If the brutal calls your heart to travel more than the beautiful and you prefer the desolate to the idyllic, then the beaches of Northern California are for you. Redwood forests, harsh cliffs and windswept bluffs rise alongside the gray blue sea. Here you’ll find wave breaks ready for surfboards, tidepools waiting for discovery, and sandy shores ready for you to set up a hammock to reread Wuthering Heights with one eye on the horizon for migrating whales and seabirds.
In many places, freshwater rivers turn into estuaries before flowing out to sea. There’s warm fresh water to swim in while enjoying the views of the Northern California coastline.
This list of 15 of the best beaches in Northern California isn’t in an order because they’re all worth exploring. Many are best experienced by spending the night camping and offer plenty of amenities for inexperienced campers. Those who travel the coast by RV will find plenty of places to stay.
If you’re thinking about taking up a new hobby, these beaches have plenty of suggestions. Horseback riding, hang gliding, surfing, fishing, and bird watching feature heavily along the northern coast. Take a photography class and experience the remarkable scenery with a camera.
Or, just bring a portable hammock, a few snacks for the day, and let the gentle Pacific breeze rock away your stress as the tide rolls out.
Ross Cove. Princeton-by-the-Sea.
Considered one of the “hidden beaches” of Halfmoon Bay by The San Francisco Chronicle. It’s on the north-side of Pillar Point. On the south-side of the point is Maverick Beach, site of yearly surf competitions. You can still view the monster waves from this beach, but it’s protected from wind by the steep bluffs on either side. Wait until low tide to visit and experience some of the best tide pools in Northern California.
Pillar Point Bluff Park is right above this beach and great for walking and jogging, especially if you have a four-legged friend who needs to burn off energy. There aren’t any amenities on the beach itself, except for restrooms. If you’re planning a day trip pack snacks and bottled water. Depending on the seasons and erosion, it may be impossible to reach the beach itself. Lucky visitors who monitor the sea can spot whales from this beach location.
Rodeo Beach. San Francisco.
One of the most picturesque beaches in all of Northern California. It’s pet-friendly, and features multi-colored pebbles on the northern part of the beach, brought by the Rodeo Creek, instead of sand. This windswept beach is also great for both surfing and skimboarding, depending on the daily conditions.
Swimming isn’t advisable because of the strong winds and “sleeper waves” that appear out of nowhere. Instead, go beachcombing, kite flying, and hiking to the top of the surrounding cliffs. Rodeo Beach’s reputation is for premier bird watching where the creek meets the ocean. The freshwater sometimes attracts river otters, but in the summer months, the water level drops and algae collects on the surface. Bring binoculars and point them towards Bird Rock, a common roosting site for a variety of species.
Check out our post: How To Set Up A Hammock On The Beach.
Gualala Point Regional Park. Gualala.
Despite the breathtaking scenery, crowds rarely fill this beach. It’s at the point where the Gualala River flows into the ocean. Redwood trees surround the estuary and are the site of several campsites for adventurous souls who enjoy rustic camping. The river is a great location for seasonal fishing, with native species including Fall Chinook Salmon, Resident Rainbow Trout, and Winter Steelhead.
Come to this beach to see the remarkable natural phenomenon of a river flowing into the ocean, but watch out for the “sleeper waves” common on the north coast of California. It’s popular amongst both bird watchers and whale-watchers. Trails run throughout the park, connecting the beach to the campgrounds, coastal bluffs, and The Sea Ranch (California’s architectural monument to the 60s). Many of the trails are paved, making a great spot for people with limited mobility to experience hiking in coastal forests and along the bluffs. Because of the views, it’s a common spot for small outdoor weddings.
Bodega Dunes. Bodega Bay.
Near the town of Bodega Bay, the Bodega Dunes beach features wide sandy shores, it’s a little isolated making it great for people trying to avoid crowds. Hike south to Mussel Point to find trails through the dunes, some even allow horseback riding. There are nearby ranches and stables for taking part in guided horseback riding tours of the dunes and surrounding area. Walking north along the shore leads to the adjacent South Salmon Creek Beach, where you can frequently find good waves for surfing.
Despite the isolation, there are restrooms and picnic areas to enjoy a packed lunch throughout the park. Regulations don’t allow dogs or campfires on the beach to protect the population of Threatened snowy plovers. Adventurers can stay the night at one of nearly a hundred campsites available. Three of the campsites have views of the bay, some others are neighboring to businesses and houses, so check park maps before booking a campsite. Camping amenities include hot showers, flushing toilets, and lockable pantries for food.
Caspar State Beach. Mendocino County.
