When it comes to beaches in California, it’s often the glittering, sun-drenched shores of southern California that steal the limelight. With their cool surf culture, palm-lined boulevards, and celebrity-frequented sands, they’ve become the epitome of the classic California beach experience.
But you know what? Northern California’s coastline is like a hidden gem just waiting to be explored and discovered. Offering a stunning blend of pristine sands, dramatic landscapes, unique ecological features, and charismatic local cultures, the beaches of northern California shouldn’t be overlooked. They offer an equally enriching beach experience, but in a uniquely different way. And as a Bay Area native, I’d say they sometimes even surpass their southern counterparts!
Growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve had the chance to explore numerous shores. And I’d love to share my list of the top northern California beaches.
1. Baker Beach
Nestled below the rugged cliffs of the Presidio, this beach features a stretch of sand that provides a tranquil escape from the bustling city. Baker Beach is a San Francisco classic. When I lived in San Francisco, this was my go-to spot.
One of the key features that makes Baker Beach truly standout is its postcard-perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge (especially during sunset). The unrivaled view of the city’s iconic landmark, set against the expansive Pacific Ocean, makes it a perfect location for locals, photography enthusiasts, and tourists alike.
Baker Beach also acts as a window into the diverse wildlife of the area. Its location, adjacent to the Presidio’s rich habitat, presents opportunities for sightings of migrating birds, playful dolphins, and even the occasional whale.
They’ve got picnic tables and grills for lunch, so you can enjoy the iconic bridge and soak in those breathtaking sunsets.
2. Fort Funston
A renowned haven for dog-lovers, Fort Funston is a pup’s paradise and one of the best dog-friendly destinations in the San Francisco Bay Area. The park is replete with sandy beaches, extensive hiking trails, and an abundance of open space that makes it an ideal spot for dogs to romp, play, and socialize.
One of the key factors that makes Fort Funston so appealing for dogs and their owners is its off-leash policy. Dogs can run free here, which is a rarity in many public spaces and is particularly appreciated in an urban setting like San Francisco. The park’s broad, sandy beach provides plenty of space for dogs to stretch their legs, chase after balls, and even splash in the surf.
The beach also boasts stunning hiking trails that edge along the high bluffs, providing magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean.
3. Santa Cruz Beach
Santa Cruz Beach blends the best of California beach culture with the vibe of a classic amusement park. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the oldest in California and adds an element of fun and nostalgia that makes this beach stand out.
The beach itself is a beautiful stretch of sandy shoreline, ideal for sunbathing, beach games, and picnicking. The Monterey Bay’s cool, clear waters are perfect for swimming, surfing, and paddleboarding, satisfying both casual beachgoers and adventure enthusiasts.
Additionally, the natural beauty surrounding Santa Cruz Beach is breathtaking. The beach is framed by scenic cliffs and the famed Santa Cruz Wharf, offering stunning views, particularly at sunrise and sunset.
4. Stinson Beach
Located just about a 40-minute drive from San Francisco, Stinson Beach offers a quick and scenic getaway from the city.
The beach is a pristine 3.5-mile stretch of white sand, making it one of the most beautiful and expansive beaches in California. It’s perfect for sunbathing, walking, picnicking, and building sandcastles, offering a classic beach day experience. And the beach’s popularity is also boosted by its pet-friendly policies. A section of the beach allows dogs, making it a favorite destination for dog owners.
Stinson Beach is also one of the best swimming beaches in northern California. Its crystal-clear waters and consistently mild waves make it a fantastic location for a refreshing dip or a leisurely swim.
Hikers and nature lovers appreciate the proximity of Stinson Beach to Mount Tamalpais State Park, which offers numerous trails with varying difficulty levels. The famous Dipsea Trail — home of the oldest trail race in the country — starts in Mill Valley and ends in Stinson Beach. It’s a fantastic hike that passes through beautiful redwood groves and offers spectacular views. However, it’s a very challenging hike that typically lasts 5–6 hours.
5. Capitola Beach
Santa Cruz County
What truly sets Capitola Beach apart is its charming surroundings. The Capitola Village, with its brightly colored, Mediterranean-style buildings, quaint boutiques, and a variety of restaurants, surrounds the beach in an atmosphere of relaxed and laid-back California beach-town culture.
The beach itself is a lovely, sandy stretch that’s perfect for a variety of activities, from sunbathing to volleyball. Its gentle waves make it an excellent spot for novice surfers or families with young kids who enjoy paddling in the shallows.
6. Carmel Beach
Carmel Beach is my personal favorite beach in northern California. One of the most striking features of Carmel Beach is its natural beauty. The beach boasts a broad, soft, white sand shoreline that contrasts beautifully with the brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean. And it’s framed by cypress trees and sand dunes.
The beach is dog-friendly and is one of the few places where dogs can run off-leash. It’s also great for outdoor enthusiasts, with opportunities for surfing, beach volleyball, and scenic walks along the charming Scenic Bluff Path.
But what sets Carmel Beach apart is not just the beach itself, but the whole experience that surrounds it. A short walk to the quaint and artsy Carmel-by-the-Sea village is another huge draw. This town offers a range of world-class dining options, unique boutiques, art galleries, and storybook cottages. This means that a day at the beach can easily be combined with shopping, dining, or gallery hopping.
Moreover, Carmel Beach is a stone’s throw away from iconic California attractions. The renowned Pebble Beach golf course, the famous 17-Mile Drive, Big Sur, and the hiking trails of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve are all within easy reach.
7. Doran Beach
Doran Beach, nestled along the stunning Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, held a special place in my family’s heart during my youth. The breathtaking scenery was a constant inspiration for my artistically inclined family members, who found immense joy in capturing the beach’s mesmerizing beauty through their art.
Doran Beach offers 2 miles of sandy beach. It is known for its calm waters and excellent opportunities for bird watching, setting it apart from others in the region.
Also, the area offers one of the best coastal camping experiences in northern California, with well-equipped campgrounds that offer impressive views of the bay.
Finally, the beach’s location is next to Sonoma wine country, which means a trip to Doran Beach can be easily combined with a wine-tasting tour.
8. Ten Mile Beach
Ten Mile Beach in Mendocino County is a gem for solitude seekers. Its remoteness and sheer expanse of beach provide a sense of isolation that’s becoming increasingly unique. It’s a place to truly unplug and connect with the raw beauty of the Pacific Ocean.
Another major draw is its remote and unspoiled character. Unlike many other beaches, Ten Mile Beach is not heavily developed. This gives it a pristine, untouched quality that is becoming increasingly rare and is highly valued by nature enthusiasts and those looking for a quiet beach experience.
9. Glass Beach
Glass Beach offers something unique and quite literal: glass.
The sea glass is the result of years of natural reclamation, where the ocean has transformed discarded glass bottles and items into small, smooth, colored glass pieces. These glass pebbles, shimmering in various hues of green, white, and brown — and occasionally the rare red or blue — create a stunning, jeweled landscape that is different and special to explore.
10. Trinidad State Beach
One of the smallest natural harbors in California and nestled in a sheltered cove, Trinidad Beach is a slice of paradise.
The primary attraction of Trinidad Beach is its dramatic and breathtaking scenery. Surrounded by rocky cliffs and craggy offshore sea stacks, the beach offers some of the most spectacular coastal views in California.
It’s an excellent place for wildlife watching, as it’s home to an array of marine life including sea birds, harbor seals, and occasionally whales. Furthermore, the surrounding areas, such as Trinidad Head and the coastal forests, are great for hiking and provide additional opportunities for bird watching and enjoying the local flora and fauna.