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DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO PACIFIC NORTHWEST COASTAL BEACHES – Northern California

Think about it, when someone mentions California beaches, you immediately think of Southern California with all it’s sun, sand volleyball and sunbathing. And, yes, you can find this at some NorCal beaches during hot seasons, but have you ever thought about just feasting your eyes on some of the most majestic beaches in the PNW? 

I know, I know I keep saying that beaches you can’t swim in are the best, and you’re kind of sick of it. But, still, if I am unable to convince you to take a trip up to Northern California, then you can genuinely enjoy your SoCal beaches and I’ll kindly stop trying to convince you.  

For now, here’s some of my favorite beaches up north. 

Santa Cruz Main Beach

OK, so if you’re a Pro Surfer, a beginner, or you just want to watch surfers, Santa Cruz Main Beach is your jam. It’s one of the top surfing spots in the world. Located inside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it’s the best spot in NorCal to feast your eyes on some amazing waves along with sea life and maybe even soak up some rays.

But, once you’re tired of that, head over to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and drop some cash at the amusement parks. They have carnival rides, games, and fun for the whole family. It’s an iconic spot that it sort of a must-see when your here. 

Since Santa Cruz Main Beach is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it’s home to loads of sea life. You might spot otters, sea lions, and even gray whales if you time it right. 

When you’re tired from all the carnival excitement and want to take it easy, Main Beach is great to just lay down your brand new beach blanket and feel all that nice golden sand under your toes. It does get hot in the spring and summer, so you might actually be able to work on your tan. It’s big enough to get a spot on a busy weekend, but it is California and there will be crowds, so head there early.  

It’s located in Santa Cruz, California, on Monterey Bay, just south of San Francisco.

  • Can I bring my dog to the beach? No
  • Can I camp at the main beach? No
  • Distance from San Francisco – 73 miles
  • Distance from San Jose – 33 miles

Glass Beach

Whoever coined the term, ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ was talking about Glass Beach. Since it’s not a sandy beach, but instead literally covered (or used to) in colorful sea glass. Yes, sea glass lovers have collected a lot of the sea glass that used to litter the beach, but there’s still enough here to get some good Instagram photos.  

Located near Fort Bragg, this beach can be a little hard to access. There used to be a staircase down to the beach, which has now gone the way of the Dodo Bird (extinct!), so you have to walk down a steep pathway to get your toes on the sand.

But once you’re there, you’ll find sea cliffs, rock formations, and sea anemones that live harmoniously with the sea glass. Try to catch the sunset . As the sun goes down you can see see all the different colors bouncing off the sea glass, making this a truly unique sunset spot.  

It’s located in Northwest California, north of San Francisco.

  • Can I bring my dog to Glass Beach? Yes
  • Can I camp at Glass Beach? Yes
  • Distance from San Francisco – 172 miles
  • Distance from San Jose – 217 miles

Schooner Gulch State Beach

Schooner Gulch State Beach is unique, as far as State Beach’s go, because it has some really weird geological formation. It has something to do with how the waves hit the shore, hard and soft strata, and tilted outcrops. I don’t know, but one of the most famous examples of all the Earthly weirdness is Bowling Ball Beach. 

Bowling Ball Beach 

The name gives away the main attraction, namely, bowling ball shaped rocks. They’re actually pretty cool. You can’t see them unless it’s low tide, so be sure to check the Tide Report. 

Making your way down to this beach is a bit harder than just a leisurely stroll down the sand. If you follow Google Maps here, you’ll park one turn past the beach and have to walk back. The terrain is tall grass and makeshift stairs, so it’s not for the completely unfit. 

Once you get there, you’ll do a sharp downward walk to the sand and feast your eyes on the rocks shaped like bowling balls. The bowling balls are actually super slick, like slick enough to make flip-flops a big no-no, so wear rubber-soled shoes if you’re going to climb on them. 

It’s located in Northwest California, in Mendocino County north of San Francisco and west of Sacramento.  

  • Can I bring my dog? Yes
  • Can I camp? Yes
  • Distance from San Francisco – 126 miles
  • Distance from Sacramento – 168 miles

The Great Beach 

Picture miles and miles (11 miles to be exact) of undeveloped deserted beaches with foamy blue waves crashing gently on the shore. Sound like a great beach? Well, it just so happens to be the great beach. 

