Author’s Note: This article “California’s Best Beaches South of San Francisco” is one of 30 chapters in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. See also my companion article “California’s Best Beaches North of San Francisco.”
By Lee Foster
If headed south from San Francisco on CA Highway 1, which are the loveliest beaches at which to linger? Here are my suggestions:
Montara Beach, 10 miles south
Montara Beach offers a classic beach experience and is my favorite in this region. You park on a bluff overlooking the south end of the beach. Stretching in front of you are a couple miles of sand, going north. The lookout is inviting. The beach is wide and welcoming. The surf is crashing. In the hours before sunset a golden glow from the west settles on the beach and cliffs behind it.
Gingerly descend the stairs to the beach. The stairs get wiped out from time to time by storms. But then they get rebuilt.
Walk north along the beach. Admire the thunderous surf. Gulp in the fresh air. Accept the glow of the sun from the west. Indulge in a near-wilderness experience, yet very close to San Francisco. A very few other people will be frolicking on the beach, perhaps with their dogs fetching sticks in the surf. This is a happy place.
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Beach, 12 miles south
In the rush to the beaches at Half Moon Bay, many travelers overlook three-mile-long Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, one of the richest intertidal regions along the coast. Here, you can meditate over tide pools with a variety of sea life.
The Reserve, established in 1969, is south of Montara, in Moss Beach. Turn onto California Avenue and make a right on North Lake Street. Try to have your visit coincide with a low tide.
There’s plenty of parking, restrooms, stairs and paths to the beach, and a hiking trail along the bluffs to the south. Picnic tables in a sheltered cypress grove make a protected lunch spot.
You can enjoy here a variety of terrain, including a sandy beach, a rocky shore, a stream corridor, and bluffs. Don’t remove or disturb any of the marine life here, which is protected. The tide-pool rocks can be slippery, so wear appropriate footgear, perhaps boots or waterproof shoes, and plan to get your feet wet. .
Focus on understanding animal relationships, adaptation techniques, habitats, and the food web of the reserve. Closest to shore, along the beach and protected inner reef, you’ll find black turban snails in intense populations. Farther out, crabs populate the cobblestone lagoons. Red abalone, rockweed and nailbrush, chitons and urchins, green anemones and bullwhip kelp are some of the fauna and flora awaiting you here. You would have to journey to the South Pacific to find a richer ocean environment.
Ano Nuevo State Reserve Beach, 43 miles south
Summer is the “off season” for Ano Nuevo. In short, summer is unlike the hectic winter, when you need a reservation to see the abundant elephant seal alpha males, who haul out and position themselves on the beach. The giant elephant seals are a species that barely escaped extinction. However, they now grow comfortably numerous. For alpha species wildlife viewing, Ano Nuevo would indeed rank as one of California’s best beaches south of San Francisco.
On the other hand, contrast the showy performance of alpha male dominance in winter with the traveler experience of summer. Summer is a wonderfully quiet time for Ano Nuevo. Moreover, the size and diversity of this 1,500-acre holding is impressive.
Ano Nuevo State Reserve ranges from Franklin Point south to New Years Creek. The turnoff to the parking area is clearly marked. There’s plenty of parking and a modest fee for day use. Restrooms are located at the parking lot.
Paths and Trails at Ano Nuevo
Paths and trails lead to the beach, which offers good fishing for halibut, croaker, and perch. The easily accessible beach at the mouth of New Years Creek, a short walk from the parking lot, is a good sunning and picnic area at low tide. The shoreline at Ano Nuevo includes sandy beaches, dunes, rocky areas, and bluffs. Get a map at the interpretive center, located in the old Dickerman Barn, where there are informative displays on nature and the human use of the area. Ano Nuevo is a particularly good area to see shorebirds, upland birds, and hawks. You can also explore Indian middens and the legacy of the Steele Brothers dairy empire, which started here in the 1850s.
The 1 1/2-mile walk out to the point is a favorite trek. A sensitive area here, with numerous harbor seals, has restricted access in summer to protect the vulnerable newborn pups. For an ambitious, all-day outing, walk from Ano Nuevo on the beach all the way north to Franklin Point.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Beacon Amidst the Beaches South of San Francisco
The Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a few miles north, was built in 1871 to prevent a repeat of wrecks like that of the Carrier Pigeon in 1853. The lighthouse is an architectural monument, with brick walls seven feet thick. Pigeon Point functions as a rustic all-ages hostel. You can view the outside of the lighthouse at any time. The inside is open on some days to the public.
