by Lee Foster
Autumn and spring entice the connoisseur of beaches to the coast north and south of San Francisco because the sky will likely be clear rather than opaque with the fog of summer.
Whether you want to marvel at tide pools, escape from urban life, or simply restore your lungs in the bracing salt air, the nearby beaches offer something for everyone. If you think you already know the roughly 250 miles of coast between Point Arena and Carmel, peruse the following selections. You may have overlooked these well-known and lesser-known beaches, all true delights. Some beaches also boast features that may be new to you, such as an improved hiking trail between Bodega Head and Bodega Dunes.
If you haven’t recently explored the beauty of the coast, many aspects beckon throughout the year. Most visitors marvel at the salubrious fall and spring sunlight with its visual clarity. But some prefer the pensive fogs of summer. A few visitors will savor the invigorating storms of winter. A yearly pageant of seasons awaits you.
This article covers beaches north of San Francisco. A companion piece looks at beaches south of The City.
Allow plenty of time when looking at the mileage to these beaches. The roads are narrow and winding. You will want to drive slowly and savor the scene. The mileage is the most direct route, but your desired road might be along the coast, adding more miles to the adventure.
Limantour Beach at Point Reyes, about 45 miles north
Limantour would get my vote as the single most inviting beach on the Northern California coast. This length of lovely tan sand is so long. The setting is totally pristine. The backdrop of wooded hillsides is alluring. You are in a national park property with little intruding outside presence. Access is also excellent, with a large and available parking lot, so this beach is for everyone. A sense of seclusion and wildness pervades the Point Reyes area, putting you far from Highway 1 and the noise or speed of any automobiles.
Limantour is at the end of the road west to the coast as you enter the Point Reyes National Seashore region. Stop at the informative Visitor Center to orient yourself to Point Reyes and get a national parks map/brochure of the entity.
Heart’s Desire Beach, about 52 miles north
Point Reyes is prime beach country, with McClures and already-mentioned Limantour among the good choices. If the weather is windy or chilly, and you want a warmer and more protected setting, Heart’s Desire is a good place to consider. Heart’s Desire Beach is in Tomales Bay State Park.
To reach Heart’s Desire Beach, drive into Point Reyes and turn onto Pierce Point Road to the clearly marked entrance of Tomales Bay State Park. The road curls down from the ridges, passing clusters of bay, madrone, and oak trees, to the protected cove, which is complete with a grassy area and picnic tables, restrooms, and an agreeable wooded setting.
Heart’s Desire Beach offers the best ocean swimming in California north of San Francisco. The beach is ample, the ocean floor recedes gradually, rip tides and sleeper waves are unknown, and the water warms to as high as 80 degrees by the end of summer. For both adults and children, this is an ideal sunning and swimming beach. Heart’s Desire Beach is protected from wind, with the fog hanging up on the ridge. When the rest of the coast is foggy and windy, Heart’s Desire will often be sunny.
From Heart’s Desire Beach you can also hike south along Tomales Bay to more secluded beaches, such as Pebble Beach (a half-mile) and Shell Beach (4 miles). In the park you make the acquaintance of unusual bishop pines, which flourish here as an aging forest. Fire is needed to open the cones and germinate seeds, but fires have been suppressed here, so the forest grows older.
An established tule elk herd can be seen if you drive farther out on Pierce Point Road. This large hoofed animal, so abundant in early California, survived a close brush with extinction and is now climbing back to safe and stable numbers.
Inverness offers several good bed and breakfast lodgings, such as Ten Inverness Way.
Drive-in campers use the Samuel P. Taylor State Park, which locates you in the redwoods. Camping sites in state parks can be reserved. Backpack campers favor the walk-in Coast Camp or Wildcat Camp, both on the sea bluffs in Point Reyes National Seashore.
A Czech restaurant at Inverness has a reputation for dishes such as chunks of lamb in paprika. Try Vladimir’s.