Part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, you can choose from a bunch of things to do. Popular ideas are taking a hike through the hills then watching the sea gulls, sandpipers, and red wing blackbirds do their thing.   

If you want to swim, it’s at your own risk because the surf isn’t the kindest to swimmers and you might find a rip tide. Most people just want to sit on the sand and listen to the crashing waves followed by total silence, then another crash. It speaks to the soul. 

Located in Northwestern California, just north of San Francisco. 

  • Can I bring my dog to the beach? Yes
  • Can I camp at Great Beach? Yes
  • Distance from San Francisco – 37.4 miles
  • Distance from Sacramento – 96.8 miles

Point Reyes Lighthouse

If you head about 17 miles south down the coast, you’ll find Point Reyes Lighthouse. If you can’t see it, you’ll appreciate that it’s in one of the foggiest spots in the country. Most of the year it’s covered with fog! 

Once you take the scenic windy road to get there, you’ll park and go down 318 stairs. There’s a guide and you’ll get a boatload of history. For instance, the lens in the lighthouse is the original lens which makes it the only lighthouse in the country to still have it’s original lens installed and fully operational. 

If you’re there during whale migration months (December through February and March through May), you’ll catch a herd (pod? gaggle?) of whales heading through. It’s a sharp contrast to the elk and deer you’ll see roaming around the hills behind you. 

There’s an elephant seal lookout point where you can see them all lounging around on the shore. Sometimes they’re lazy, but sometimes they like to duke it out!

Located in Northwestern California, north of San Francisco. 

  • Can I bring my dog? No
  • Can I camp? No
  • Distance from San Francisco – 58.4 miles
  • Distance from Sacramento – 115 miles

Drakes Beach

Just a few miles south of The Great Beach, you’ll run into Drakes Beach. If you’re super lucky, you might see herds of elk heading across Point Reyes and male elephant seals duking it out on the shore. And if you love sand dollars, then this beach is your jam.

This 4 mile long beach is the premier geological attraction in Point Reyes and a mecca for wildlife. You can have a nice quiet stroll picking up sand dollars and listening to the crashing waves. Or you can pop into the cafeteria and grab a cup of coffee. Yes, there are amenities here, including a cafeteria and restrooms. 

Located in Northwestern California, north of San Francisco. 

  • Can I bring my dog to the beach? No
  • Can I camp at Drakes Beach? Yes
  • Distance from San Francisco – 54.7 miles
  • Distance from Sacramento – 111 miles

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is an easily accessible, fun-filled, slightly enchanting, place to spend the day, or a couple days. You can do anything from lounge on one of the many beaches, take a romantic horseback ride on the beach, walk around the art galleries and historic shops, have an amazing meal at one of the many outstanding restaurants, or even stay the night at a cozy bed and breakfast or upscale resort. At Half Moon Bay, you can do it all. 

Half Moon Bay State Beach

When you want to feel close to nature and dip your toes in icey cold water then you have to make a trip to Half Moon Bay State Beach. You can take a nice, easy hike or better yet, do a horseback ride. It’s well loved by locals for it’s gorgeous sunsets. 

There is an easily accessible parking lot with lots of spots and it takes credit cards. Just be sure not to leave valuables in the car, it is California, afterall. There are also restrooms onsite. 

Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero State Beach is part of the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. It’s about 1 mile long and connects San Gregorio and Pomponio State Beaches. Along this 1 mile, you’ll find Mother Nature at her roughest.

You can look in tide pools, take a somewhat strenuous hike along the rocky cliffs, take in the panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, go fishing, or just take in the volatile ocean. It’s a place where the water roars and the waves crash. It has King Tides and, when you’re close to the water, it’s a near-constant barrage of salty sea spray in your face. The sea gulls are aggressive and the picnic tables are wet, windy, and not a great place to sit down. It’s truly the rough side of Mother Nature. 

You are allowed to surf, if you’re up for it, but swimming is frowned upon. 

Mavericks

If you’re a surfer, you want to be a surfer, or you just like to watch surfers, then head to Mavericks. It boasts the biggest paddle-in waves in the world and, once a year, big-wave surfers from all over the globe are given 24 hours notice to show up and compete. It’s not unheard of to see 50 foot waves, loads of Great White sharks, and icey cold water, making surfing here not for the faint of heart.