Waddell Creek Beach, 46 miles south
Waddell Creek beaches are interesting for several reasons. Windsurfers and hang gliders gather here in record numbers. An observer sees the gliders airborne above the waves. The Waddell Creek Beach and bluffs are a part of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. A seal rookery flourishes south of the beach. The Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve, which includes Waddell Marsh, begins at the mouth of Waddell Creek. Wherever a creek enters the ocean, there is interesting wildlife to observe.
Waddell Creek Beach is along Highway 1 a mile south of the San Mateo County line. There’s plenty of parking, restrooms, and good fishing for lingcod, croaker, and perch. You’ll find sandy beach and dunes, the stream and wetlands, plus low bluffs overlooking the ocean.
From Waddell Creek Beach you can walk inland through Big Basin Redwoods State Park. In fact, you could walk all the way from the beach to the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains along a trail called the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, which became officially complete with the addition of the Rancho del Oso property along Waddell Creek. A bronze marker at the trailhead recalls that here Gaspar de Portola and his men rested for three days during their long walk from San Diego to San Francisco in 1769. Those ill in the party recovered their health so quickly that the Spanish called the area Canada de la Salud–Canyon of Health.
Capitola City Beach, east edge of Santa Cruz
If the Santa Cruz City Beach, with its boardwalk and miles of sand, is already familiar or a little overwhelming, consider secluded Capitola, an artsy but unpretentious little beach town that clings to the cliffs east of Santa Cruz.
The Capitola City Beach is south of the Esplanade. Parking can be tight, but there is a free shuttle bus in summer that can take you from an outlying parking lot on McGregor Drive. Restrooms are available on the Capitola Pier.
In summer a lifeguard watches over swimmers at this safe, warm, and sunny beach. The expanse of sand is a delight. The beach has volleyball nets and benches along the sidewalk. There is also a stream, Soquel Creek, with a lagoon for wading
East of Capitola City Beach, at low tide, you can walk toward New Brighton State Beach and inspect rock outcroppings with intriguing layers of sandstone and numerous fossils. From New Brighton Beach you can walk a full 15 miles all the way to the mouth of the Pajaro River.
Capitola offers a beach close to city pleasures, such as shopping or perusing the historic buildings that were once part of Camp Capitola. Men of vision believed, at one time, that the area was destined to be the state capital; hence the name.
Campers enjoy New Brighton State Beach, immediately east of Capitola. The camps lie on a woodsy bluff overlooking a wide, sandy beach. One of the choice settings in the state park system, New Brighton also boasts an amenity appreciated by many campers–hot showers.
Carmel River State Beach, southeast corner of Carmel
This lovely, quiet beach, with its half mile of unspoiled tan sand, is a respite from the faster pace of the urban Monterey-Carmel area. The 106-acre site includes a marsh and a lagoon near the river mouth.
There are two approaches to the Carmel River Beach. The main entrance, along Scenic Road, has a parking lot, restrooms, direct access to the beach, and good fishing. To get to the east side of the beach, which is a bird sanctuary, you can wade across the shallow river or take paths at access points along Ribera Road. The southernmost portion of the beach, known as San Jose Creek Beach or Monastery Beach, is accessible from Highway 1, but is dangerous because of the roadway and is used mainly by divers.
Terrific views of Point Lobos are one of Carmel River Beach’s many attractions. The southward orientation keeps the beach sunny and warm when other beaches in the area are windy. The beauty of the tan sand, shallow and safe wading in the warm Carmel River, the relative seclusion compared with Carmel City Beach, and birdlife in the tule marshes along the river are some of the pleasures at the Carmel River Beach. Divers use the ocean face of the beach extensively, but the surf is hazardous for the casual swimmer. The undersea Carmel Bay Ecological Reserve is adjacent to the beach.
The Carmel Mission, where mission-founder Junipero Serra lies buried, is upriver on Lasuen Drive a few blocks from the beach. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, celebrating the fauna and flora of the California coast, is the area’s major attraction.
In Conclusion: Best Beaches South of San Francisco
The many attractive choices among these beaches suggest the joy of the California coast for a traveler.
It would be difficult to argue that the best beaches are north or south of San Francisco.
It’s best to go through life savoring the two directions, enjoying both, frequently.