up Highway 1 from Santa Cruz, Shark Fin Cove is a different world. It isn't hard to see where the beach gets its name from; viewed from the right angle the hulking rock that guards the bay's entrance cuts the same profile of a huge shark's fin. The sandy beach is also known as Shark Tooth Cove, for the same reason.

    But there's more to Shark… read more »

  • 6. San Gregorio State Beach

    San Gregorio State Beach
    Nathan Siemers
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    Close to Silicon Valley in the South Bay Area, San Gregorio State Beach is a popular beach with a large car park and good amenities. Located on a wild stretch of the California coast this is a great place for picnics, birdwatching, beach activities, walking, hunting for fossils and exploring the trails.

    Accessed from La Honda Road and Cabrillo Hwy, you will find restrooms, picnic tables and barbecues. There is a… read more »

  • 7. Fort Funston

    Fort Funston
    © Adam Derewecki

    The southernmost Pacific facing beach in San Francisco, Fort Funston Beach is included as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Rather windy, especially on the top of the sandy bluffs that surround it, Fort Funston Beach has become a haven for hang gliders. They launch from a special ramp most frequently between March and October.

    The main downside to Fort Funston Beach if you're not hang gliding is… read more »

  • 8. Point Reyes Beach

    Point Reyes Beach
    John Uhrig

    The main beach at Point Reyes can be arbitrarily divided into North Beach and South Beach. However, a more appropriate name is the Great Beach which fairly accurately sums up this 12 mile long stretch of unbroken golden sand.

    On one of the frequent wild and windy days, where you feel the full force of the Pacific waves pounding¬† unabated into the shoreline, it is hard to imagine you are barely… read more »

  • 9. Drakes Beach

    Drakes Beach

    Located on the more sheltered easterly side of Point Reyes Headlands is Drakes Beach. During the summer months this is a popular spot and the broad expanse of sand can quickly fill up.

    Despite being tucked away, around the corner from the full force of the Pacific Ocean there can still be plenty of waves at Drakes Beach. Before you dive in for a quick surf, be warned the water is… read more »

  • 10. Half Moon Bay State Beach

    Half Moon Bay State Beach
    © David Mark

    Half Moon Bay State Beach has a total length of around 4 miles, and is officially comprised of four separate broad sand beaches. They are named Francis (Kelly) Beach, Venice Beach, Dunes Beach, and Roosevelt (Naples) Beach.

    The Francis Beach section of Half Moon Bay State Beach lies at its southern end. A popular spot for picnics, it has public barbeque facilities. There is also a visitor centre that is open… read more »

  • 11. Muir Beach

    Muir Beach
    Jesse Wagstaff
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    Twenty-five kilometres from San Francisco, Muir Beach is the first beach you'll come across heading north into Marin County. One of the cleanest beaches in California according to official data, it is a part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

    While not the longest of beaches, at around 300 metres in length, it is wide, at 60 metres. The broad sweep of dark sand is surrounded by rocky cliffs studded… read more »

  • 12. Pescadero State Beach

    Pescadero State Beach
    Nick Amoscato
    Great for:
    • Fishing

    A great all-round beach, Pescadero State Beach incorporates sands perfect for sunbathing with rocky cliffs, tidal pools, picnic facilities, and sites for shore fishing. The latter you might expect with a beach that takes its name from the Spanish for "the place to fish".

    The beach covers a length of around a mile in total, divided into two areas separated by the creek that drains the Pescadero Marsh Nature Reserve, a… read more »

  • 13. Tennessee Beach

    Tennessee Beach
    Fabrice Florin

    Tennessee Beach is located on the west side of the Marin Headlands in San Francisco's Marin County. It is named after the SS Tennessee, a ship which ran aground here in 1853 while trying to enter Golden Gate Bay. Though all 500 passengers on board escaped, its iron carcass can still be seen during the lowest tides of the month.

    Only twenty minutes by road from downtown San Francisco, the… read more »

  • 14. Linda Mar Beach

    Linda Mar Beach
    © jnickp
    Great for:
    • Surfing

    You know a beach is going to be worthwhile when it has not one but two names! Pacifica State Beach is situated on the outskirts of San Francisco in California's San Mateo County. One of the most popular beaches to learn how to surf in the Bay area, it is known to surfers as Linda Mar Beach.

    The largest, and also southernmost, beach in Pacifica, its reputation as a surfing… read more »

  • 15. Gray Whale Cove State Beach

    Gray Whale Cove State Beach
    Christopher Michel

    When you hear that Gray Whale Cove State Beach is on an area of coastline known as "Devil's Slide" this should help convey that the descent to the beach is steep and tricky.

    Just 18 miles south of San Francisco, situated between Pacifica and Montara, this state beach is popular for whale watching during the spring migratory season, hence its name. Great white sharks have also been seen… read more »