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15 of the Best Beaches in Northern California That You Just Gotta Visit

Northern California’s awesome Pacific beaches

When you think of a summer fun getaway, there’s a few mental images that automatically come to mind. How about the hot, bright sun and the bright blue sea? Oh, and add soft, white sand to stretch out on and work on that tan with the sound of the waves and surf lulling you into relaxation. After all, summer is all about going to the beach and cooling off with some surf-ilicious water activities.

California coastlineThere are plenty of places around the globe that have beaches, but there’s nothing quite like spending your summer on North California’s awesome Pacific beaches – it is California, after all! So before you buy your new swimsuit and new travel bags (like these suggestions on the best luggage brands), we want to help you narrow down the beaches you should visit.

Luckily, our list below will provide you with an extensive choice of beaches worth exploring in Northern California … in no particular order.

1. Baker Beach

Northern California's Baker Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Baker Beach?

When you think of beaches in California, you’re probably not thinking of San Francisco. But what you don’t know is that San Francisco has a number of beaches worth exploring, and one (with a golden view) of them is Baker Beach.

The beach spans about a mile or 1500 meters long, is very wide and generally clean - just to the south of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. If you want to get a clear photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, then Baker Beach is an excellent spot to visit.

Note that the northern end of Bakers Beach is a legally designated “clothing optional” beach, well known and popular with nudists. Being closer to the Golden Gate Bridge, clothed beach walkers out to get a great picture of the bridge flow into the nude section.

As popular as this beach is for its location and view, this may not be the beach with your kids or family. Mainly, the beach has many large waves, undertows and rips currents which can make swimming dangerous if you have kids with you. Second, with the northern part of the beach a legally designated “clothing-optional” area, if you’re not ready for that, you might be in for a surprise.

Nonetheless, a great picnic and beach day spot with an excellent view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

2. Santa Cruz

Northern California's Santa Cruz Beach

Geo-locator: Where is California’s Santa Cruz Beach?

When you’re talking about beaches in Northern California, it would be remiss if we wouldn’t include Santa Cruz on the list. Santa Cruz is a beach town with a lot of beachgoers, and for good reason.

The most famous sight in Santa Cruz would be the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk along the coast of the Monterey Bay. It’s an amusement park by the beach with plenty of shops and carnival games that everyone in the family can enjoy.

The boardwalk is such an icon that you can see in the hit movie “Us,” directed by Jordan Peele.

You can swim at the Main Beach in Santa Cruz, enjoy a good surf at the surfers iconic Steamer Lane or bike/roller skate around the wooden boardwalk to break up your day enjoying the beachside vibes.

Overall, you’re bound to have a great time by the beach at Santa Cruz. There's plenty to do, and everyone can enjoy their time there.

3. Fort Funston Beach

Northern California's Fort Funston Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Fort Funston Beach?

Another great beach in San Francisco would be Fort Funston Beach. This beach is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which the National Park Service protects. Due to the strong ocean winds and the waters deadly undertow and currents, this is not a swimming beach.

Fort Funston Beach, though, is a popular place for hikers and bikers. The hiking trails take you along the bluff with routes that will get you down to the beach.

Check out some of the WWII military sites when you visit Fort Funston Beach. And if you’ve got a furry friend, you can bring them along so both of you can have fun - well known as a dog-friendly beach.

Best known as a fantastic hang-gliding and remote-controlled airplane location from the high winds, updrafts and cliffside vantage, the viewing platform off the parking lot makes a great vantage point to watch the action. 

Before you go to this beach, though, make sure that you check for the weather conditions. The beach is already a very windy place, so if the forecast shows a high chance of windy conditions, you might want to postpone that beach trip.

4. Montara State Beach

Northern California's Montara Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Montara State Beach?

Still within the San Francisco Bay Area is Montara State Beach. This beach is about a mile long, wide with soft, white sand and is known for being one of the cleanest beaches in the state, especially beautiful, too, with the sandstone cliffs serving as a background.

You can enjoy surfing, fishing, tide-pooling, or a simple beach walk. Additionally, there are also biking and hiking trails near the area with horseback riding at the nearby McNee Ranch.

Montara State Beach is a great beach if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s quiet and serene, so it lets you take a moment to be one with the beach.

5. Rodeo Beach

Northern California's Rodeo Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Rodeo Beach?

Rodeo Beach sits just north of San Francisco within Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Known for its blue, red and green pebble-strewn beach, its surrounded by beautiful bluffs and cliffs. Rodeo Beach is the headland separator between Rodeo Lagoon and the Rodeo Cove.

Another of California’s gorgeous beaches for photos, Rodeo Beach won’t disappoint you! Aside from the cliff-facing geography with its dark sand beach, there’s the offshore, arched Bird Island or, at the south end of the beach, more of the multi-colored rocks (like Jade, Jasper, Black Agate) tumbling in the surf.