Set in a deep cove, surrounded by undeveloped beach, put this beach on your Must Visit List if you’re an RV camper. There’s a campsite right across from the beach itself. The campsite recently added two cabins that sleep between two and four with modern amenities. The tent sites have coin-operated showers, and some come with power and WiFi. There’s a lodge with a convenience store, game room, and an internet cafe. The park is just north of Mendocino for day trips to the many galleries, restaurants, and cliff-side trails.
Caspar Beach features great walking paths and scenic views of its own. The coast here is great for swimming, but keep in mind that water can be freezing and the currents change frequently, so exercise caution in the water. You can also fish from the beach, anglers might catch striped bass, surf smelt, and California halibut. These shores are a good spot to watch migrating pods of gray whales between November and June.
Glass Beach. Fort Bragg.
A remarkable beach covered in sea glass from broken bottles over the years. Patrolling State Park Rangers will encourage visitors to leave glass on the beach instead of taking souvenirs. There are two nearby beaches outside the lines of the state park that also have sea glass amongst the sand. Due to tourists, there’s less glass on the beach than in years past. The beach isn’t great for swimming or sunbathing, but it still attracts 1,000 to 1,200 visitors a day during the summer months to experience the unique shoreline.
There’s been talk of efforts to replenish the glass taken by tourists, but thanks to recycling there isn’t the availability for discarded glass to throw into the ocean. Some of what used to be seven foot deep sea glass drifts now decorate local buildings such as the high school and museums. The singular atmosphere makes for gorgeous pictures, and it is surrounded by hiking trails for exploring surrounding nature.
Check out our post to find The Best Portable Beach Hammocks for a relaxing day on any beach.
Santa Cruz Beaches. Santa Cruz.
Long white beaches, gentle surf, and of course a boardwalk. Santa Cruz Main Beach is a classic beach from the lapping waves to the restaurants and shops just steps from the sand. Check out the amusement park rides and carnival games for kids of all ages. Just a few of the attractions include laser tag, mini-golf, and bowling.
Hang out on the boardwalk and watch the horizon to catch glimpses of dolphins and whales migrating up the coast. The boardwalks and Main Beach have a nearby paid parking lot, but for those willing to walk a little, there’s free parking just a mile away. Many beaches line the coast in Santa Cruz, all with something a little different to offer from brutal landscapes and breathtaking views to swimming and surfing. Spend all day on the beach and all night hanging out on the Boardwalk.
Centerville Beach. Ferndale.
A long sandy beach that leads to the mouth of the Eel River. Campfires are allowed on this beach so it’s ideal for a nighttime visit, just don’t spend the night; camping isn’t allowed. It’s surrounded by marshy areas, so it’s also a wonderful place to do some birdwatching. It also is unique because you can drive a vehicle or ATV right onto the sand.
When the tide is out, you can drive up to five miles along the sand. Just make sure you know your car’s capabilities (four-wheel drive is a must), you wouldn’t want to get stuck on the beach. For history buffs, the beach is the location of an 1860 shipwreck. A paddle-wheel steamer that scraped bottom and then turned into the shore to save the passengers. Of the 108 aboard the ship, the Northerner, 38 died and were buried near the shore. There’s a large cross on the beach at Centerville commemorating the crash.
Enderts Beach. Redwood National Park.
Called the sunset paradise of California. There’s a gentle breeze rolling off the waves here, so it’s ideal for cooling off during the hot summer months. The beach is hard to access only because it’s a mile walk from the parking lot before you reach the shore. The walk itself isn’t challenging; you’ll be walking along an abandoned portion of the old Coast Highway. It’s not challenging going to the beach (downhill), but save some energy for the walk back.
Rustic campgrounds are available to spend a night or two. Be sure to check out the tidal pools towards the southern end of the beach. Those who explore among the rocks will find sea urchins, starfish, barnacles, and sea anemones. State Park Rangers will sometimes lead guided tours to the tide pools to point out the remarkable green sea anemones.
Lagoon Creek Beach. Del Norte Coast.
Just off of Highway 101, this beach is ideal for a roadside break while traveling. For a 40 miles stretch of the highway, this stop is the only access to the shore. The beach is near the Redwood National Park, where you can find restrooms and picnic areas. Near the picnic area are a lagoon pond and a hiking trail that will take you to a scenic overlook of the beach and cove. Lagoon Creek is a dark sand beach on the south end of False Klamath Cove.
