Many visitors arrive to California dreaming of soaking up the sun on West Coast beaches and are disappointed when greeted by San Francisco’s wind, fog and chill. But when the sun does come out in the city (more common in the spring or fall), it’s glorious. Locals and visitors flock to a number of scenic beaches near San Francisco for coastal recreation. Here are a few of the best places to spend a day reveling in sand and surf.
Several beaches are within city limits. The largest is Ocean Beach on the city’s Pacific border at the end of Golden Gate Park. The 3.5-mile blustery stretch of sand is known for fog and cold (although spring is usually milder than summer). Expert board and kite surfers brave the icy waters, and the beach attracts seabirds and locals gathering for bonfires. Seal Rocks, a cluster of small craggy islands off shore, add a sense of remoteness.
Baker Beach’s draw is the classic postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the Marin Headlands in the distance. The waters are unsafe for swimming, but it’s a popular destination for picnicking, sunbathing and strolling.
Nearby Marshall’s Beach offers similar views but is even smaller and more rugged and secluded. Hidden in the cliffs and accessible via stairs off the beautiful Batteries to Bluffs Trail, it occasionally draws nude beachgoers.
On a sunny day, Crissy Field’s East Beach is a little slice of heaven, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, Angel Island and Alcatraz Island plus happy dogs bounding through the waves and children building sand castles and splashing in the shallow bay shore.
Take a scenic drive down winding Highway One just past Muir Woods to the white sands and brisk waters of Stinson Beach. Adjacent to the tiny town of the same name, the 3.5-mile crescent of sand is a beach lover’s paradise when the fog clears. You’ll find plenty of picnic tables (some with grills) and ideal conditions for windsurfing and bodyboarding. Seal sightings are common and birdwatching conditions are ideal. You can rent a kayak, sign up for a surfing lesson or set off on a hike on one of the many surrounding trails in Mount Tamalpais State Park.
Although it’s just across the Golden Gate Bridge (through a one-way tunnel), the rugged Marin Headlands feels a world away. Bordered by cliffs and the thundering Pacific, windswept Rodeo Beach on the western end has a particularly isolated vibe. The dark sand is made up of tiny red and green pebbles, and a freshwater lagoon attracts pelicans, hawks, gulls and herons. The bluffs connect to trails, and hearty surfers venture into the frigid waves. Although not safe for swimming, this is an ideal spot to fly a kite, walk, picnic, sunbathe or run your dog.
Two miles south of San Francisco near downtown Pacifica is wide, moon-shaped Pacifica State Beach, also called Linda Mar Beach. Dunes and cliffs flank this protected bay with relatively warm waters that are popular with beginner surfers. (You can rent a surfboard or kayak here any time of year.) The endangered western snowy plover sticks around through early spring, a season that also brings whale watching. Dogs can frolic on leash, and a paved walking and biking path follows the ocean.
Before World War II, Crown Memorial State Beach on the island of Alameda was called the “Coney Island of the West.” Today, the long beach’s warm, shallow waters and views of the San Francisco skyline are the stuff of weekend fantasies. Bike paths, picnic tables, barbecue pits and an adjoining lawn beckon, and kites soar in the breeze. Little ones search for marine creatures in tide pools. If the windsurfers, stand-up paddle boarders, kayakers or kiteboarders inspire you, you can rent your own equipment or book a lesson. If you need a break from the sun, the Crab Cove Visitor Center displays an aquarium and exhibits on surrounding flora and fauna.