Rodeo Beach is quite windy, so the beach surf may not offer safe swimming. You can enjoy kite-flying when you’re there, share some picnic time with your family to the sound of the waves, walking along the beach itself or enjoying the many trails and WWII military Battery’s within the National Recreation Area.

Note that south Rodeo Beach has a commonly known “clothing-optional” beach area (like Black Sands Beach close by) if no tan lines are more to your liking. From the main area of Rodeo Beach, head to the far southernmost point of the beach (close to Bird Island) and if the tide is low, you can wade to the secluded “clothing-optional” lagoon. Alternately, you can access via the trails up and over the bluffs (or simply park at Battery Alexander parking). As the beach strip is a secluded cove, it also disappears at high tide, so check the tide tables and don’t get caught.

6. Caspar State Beach

Northern California's Caspar State Beach (pic courtesy of CaliforniaBeaches)

Geo-locator: Where is Caspar Headlands State Beach?

Located in the Mendocino, California area sits Caspar Beach.

The beach lies between two creeks: The Doyle Creek and the Caspar Creek. Situated in a cove between two points, the calmer ocean influence makes Caspar Beach safe for swimming. However, the water can be frigid, and conditions may change, so keep an eye out.

One of the great features of Caspar State Beach is that there sits a modest RV Park within a stone’s throw of the beach. A great base for local hiking and exploring, the beach access for the RV stop makes an added level of travel fun.

No RV on your travels, the beach offers an excellent stop for a nice picnic with a view of the sparkling sea (and maybe a sighting of a gray whale).

7. Glass Beach

Northern California's Glass Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Glass Beach?

One of the most unique beaches you might ever experience - near Fort Bragg.

Its reputation as Glass Beach came about quite “naturally” (in a recycled kinda way). From a decades old waste disposal site, Mother Nature recycled old soda bottles and water-tossed them in the sea. Currents deposited the natural sea glass on to the beachhead and the waves continued to smooth them into small colorful pebbles.

Neither a swimming beach or one of a soft sandy Pacific beach, Glass Beach gets its noteworthiness from the uniqueness of it’s colorful, pebbled base. Once far more vibrant of color and glass selection, through theft and continued natural smoothing, unfortunately, the Glass Beach effect is far less impressive. Note that today it’s illegal to take colorful fragments from the beach so the uniqueness of the glass deposits are preserved.

8. Greenwood State Beach

Northern California's Greenwood State Beach (pic courtesy of CaliforniaBeaches)

Geo-locator: Where is Greenwood State Beach?

Located in historic Elk, California. An 19th century lumber town where its previous mill office serves as a visitor center and towns museum.

You can go swimming on this beach and can even bring your dogs with you, as long as they are on a leash. There are picnic areas available, some surfing opportunities, even scuba diving or snorkeling. The coves are great for kayaking and exploring the various “Rocks” (Casket Rock, Wharf Rock, Nose Rock, Gunderson Rock) and the beachfront is great for walking and driftwood collecting.

If you’re a history buff, you can look at cultural or historical sites, as well as the museums in the area.

9. Centerville Beach

Northern California's Centerville Beach (pic courtesy of CaliforniaBeaches)

Geo-locator: Where is Centerville Beach County Park?

Centerville Beach County Park is an excellent place for a bit of solitude if you’re craving it. With 5 miles of well-maintained, walkable beachfront (low tide) and as its located up in northern California away from populated areas, you’ll be lucky to see someone! Its natural beauty in its long sandy beach, the roll of the Pacific surf and being framed in the sandstone cliffsides make birdwatching and beachcombing great relaxing activities.

If you’ve got an ATV or 4WD, beach driving access is permitted. Horseback riding along the surf line and runs with your furry friend are permitted as well. And if you plan on spending later evening on the beach, bonfires are permitted.

To the south end of Centerville Beach sits a white cross on the bluff. This white cross is a California Historical Landmark, there to commemorate a shipwreck back in 1860, where 38 people died.

And a recommendation to stop in the small town of Ferndale as you pass through – quaint, Victorian era, small town with fun shops and sights.

10. Bodega Dunes

Northern California's Bodega Dunes Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Bodega Dunes Beach?

Near the town of Bodega Bay lies the Bodega Dunes, a coastal dunes structure offering a swath of sandy beachfront rated at 4.8 on Google with amazing descriptive reviews – and definitely famous as a beach with both locals and tourists.

The Bodega Dunes spans a ten-mile area, which makes it one of the state’s most extensive beaches. Ample, well maintained camping and RV sites are available to make this a definite travel stop on your California Dreamin’ explorations.

Beach walk, hike the dunes, watch the sea crabs burrow, or, if you find yourself in the area during winter, you should still stop by the Bodega Dunes to watch whales at specific sites on the Northern Coast.

11. Enderts Beach

Northern California's Enderts Beach (pic courtesy of CaliforniaBeaches)

Geo-locator: Where is Enderts Beach?

Enderts Beach offers a beautiful remote stretch of beach with even more gorgeous ocean views and sunsets. Located within Del Norte Coast Redwood State Park, Enderts Beach is known for its many tide pools and abundant marine life during low tide – like sea stars, urchins, and giant green anemones!

