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The Best Bay Area Beaches

limantour beach

This patch of sand could be yours, all yours. Limantour Beach photo courtesy of Visit Marin.

Don’t listen to the naysayers who claim, “There are no beaches here.” Au contraire, the Bay Area has some of the most stunning beaches in the world (whether you can frolic in the water is another argument). What makes a beach “the best?” Read on…

Stinson Beach

A classic California beach town, Stinson Beach has a wide, seemingly never-ending swath of soft sand with good facilities (toilets, showers, and changing rooms, but rarely soap). On hot days, the sand is teeming with all walks of life who mostly crowd onto the area closest to the main parking lot. For space galore, head north past the designated dog-friendly section of beach. Stinson is a perfect, 35-minute day trip destination from SF – if you get there early. The main parking lot fills by 10 a.m. (10:30 a.m. at the latest), so it pays to make haste, grab breakfast on the Parkside Café’s patio (their Guatemalan scramble with rock shrimp and avocado is delish), then stake your spot in the sand. If you don’t, you risk sitting in a painfully slow crawl of Highway 1 traffic while you drool over the beach-goers far below. Parking on the street is extremely limited, so you’re only option will be to park at least a couple of miles down the road towards Bolinas. Heed the warning. An alternate route is to hike down the Steep Ravine trail (it's gorgeous!), though the return route is steep switchbacks. Risk-takers can hitchhike back to the top. Side note -- a whale was recently buried here, and the sharks followed.

Montara Beach, Photo courtesy of Diane/Panoramio

Montara Beach

Basking in the sun on the golden sands of Montara Beach transports me back to the southeast coast of Australia. The sand texture is slightly chunkier than neighboring beaches, but it's smooth nonetheless, and is the foundation for one of the most glorious beaches in California on an 80-degree, fogless day. Low bluffs that explode with magenta ice plants bound the length of the beach and provide various coves to block any wind that may arise. There are no facilities except a pot-holed parking area on top of the bluff, and you’ll need to navigate walking a precarious dirt path down to sea level. Another access point is across from Second St. Montara Beach is a spectacular 25-minute drive from SF, just past Pacifica and Devil’s Slide, and eight-miles north of Half Moon Bay.  

Limantour Beach & North Beach

If you’re really craving an escape from crowds, your best bets are the jaw-dropping, raw beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore. It's impossible to pick a standout from the park's 12 (!)  beaches, but Limantour Beach is always an exquisite option. The stretch of fine white sand is narrow and straddles Drake's Bay and an estuary, and there's plenty of space to throw a frisbee and stretch out because, well, the beach is usually empty. Wildlife abounds as birds feed in the nearby wetlands and seals bob just offshore, seeking the sun's warmth. Dogs are allowed on the leash only on the southeast end. Access is via Limantour Rd off Bear Valley Rd from Highway 1. Another beach well worth mentioning is North Beach, part of the 11-mile expanse of The Great Beach. This is a primitive beach at its best with dramatic surf and untouched, isolated sands. Fisherman wander north to even more remote areas. There are good facilities (toilets, showers, sinks) in the small parking lot. Access is via Sir Francis Drake Blvd -- follow it almost to the end, but veer off to the right about eight miles before the lighthouse. 

View of Ocean Beach from Sutro Heights Park

Ocean Beach

Underrated by most locals and beloved by surfers, the wide, 3.5 mile-long ribbon of fine sand swirls black and white like Oreo cookie ice cream. Normally engulfed in fog in the July and August, Indian summer transforms Ocean Beach into a total paradise. Solitude is everywhere as the beach is endlessly long and impossibly wide. The rip current is strong so be wary of swimming. Instead, gaze in awe at the graceful athletes tackling the brutal surf with ease. If it’s your lucky day, you may catch a glimpse of the King Philip, the 1878 shipwreck that bares its timbers from beneath the shifting sands on the rarest of occasions. Claim one of the rings many hours in advance for a sunset bonfire; the Safeway sells firewood a couple of blocks away. On the northern end (close to the Cliff House), no facilities exist at the beach, but the bathrooms in the Beach Chalet across the street are easily accessible. Heading south, the graffitied concrete seawall ends and you can lounge above the beach, perched in one the dunes. Ride your bike, take the N, 5, or 31 MUNI, or parking is available.

Baker Beach

Cocoa-colored Baker Beach attracts droves of San Francisco denizens on warm days. With the cliff-hanging mansions of Seacliff on the south side, a sweeping view of the Marin Headlands across the sea, and the Golden Gate Bridge a seashell’s throw away, Baker Beach provides ample photo opportunities and plenty of tourists take advantage. Dolphins often frolic just offshore, and the topless and the nude frolic on the northern patch of sand (to the far right if entering from the parking lot). If you want to bare all, it’s a mellower scene in the morning and early afternoon; more gawkers and weirdos traipse the beach as sunset approaches. Ladies - if you are alone, it's almost guaranteed that an uninvited lurker will stop by your towel. A loud, stern warning to leave you alone should work. (On Ocean Beach, this seems to be less of a problem). Facilities only include toilets, so bring food and drink with you, Geary Street has a couple of good delicatessens). There are also a few areas to grill and picnic. Take the 29, hike through the Presidio, bike, or park, though the lot is small and fills up fast. Beware, traffic in this area after midday can be a nightmare (it's the same access road to the Golden Gate Bridge). Avoid bringing a car unless you set up camp early.