By Lee Foster
What are the best beaches both north and south of San Francisco, as well as in San Francisco? A connoisseur of beaches needs to know. Bold and firm recommendations are in order.
Baker Beach gets my vote as the choicest beach within San Francisco. It is west of the Golden Gate Bridge along Lincoln Avenue. This beach has everything, including a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, especially lovely in late afternoon and at sunset if the light is golden.
Baker Beach appeals because of its size, its pleasing topography with gentle cliffs behind it, its ample parking, its view of the Marin Headlands as well as the Golden Gate, and its ability to accommodate all kinds of visitors, from families on its western edge to the clothing-optional crowd on its eastern extremities.
Aside from Baker Beach, two other inviting beaches within San Francisco are on the western side of city. They are Ocean Beach, on the west side of Golden Gate Park, and the more secluded Fort Funston Beach, which requires a walk down from a hang glider launch site, itself a phenomenon to enjoy.
Ocean Beach stretches out south of the Cliff House and west of the Beach Chalet Restaurant in Golden Gate Park. Both would be good places to stop for food and drink, with Beach Chalet more casual and accessible.
Ocean Beach is particularly broad, with shallow expanses rather than a steep drop off. Ocean Beach is a good place to take your shoes off and get your feet wet, walking in the sand.
However, respect for the ocean and its rogue waves and undertows is an important cautionary skill to cultivate. A few adults and children die each year on California beaches because they get swept out or sucked out by a retreating wave. Some vigilance is always prudent.
South from Ocean Beach, the beach at Fort Funston has rustic allure. There’s ample parking on a bluff top above Fort Funston Beach. At the parking lot, there is a special hang glider observation deck, where you can watch the hang gliders launch and then sail back and forth in the sky, catching the thermals and updrafts as the wind from the ocean hits the cliffs at Fort Funston and causes the air to ride upward.
The beach at Fort Funston requires a walk down a steep path to get there, then a walk up the path to get back. This separates the drive-in beach crowd from the more dedicated and athletic beach goer. The hike, however, is not that onerous. You can also survey the beach below from the hang glider observation deck and determine if this is the beach for you.
Both north and south from San Francisco, there are glorious coastal beaches to consider. Between Point Arena and Carmel alone there are 250 miles of shoreline.
Going north about 50 miles, Limantour Beach at Point Reyes is an excellent beach choice. Limantour gets my recommendation as the single most appealing beach on the Northern California Coast. There is much to like here.
Limantour is located in a pristine setting within a national park property, Point Reyes. There is a backdrop of wooded hillsides. Access is easy and excellent, with a parking lot behind the dunes. The beach sprawls out in a tawny, sandy manner, allowing you to walk for miles. No human presence intrudes on the rustic appearance. Wildlife, such as migrating whales, can sometimes be spotted offshore. An aura of seclusion and wilderness surrounds Limantour.
Continuing north, a few other desirable options stand out.
Heart’s Desire Beach is about 54 miles north of San Francisco. This is a warm, protected, east side beach on the Point Reyes landscape. It’s in Tomales Bay State Park, and is the warmest swimming option among generally chilly possibilities.
Bodega Head Beach and Bodega Dunes Beach, about 70 miles north, present an elemental, rugged coast and sandy beach, with some of the more impressive sand dunes in northern California. Bodega Head is worth a stop to look out from this promontory onto the coast. The Bodega Dunes Beach and camp is a half mile north. There are good hiking trails, but be careful of dangerous surf and plan to swim elsewhere.
Goat Rock Beach, about 77 miles north, is famous for its “sea stack” landforms offshore and for the large colony of harbor seals that haul out at the mouth of the Russian River, which is at the north end of the beach.
Manchester Beach, about 136 miles north, is a classic beach with miles of sand, robust dunes topped with European beach grass, and a stream cutting through the beach to the water. Wildflowers show lavishly in the spring, especially Douglas iris.
South from San Francisco, one of the appealing beaches is Montara, which is quite close, just 10 miles south. Montara Beach offers a classic beach experience. Parking is somewhat limited on a bluff above the beach. You walk down steps and then stroll north for a couple of miles of ample beach. Sunsets are particularly luscious as the light hits the bluffs behind the beach.
Continuing south, here are two more favorites.
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Beach, 12 miles south, is a special tide pooling environment. Plan a visit to coincide with low tide and secure some footgear that functions well in salt water and will protect your feet in the sharp rocky environment. Spend some time here and you will see the richness of the ocean life.
Ano Nuevo, 43 miles south, is a sprawling beach well known for its resident elephant seals. The mammoth creatures haul out here, rest, and give birth. Dominant males rush around to control their harems, so there is plenty of social interaction.
Northern California Best Beaches: If You Go
My more thorough comments on these beach options can be seen for North from San Francisco at https://www.fostertravel.com/californias-best-beaches-north-of-san-francisco/ and South from San Francisco at https://www.fostertravel.com/californias-best-beaches-south-of-san-francisco/.
Beaches are the subject of chapters in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. California beaches also figure prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends.