Best beaches in the Bay Area

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

Northern California isn’t exactly Maui when it comes to beaches, which makes this a sort of tallest jockey competition. But the beaches here are still pretty great, even if the weather requires a sweater and a wetsuit. I mean, it’s a beach! (just ask your friends in Kansas to explain). Besides the rocky cliffs along much of our coastline, providing for lots of dramatic and inspiring views, there’s also wonderful sandy stretches for rolling out a blanket or casually strolling. And on a warm, sunny day in the Bay Area, there’s no better place to be.

Following is a roundup of the Bay Area’s best beaches:

Stinson Beach, late afternoon

Stinson Beach
Located at the end of a windy road through Marin County redwoods, Stinson Beach is one of the most popular beach destinations for weekenders from the city. It’s a beautiful drive, but the traffic can be disheartening on a Saturday afternoon. Once you make it to this secluded pocket of the Bay Area, which always seems sunnier than most places north or south, you’ll find a picturesque beach wide and long enough to accommodate everyone. One nice thing about Stinson Beach is its quaint, namesake beach town, with a couple outdoor cafes and country stores for sandwiches and any beach supplies you may need.

Ocean Beach
This is the most convenient beach to get to for city folk, located due west from almost all points in San Francisco. A bus ticket or Muni pass is all you need (if you don’t have a car) and in no time you’ll be on the sand of this very wide beach that stretches for several miles south from the Cliff House. The beach is dog friendly and laid back, great for a stroll or your own burning man celebration, even if it’s not always ideal for catching rays — at certain times of the year, or the day, it can be cold and foggy where elsewhere it’s perfectly clear. On the plus side, you won’t need sunblock.

Wetlands near San Gregorio State Beach

San Gregorio State Beach
Ten miles south of Half Moon Bay, this beach requires a drive whether from the city on Hwy 1 or over the Santa Cruz Mountains from the Peninsula. But San Gregorio is an enchanting stretch of sand, with a driftwood sculpture often assembled impromptu near its entrance by random beachgoers. For whatever reason, it’s often sunnier here than other beaches in the area, which is one of its greatest draws. It’s also wide and long, backed by a 50-foot bluff wall that acts as a windbreak of sorts. Bonus points for being near the San Gregorio General Store.

Natural Bridges State Beach
A great little beach on the edge of Santa Cruz, wider than it is long, but set within a cove that includes its namesake natural stone formation. It’s pretty and well-preserved here, with sand so soft and fine you may not want a blanket. You can also walk or jog along the scenic and popular beach path of W Cliff Drive that overlooks the ocean. Or further on, for a different kind of experience, explore the Municipal Pier and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Concrete ship at end of pier, Seacliff State Beach

Seacliff State Beach
On the other end of Santa Cruz, actually in the town of Aptos, this pleasant beach has a creek running to the sea (Aptos Creek) and a little strip with café, bar, market that feels a little out of time (when SUVs were called station wagons). But the best thing about this beach is the pier with a half-sunken ship at the end of it. There’s an interesting story and history to it, which you can read at the link above or here.

Crown Memorial State Beach
For East Bay residents who don’t want to make the trek to the city or peninsula, this 2.5-mile-long beach in Alameda is a decent alternative. You may not have the surf and open vistas, but the water is relatively warm and you won’t have any afternoon fog rolling in. It’s usually windy enough for wind- or kite-surfing (or kite flying), and you’ll have plenty of room to spread out despite this being the most visited of any beach in the Bay Area. For those concerned about a certain fragrance at times, it occurs naturally from an adjacent marshland. And if you’re worried about pollution in the bay waters, the park service posts daily notices – red, yellow and green – for safe bacteria levels (it’s almost always green).

Baker Beach
Located between Ocean Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge, this is a half-mile long beach notable for being clothing optional. If you’re brave enough to take on the elements au naturel, keep in mind the average water temperature is around 59 degrees, and the word ‘shrinkage’. And it probably gets its share of those weird dudes who walk around the Castro naked. But you get to bathe with the bridge and Marin Headlands as a backdrop, while watching freighters sail off to China.

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