The Bold and the Beautiful: NorCal Beaches You Don't Want to Miss

Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

What makes the Bay Area unique is its microclimate system. At the height of summer, it can be eighty-degrees on sunny Stinson Beach and hovering in the mid-fifties less than a dozen miles south at Ocean Beach. If you are determined to have sun with your beach, stick to Marin and Point Reyes to the north and Half-Moon Bay and the Santa Cruz area to the south. If you happen to be visiting in July and August, the "winter" for much of San Francisco because of the fog, you might have to drive for a bit to find the sun. Luckily, all drives in every direction from San Francisco are beautiful.

But don't cross off those local San Francisco beaches just because of a little foggy weather. Remember: fog is not poison gas. In fact, in this day and age of worrying about health and avoiding pollution, fog offers the coolest and freshest air around. If you're traveling from most of the nation during the hotter months of the year, just consider that blasting fog at Ocean Beach or Ft. Funston our Bay Area version of free and natural air conditioning. 

Whether you're looking for fog or sun, though, this list has the best beach for you.

10. Point Reyes National Seashore
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

Although Point Reyes is farther than Ocean Beach or Stinson, most would agree it's well-worth the drive. If you're looking for smaller crowds and a more rugged beach day, be sure to include Point Reyes National Seashore in your trip. As the name implies, this is miles and miles of pristine and protected beaches. And, with less people, you have a much better chance for viewing wildlife, which can even include grey whale sightings. If you have the time, include a visit to the Point Reyes lighthouse, which is only accessible on the weekends by bus because of its remote and protected location.

9. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

Just a short but beautiful drive south of San Francisco, the beach at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve offers a living classroom for kids of all ages. When the tide draws out, the pools fill up with all kinds of sea urchins, small fish, crabs and other interesting and beautiful creatures. The beach is fairly shallow and rocky and does not offer the deep expanses and broad views of other beaches, however. This is not the beach to pitch a blanket and relax, but, if you want some beautiful views and a chance to learn about the ocean, head to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

8. Muir Beach
Photo courtesy of jeffgunn

A true local gem, known for its pristine conditions and gorgeous coastal scenery, Muir Beach is one of the top beaches in the area. The quiet cove is often secluded, offering a relaxing respite from the buzz of the city. Hikers especially enjoy easy access to Coyote Ridge trail and the Coastal Trail to Tennessee Cove. There's also a trail to Muir Beach Overlook, but be cautious as the land sheers off dramatically. Here's a fun, full Sunday that includes Muir Beach: morning Zazen meditation at Green Gulch Farm, a hike up from Muir Beach onto the Coastal Trail loop, back down for pints at Pelican Inn and then cozying up on a blanket on Muir Beach and enjoying a northern California sunset.

7. Rodeo Beach
Photo courtesy of MicGloWal

Nature lovers find this to be one of the best beaches around for bird watching. Just off Rodeo Beach, Bird Island's white cliffs are covered with cormorants, gulls and pelicans. The section of the Coastal Trail near the island is particularly high in elevation, offering a prime viewing spot. The pebbly beach is also a great place for picnicking and kite flying. Restrooms and outdoor showers are located in the northernmost parking lot. The Marin Headlands Art Institute is also nearby, a wonderful enclave of artists that often offers tours and exhibits for the public. And the Marin Headlands Hostel is a convenient and inexpensive place to stay in close proximity to Rodeo Beach.

6. Fort Funston
Photo courtesy of 0.tqn.com

Fort Funston is known for its dog-walking trails and its hang-gliding, but it's still a lovely beach to visit, even if you don't have any interest in either of those activities. Just south of Ocean Beach, Fort Funston offers the same long stretches of beach as Ocean Beach does but without all the people. And many do visit just to watch the year-round activity of the hang-gliders who levitate on the steady gusts busting up the cliffs. For those seashell hunters out there, it's definitely worth driving the extra ten minutes south fromOcean Beach since less people means more natural treasures to discover.

5. Baker Beach
Photo courtesy of Genista

Incredible views and plenty of fishing make this one of the best beaches in the area. Situated at the foot of the rugged cliffs on the western shoreline of the Presidio, Baker Beach boasts stunning vistas of both the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. When it's warm, the mile-long beach is great for sunbathing and picnicking. Baker Beach is infamous for its nude sunbathers, but most congregate towards the eastern edge of the beach, closer to the cliffs near the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach is also famous as the site of the original "Burning Man" enactment that became a national phenomenon.

4. China Beach
Photo courtesy of China Beach

If you're looking for a beach with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, this tiny cove is the perfect spot. Located between Baker Beach and Lands End, China Beach is a sheltered, nearly private pocket of sand, making it ideal for sunbathing, scenic strolls and romantic ocean-side picnics. Beachcombers are also delighted by common finds like starfish and anemones. Because of unpredictable surf conditions, however, swimming is dangerous and not recommended. If you're looking for a small oasis between the tourist-packed and developed area of Lands End and the possibility of feeling awkward around nudists at Baker Beach, China Beach is a smart choice.

3. Crissy Field
Photo courtesy of Crissy Field

With so many beaches in the area, you'll have plenty of choices for fun in the sun, but Crissy Field is by far one of the most unique. Here, visitors enjoy both sandy expanses and plenty of grassy areas. A flat, hard-packed promenade offers a great place to walk or bike, and the well-groomed shoreline is a terrific spot for kids to play. Plus, fishing and crabbing are allowed without a license at Torpedo Wharf. And recent renovations have added wood-planked walking trails through a revived wetland area teeming with local birds and other native flora and fauna. And, once your beach day is done, the Marina and its shopping is close at hand.

2. Stinson Beach
Photo courtesy of Stinson Beach

Definitely one of the most well loved beaches in the area, Stinson Beach offers outstanding recreational opportunities. The long, flat beach is always filled with people walking, enjoying a picnic or playing with their dogs. It's open year-round, but swimming is only recommended from late May to mid-September when lifeguards are on duty. A snack bar is open during summer months, and picnic areas and grills pepper the landscape. In fact, if you have a large group and want to have a classic California "beach day," it's hard to beat the many public grills and general space of Stinson Beach.

1. Ocean Beach
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

During the summer months especially, locals flock to the area beaches, and Ocean Beach is one of their top choices. This expansive shoreline extends from the Cliff House to Fort Funston along the glistening Pacific Ocean, making it a great spot to stroll or jog. Anglers often fish the surf, and occasionally it's warm enough for sunbathing. The water is cold, though, and the rapid currents make it dangerous for swimming or even wading. No NorCal trip is complete without a trip to Ocean Beach, even if it's a quick camera shot from the Mount Sutro Cliffs that tower overhead.