The waves are pretty strong, so swimming might not be the best. Nonetheless, the beach is great for relaxing and enjoying the views, driftwood collecting and hunting in the rocks. We definitely recommend you drop by to witness a sunset – the Crescent Beach Overlook you passed on your way in is definitely a great vantage point!

12. Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Northern California's Pfeiffer Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Pfeiffer Beach?

Getting to Pfeiffer Beach in the Big Sur area can be challenging, but it’s worth it just to get there for its famed purple beach. A few hours south of San Francisco, this mile comprising 4 coves of beachfront eroded from the surrounding cliffs have created quite a popular phenomena.

Patches of the rocks and sand have purple hues from the manganese garnet and quartz within the surrounding geology. Add the sparkling blue waters and the gorgeous natural rock formations – like Keyhole Arch, a highly photographed formation – for a unique, winning beach experience.

It’s isolated, generally quiet and is undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking beaches in Northern California.

13. Fanshell Beach

Northern California's Fanshell Beach (pic courtesy of CaliforniaBeaches)

Geo-locator: Where is Fanshell Beach?

Fanshell Beach, located along the famous 17 Mile Drive within California’s Pebble Beach gated community offers you a wonderful view of the Pacific from this crescent shape beach vantage. You will need to pay an entrance fee to get into the Pebble Beach community and its 17 Mile Drive.

Fanshell Beach is a blended sandy and rocky coastline. An especially great vantage for sighting harbor seals playing in the surf. As this is a natural harbor seal nesting ground, the beach is completely closed to the public during the month of April and May. You can enjoy the crescent beach layout at the Fanshell Overlook as well.

This beach is definitely worth a stop along Pebble Beach’s 17 Mile Drive.

14. Jenner Beach

Northern California's Jenner Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Jenner Beach?

Jenner Beach, also known as Goat Rock Beach, is in the Sonoma Coast State Park. Wide expanse of beach with interesting rock formations make this an attractive beach to explore. Search our Heart Rock, Goat Rock, Arch Rock, and Peaked Hill in the area. While rip currents and tides make this not a swimmable beach, beachcombing and animal-watching are the attraction.

Jenner Beach (north end) is accessible from Highway 1 via paths down the steep slopes. The natural driftwood abundant along this stretch make for some interesting buildings and driftwood finds. Goat Rock Beach is more formally accessible within Sonoma Coast State Park with its variable amenities. Depending if the Russian River is open and flowing or not, as it separates the two segments of beach, it is walkable when water flow is down.

This beach is excellent for viewing all sorts of wildlife like elephant seals, harbor seals and sea lions. However, the most popular would be the adorable harbor seals and their pups. During pupping season, State Law requires 50-yard distance from the animals be observed for dual protection. Seasonally (January thru May), you can also do a bit of whale-watching at this beach and its vantages.

15 .Drake’s Beach

Northern California's Drake's Beach

Geo-locator: Where is Drake’s Beach?

Within the Point Reyes National Seashore you can find a large remote beach called the Drake’s Beach. Believed to be the landing location for Sir Francis Drake on his circumnavigation of the globe in the late 1500’s, this area has historical and archeological significance.

It takes a considerable drive to get to Drake’s Beach but that’s what makes it quiet and secluded. We recommend you pack your food and drinks in with you as there’s no guarantee of services within the beach area.

Drake’s Beach is a sheltered calm beach featuring a wide expanse of sand offering miles of walkability. One of the few beaches excellent for swimming, as it’s sheltered within the bay by Chimney Rock and it’s tall white sandstone cliffs, it’s also a great family friendly beach with parking pretty much beachside and no rip currents or strong undertow to make swimming dangerous. Swimming, sandcastles, beach walking and wildlife watching will be the activities of the day – perfect to safely relax!

As it’s a long drive in to Drake’s park, we recommend you make a long day adventure of this and add on a shuttle excursion (tickets at the Visitor Center) and plan a learning stop at the beach Visitors Center, the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock. It will give you some great views and introduce the historical importance of the area.

Our beachy wrap-up

a toast to California beaches ...There are plenty of beaches all over Northern California that any self-proclaimed beach bum would happily include in their bucket list.

From solitary and quiet beaches to famous and unique ones all over Northern California, you’ll enjoy yourself on all these beaches should you make the trip.

As you’re planning your next California beach trip, we know you can’t go wrong with choosing any or all of the beaches in this article.

For more resources on California’s northern beaches, see these resources below:

Have you visited any great northern California beaches? Tell us your favorite and share the fun! Drop a comment below and join us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks to Geraldine Mills for contributing this post to GoGirlfriend. We’re a community-based travel blog and we welcome submissions from everyone. Whether you’re a budget-baller or a first class only kinda traveler, we’d love to hear from you. Visit our Writer’s Guidelines and learn how you can share your travel advice, stories and adventures!

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