Bodega Head and Bodega Dunes Beach, about 70 miles north
Bodega Head and Bodega Dunes present an elemental, rugged coast, expansive sandy beaches, and the most impressive sand dunes in Northern California. The sandy beaches at Bodega Dunes extend for miles along the ocean. At Bodega Head, small pocket beaches can be found below the jutting, west-facing bluffs.
To get to Bodega Head, turn west at Bodega Bay along Westshore Road and skirt the bay. You pass day-use Westshore Park, an access point to dig for littleneck, Washington, and gaper clams in Bodega Bay. At the end of the road, Bodega Head, you’ll find a parking lot, restrooms, access to the pocket beaches, and a hiking trail.
From the bluffs at Bodega Head, you can gaze north and south along the rugged coast, communing with the rocky shoreline. Bodega Head amounts to one of the most inspiring vistas along the coast. You can thread your way from the bluffs to the small pocket beaches for a picnic or sunning. A trailhead sign alerts you to the 3-mile hiking trail linking Bodega Head with the miles of shifting sand dunes to the north. These dunes amount to a sand wilderness. Seeded European beach grass prevents the dunes from migrating freely. Walk north on this loose-sand trail for as long as you wish, allowing time for your walk back. The trail passes a University of California Biological Research station, but the tide-pool and population studies are not open for public scrutiny.
After you’ve perused this splendid rocky promontory, for a direct route to the dunes, return to Highway 1, drive north a half mile, and turn west into the Bodega Dunes Campground. A boardwalk allows you to cross the dunes to the glorious, expansive beach. The boardwalk and restrooms here have wheelchair access. The beach is for walking and viewing rather than swimming because of treacherous sleeper waves and rip tides. Eight miles of crisscrossing trails in the sand dunes behind the beach afford plenty of hiking opportunities.
The beach environment at Bodega Head and Bodega Dunes has sufficient variety to please almost everyone. The Bodega area beaches are administered by the Sonoma Coast State Beaches entity. Chain link fences recall the era when the site was proposed for a nuclear power plant.
In winter, if you’re looking for a whale-watching platform, keep Bodega Head in mind.
Bodega Bay’s Fisherman Festival in April is one of the area’s major celebrations.
The Chanslor Ranch, a quarter-mile north of the dunes entrance, is a bed and breakfast that rents horses for riding in the dune area.
Bodega Dunes Campground is a close-up location amidst the dunes, beach grass, and cypress trees, but with no direct access to the beach. The campground boasts an amenity favored by many campers–hot showers. One good camp-on-the-beach situation is Doran Beach, a county camping park, whose lovely shore-side sites are doled out on a first-come basis.
Fresh seafood, such as locally caught sole or salmon, is the specialty at a Bodega restaurant known as The Tides Wharf. Bodega Bay hosts the largest fishing fleet between San Francisco and Eureka.
Goat Rock Beaches, about 77 miles north
Goat Rock Beaches, at the mouth of the Russian River, extend out on a peninsula between the river and the ocean. Watching waves crash against the rock pedestals, called seastacks, viewing sunsets from this west-facing beach, and collecting driftwood at the mouth of the river occupy travelers here. (The park staff encourages driftwood collecting because the wood debris becomes a potential fire hazard to roofs in the town of Jenner. Periodic burning reduces the uncollected volume.)
To get to Goat Rock Beaches, which are not visible from the road, watch for the clearly marked sign and take State Park Road off Highway 1. The grassy bluffs overlooking Goat Rock Beaches make excellent picnic sites. At the beaches you’ll find a string of parking lots with access to the beach. The northern edge puts you closest to the mouth of the Russian River. The most southerly parking lot locates you near the most protected beaches, although all of these beaches are too dangerous for swimming, due to sleeper waves and rip tides.