By following hiking trails across False Klamath Rock, you can visit two beaches in one stop. Hidden Beach is on the other side. Your dog is welcome but must be leashed. A short walk from the parking lot, these beaches are ideal for both surfing and fishing. There are tide pools for exploring, piles of driftwood, and picturesque rock formations in the water. It’s usually deserted, a nice place to walk along the water and take the views of the stark scenery reminiscent of the Oregon coast.
Russian Gulch State Park. Mendocino County.
This state park features a lush inland canyon for hiking beside the pristine sandy beaches running along the rocky coastline. After enjoying the beach, head inland to catch some breathtaking scenery, including a waterfall and a collapsed sea cave. It’s a great cave for active beach-goers who enjoy a diversity of activities. Try out biking and hiking along the many trails in the park with loops perfect for an hour, half day or a full day visit.
There’s no shortage of opportunities for people who want to get onto the water to play. The park is great for both scuba and free-diving, swimming, kayaking, and wading along the many tide pools created in the rocks of the shore. You can also take advantage of one of the 26 campgrounds available for rusting camping; they recommended a reservation for a site. Finally, stop beneath the picturesque Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge and find a beach right where the Russian Gulch Creek meets the Pacific Ocean.
Moonstone Beach County Park.
Trinidad. Located where the Little River meets the ocean, families like this beach because of the calm shallow waters for kids to play. Well-behaved dogs are welcome to explore while off-leash. Surfers will also enjoy the regular wave breaks. When the tide is low find hidden caves exposed at the north end of the beach, great for exploring. During the right season, Little River is low enough that you can wade across its waters to Little River State Beach, which is frequently less crowded than the County Park.
Spend a whole day at Moonstone Beach with its warm waters for swimming and places along the shore waiting for you to explore. Further south along the coast is Clam Beach County Park which allows camping right on the sand. Trinidad is nearby, and you can find restaurants on the Scenic Drive leading up to the beach.
San Gregorio State Beach. San Mateo County.
This is a wide sandy beach surrounded by grassy bluffs creating beautiful vistas. An estuary runs into the beach, bringing with it driftwood and creating a natural habitat for a variety of birds. During certain times of the year, San Gregorio Creek will fill the lagoon and parts of the beach as it flows out to the ocean. Visitors can walk along the sand south to Pomponio State Beach, taking in views of sandstone cliffs along the way.
Heading north along the beach, you’ll find beach caves and fossils embedded in the sandstone. Keep walking further north and there’s a private access clothing-optional beach. At the top of the bluffs, there are popular picnic and birdwatching spots. Silicon Valley is a short drive away and Halfmoon Bay is just 10 miles to the north. On your way back from the beach, stop by the San Gregorio General Store, there’s live music on weekends.
Fort Funston. San Francisco.
Backed by gorgeous 200 foot cliffs, Fort Funston is a must-visit for adventure sport aficionados. During the summer months, you can spot hang-gliders sailing off the edge. Strong winds and an undertow don’t make it too dangerous for swimming, but it is an off-leash dog beach so you can bring your best furry friend here to burn off energy in the surf. Be sure to visit during low tide, with a very high tide the water reaches all the way to the bottom of the cliffs. If there’s no space to walk on the beach, there are plenty of trails along the top of the bluff for enjoying the view.
Check out the many hiking trails, a favorite amongst horseback trail riders. Plenty of stables that guide trail riding groups surround the beach. A great option for inexperienced riders who still want the experience of horseback riding on the beach. It’s also the location of the Fort Funston Native Plant Nursery, where volunteers help to grow 25,000 plants every year for state parks along the coastline.
Montara State Beach. Montara.
Located just eight miles north of Halfmoon Bay, Montara Beach is one of the cleanest beaches in the country. It’s known for exceptional surfing and fishing and water activities such as kayaking and windsurfing, the beach is just one part of the State Park. Nearby Montara Mountain is fantastic for hiking, and there are many places along the shore for anglers to cast a line.
Plenty of grocery stores and restaurants surround the park to fuel up before exploring tide pools and hiking. Low rolling hills abut the beach to the north and south. For overnight stays, check out the lighthouse at Montara Point. It’s actually a hostel run by a non-profit, offering both single rooms and dorms with free WiFi and laundry. The lighthouse provides affordable accommodations for visitors who want to stay someplace that overlooks the water. It’s an easy bike ride to the south is the town of Half Moon Bay, and San Francisco is 25 miles to the north.
If this list woke up your wanderlust, there’s no time like the present to plan. Pack up a car with your beach gear: camp chair, portable hammock, umbrella, and cooler. And hit the road for an epic road trip tour of the best beaches in Northern California. Once you’re out there on the road, follow your gut and see if you can’t find a spot that tops these fifteen.