For non-surfers, you’ll find tide pools, sea creatures, and plenty of sand for the kids to play in. You can walk your dog on the beach and you’ll be able to grab a bite at one of the many restaurants nearby. 

Just don’t expect to park anywhere near Mavericks. Even on a slow weekday, without a bunch of surfers,  you’ll have a hard time finding a spot. Be prepared to park and walk. 

Miramar Beach

Miramar Beach is a nice, relaxing place to pop up a beach chair and watch the waves. If you watch the ocean long enough, you might spot dolphins and sea lions. You’ll definitely see a wide array of sea birds, including pelicans diving into the water, sea gulls (you’ll always  find those!), and saw terns.   

It’s a nice place to surf, those less wild than Mavericks, and you’ll find some great restaurants and shops nearby. Parking can be tricky, so expect to park and walk, this is California, afterall. 

Sam’s Chowder House

Once you’ve seen all the sealife you can stand, head to Sam’s Chowder House to eat some of it. It’s a local favorite located right in Half Moon Bay by Pillar Point Harbor. 

Sit outside and get a fantastic view of Half Moon Bay. The most popular dishes are the lobster rolls, clam chowder, and fish and chips. You might have to make a reservation or just be prepared to wait a little bit before getting a table. The awesome view and mouth watering food will make it worth it. 

It’s located in Northwestern California, just South of San Francisco and west of San Jose. 

  • Can I bring my dog? Yes and No. They are only permitted on the campground and certain beaches with a leash. 
  • Can I camp ? Yes, most of the beaches at Half Moon Bay allow camping
  • Distance from San Francisco – 31.8 miles
  • Distance from San Jose – 43.8 miles

  Baker Beach 

Baker Beach is not your typical Northern California beach. First, it’s clothing optional, but most people are cold, so they wear clothes. Second, you’ll not only get surf and sand, butone of the most spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge NorCal has to offer. You can see it’s glorious red steel shining proudly directly from your beach blanket. Oh, and sunrise the the absolute best time to be here. 

Swimming isn’t a great idea, due to the huge waves, undertow and riptide, so instead, fire up one of the many BBQ’s, claim a picnic table, lay down a beach blanket, and take in the amazing view. You can go fishing, climb rocks, and try to be there for sunrise (not sunset) where the sun comes up behind the Golden Gate. 

There’s ample free parking, restrooms on site, and it’s known for being super clean. 

Located in Northwest California, near downtown San Francisco.

  • Can I bring my dog to the beach? Yes
  • Can I camp at Baker Beach? Yes
  • Distance from San Francisco – 6 miles
  • Distance from Sacramento – 55 miles 

Big Sur

Big Sur is known for its jagged pummeling cliffs, foggy canyons, sea rocks, and elephant seals. You can spend days hiking the many, many hiking trails, checking out local galleries, stuffing yourself full of fancy food, or just sleeping on the sand listening to the waves. 

Pfeiffer Beach

Getting here is half the fun. Follow Google Maps to the Big Sur Station and take the unnamed (meaning, there’s no sign!) Sycamore Canyon Road. It’s a narrow, one-lane, windy, 2.5 mile paved road that leads you right down to Pfeiffer Beach. There will be a ranger station where you’ll need to pay the admission fee or have a day pass.  

But, once you’re there, feast your eyes on Keyhole Rock, which is literally a giant rock shaped like a keyhole, and a lot of other super cool sea rock formations. You can go fishing, surf, explore sea caves, and look for seashells, but the water isn’t great for swimming. Not a great place to relax, but definitely a great place to wear out the kids. 

Oh, and did I mention, the sand looks purple. Yes, Pfeiffer Beach has purple sand. 

Located in Northwest California, just north of San Luis Obispo.

  • Can I bring my dog to the beach? Yes
  • Can I camp at Big Sur? Yes
  • Distance from San Francisco – 146 miles
  • Distance from Monterey – 29 miles 

Final Thoughts

The kind of experience you have at any Northern California beach depends solely on what you’re looking for. You can spend a long weekend at touristy Half Moon Bay, relaxing, eating, surfing, and shopping or you can gaze upon the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge at Baker Beach. You can stay in town or drive a couple hours and find a beach not well traveled. Northern California beaches have a little something for everyone. Even your dog. 

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