Resident harbor seals here haul out at the mouth of the Russian River in the spring to give birth to their young. Fishing is popular for salmon and steelhead in winter near the mouth of the river. Rockfish are plentiful in the surf in summer. Smelt netters are also successful here. Driftwood collectors cherish treasures and firewood gatherers appreciate the volume. The main features of this open peninsula for the average beachgoer are the size of the sandy beach and the drama of the river meeting the sea.
For a meal or bed and breakfast in Jenner, try the Jenner Inn, a turn-of-the-last-century inn. Seafood is the dinner specialty, washed down with an ample selection of North Coast wines. The Sunday champagne brunch draws a crowd.
Camping occurs on the beach at Wright’s Beach, south of Goat Rock Beaches. If it is too chilly or windy, try the Casini Ranch Campground a few miles inland, at Duncan’s Mill, along the Russian River.
Fort Ross Beaches, about 90 miles north
Fort Ross Cove is the original sandy beach where the fur-trading Russians landed, built a trading fort, and constructed ships. Lumber traders later in the 19th century loaded their boats here with redwood for the San Francisco market, using long chutes. For you, this sandy beach, complete with a meandering stream, is a seldom-appreciated aspect of the impressive Fort Ross restoration on the uplands above the beach.
As you explore this historic beach, it’s intriguing to think of the Russians landing their supplies or the nimble Aleut Indians in the Russians’ employ casting off in small kayaks in search of sea otters. The Russians actually built four ships on this sandy beach between 1816-1824, using redwood and Douglas fir from the forests in the hills. The Russians’ failure at growing a surplus of wheat and vegetables here, plus the decline in the otter population, caused the retreat from here to Sitka, Alaska, in 1841, and eventually a return to the Russian mainland.
Fort Ross is on Highway 1, 11 miles north of Jenner. An entrance fee gets you access to the area. There’s plenty of parking, restrooms (wheelchair accessible), and picnic tables at the beach.
A pathway leads from the fort to the beach. Fishing for perch is good in the surf. There are attractions here for every beach fan, including the sandy pocket beach, a rocky shore, an upland area behind the beach, and bluffs. The offshore underwater park adjacent to Fort Ross is popular with divers.
Be sure to allow time to see the restored Russian fort, a gem of historic reconstruction and interpretation. Self-guide yourself through the displays.
Campsites are available at Salt Point State Park, north of Fort Ross.
Manchester Beach, 143 miles north
Manchester is a classic beach with miles of sand, huge sand dunes topped with European beach grass, a stream cutting through the dunes to the water, and plenty of driftwood. The size (972 acres) of Manchester Beach permits seclusion. Wildflowers show lavishly here in spring, especially Douglas iris.
Manchester Beach is accessible by three roads north of Point Arena. Alder Creek, Kinney, and Stoneboro roads lead to parking lots behind the dunes. Manchester State Beach runs the full 3 1/2 miles from Alder Creek to just north of Point Arena. There is a day entrance fee, plenty of parking, restrooms, and paths to the beach. Hiking trails crisscross the area. Fishing is popular for snapper and sea trout.
The Alder Creek entrance at the north end crosses a San Andreas fault line that jumped 16 feet in 1906. After passing a marsh with abundant bird life, you reach the beach. Kinney Road leads you through sand dunes to the state park’s campground and the beach. Stoneboro Road leads to the major bird habitat at Hunter’s Lagoon. Rare and endangered whistling swans winter to the south along the Garcia River bottom.
Point Arena Lighthouse, immediately south, is worth a tour. Climb the numerous steps to the top of this lighthouse. In the Visitor Center see the famed Fresnel lens that magnified light, reducing the shipwrecks along the coast. You can lodge for the night at Point Arena in the former lighthouse keepers’ cottages.
Manchester State Beach Campgrounds is one of the best state beach camps along the coast. The 43 campsites locate you right in the dunes. There are also “environmental” campsites if you want to pack in your gear.
For further beaches suggestions, look at my website article California’s Best Beaches South of San Francisco.
My beaches articles are also chapters in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options.