Northern California’s rugged coastline offers beachgoers a huge 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 overcrowded archetypal amusement beaches, like Santa Cruz, with its wooden boardwalk, vintage roller coaster, and carnival games. There are scenic beaches, such as Baker Beach, almost directly under the Golden Gate Bridge (easily accessible by public transportation), and secluded beaches, such as Centerville Beach, close to the Oregon border. By law, all beaches in California are free and open to the public, and most in Northern California also have free parking. Check out this list of the best beaches in Northern California:
1 Holy Cross
No list of great beaches in Northern California can exist without including Santa Cruz. You start with a large beach, wide and flat, with soft, golden sand and fairly gentle surf. Then add the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. One of the top attractions in Santa Cruz, the Boardwalk is an old wooden boardwalk 0.6 miles (1 km) long 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 delighting beachgoers since it opened in 1907 and two rides, the Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Looff Carousel, are National Historic Landmarks. When you are done enjoying the rides, there are plenty of natural landscapes to admire. The beachfront ocean is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. You can see dolphins, otters, sea lions and whales from the beach. The West Cliff Inn, a Four Sisters Inn is a well-run, popular boutique hotel, on a hill overlooking the beach.
2 The Big Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore
Also known as Point Reyes Beach, The Great Beach is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a national park just an hour from downtown San Francisco. If you want some serious expanses of expanses of expanses of sand 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 driveway parking spaces at either end, right on the sand. Because of the rough waves, this beach is better for walking and exploring than swimming. The Lodge at Point Reyes is a mid-sized 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, high-speed Wi-Fi.
3 Three Rocks Beach
Three Rocks Beach in Half Moon Bay delivers 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 houses but all are a few hundred yards back), yet easily accessible. There are wide, flat sandy areas and other areas with huge boulders and rocks. It’s also nice because there are high cliffs, with hiking trails at the top. The beach is a public park, but it’s almost part of The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. The luxury resort is perched on top of the cliff, with dramatic coastline views in both directions, and the building has a Victorian seaside resort feel in a modern, luxurious style.
4 Drakes Beach
Northern California’s answer to England’s White Cliffs of Dover, this beautiful, wide beach features the same striking, white sandstone cliffs as England’s coastline. Drakes Beach is another beach that is part of the Point Reyes National Seashore and is located almost next to Point Reyes Lighthouse. The waves are rough and the water is very cold, rarely above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. People surf and enjoy a number of water sports here, but a wetsuit is necessary for extended periods of time in the water. The beach has an easy ramp, a visitor center and a small beach cafe.
5 Baker Beach
This mile-long beach is part of the Presidio, a former military fortress and now a public park and commercial development. The big draw here is that it’s right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, with postcard-like views of the iconic structure. You can also see the Marin Headlands and Lands End. There is a picnic area with BBQ 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 is within the city limits of San Francisco and also easily accessible by public transportation. The Travelodge at the Presidio San Francisco isn’t fancy, but it’s walking distance from the Presidio and puts you in a good location to explore the rest of the city.
6 Centerville Beach
This nine-mile stretch of windswept beach is part of what’s called the Lost Coast, vast, rugged, undeveloped Northern California coastline in both Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. Centerville Beach is a county park and has high cliffs with many hiking trails. Both horses and dogs are allowed on the beach, as are vehicles and ATVs. It is a wide, flat beach, but the water is both very cold and very rough, making it not the best beach for water sports. Centerville Beach is located near the charming Victorian town of Ferndale, about a 4.5-hour drive north of San Francisco. The Gingerbread Mansion Inn is a downtown Ferndale bed-and-breakfast created in a Victorian mansion.
7 Fort Funston
With a name that sounds like an amusement park, Fort Funston is actually part of the massive fortress-like defenses surrounding San Francisco. The area was mainly built in the 19th century but was used during the Cold War. It is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Park, a national park. Fort Funston Beach is bordered by sheer, 200-foot-tall cliffs, and it is very windy. The cliffs and 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 is a very steep walk to access the beach from the car park.
8 Glass Beach
This beautiful and fascinating beach is unique as it is a former bottle dump. Glass Beach is now a protected state park beach, but centuries of pounding waves broke up the bottles and smoothed the chunks into tiny, rounded glass pebbles. Almost completely covered in the sand are marble, deeply colored glass stones of shades of blue, red, green and brown. The beach is part of MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg, about 3.5 hours north of San Francisco. Shoreline Cottages is a retro hotel with individual cottages. Most accommodations are cozy and well-furnished, and many have a kitchen.
9 Stinson Beach
This beach seems to be Marin County’s best kept secret. It’s only 35 minutes from downtown San Francisco, but it offers a true, Northern California, rural beach experience, with no big hotels, no modern beach houses, just some cool, mid-century residential developments and some great local shops 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 is right next to Mt. Tamalpais State Park and the giant sequoias of Muir Woods National Monument.
10 Dunes Winery
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 located in Sonoma County, about 90 minutes from San Francisco and close to Napa Valley. The Bodega Dunes campground has nearly 100 sites (for tents, RVs, or trailers), with hot showers and restrooms. It offers a great experience on the go. For a much more luxurious beach holiday, the beach (well, it’s on a bluff overlooking the beach) Bodega Bay Lodge resort has a popular spa and its own golf course.
11 Monterey State Beach
Monterey State Beach is a wide, gently sloping and undulating beach across the bay, a 15-minute drive from the popular Cannery Row area of downtown Monterey. Just enough is the beach in the city of Seaside. The water is cold, but the surf is gentle, so it’s great for brave swimmers. Monterey State Beach has several areas with restrooms and showers. The Monterey Tides, a Joie de Vivre hotel is located right on the sand, and the ocean view rooms have a spectacular view of the bay. It is an older hotel, but recently renovated and very well managed.