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The 20 Best Beaches in Northern California

The 20 Best Beaches in Northern California

Northern California has some of the most beautiful beaches. The unique and rugged coastline of northern California makes the beaches even more incredible. To help you find the perfect beach, we have put together this list of the best beaches in Northern California. 

Some great things about these beaches are that they are easy to access, most have free parking, and are less crowded than other beaches in the golden state. 

Beaches In Northern California

From beaches covered in glass to ones with natural bridges and even ones that have soft white sand and rugged sandstone cliffs, Northern California has some of the best places to explore the coast and see the ocean.

1. Carmel Beach 

White sand and blue waters for Carmel Beach in California.

If you are looking for a dog-friendly beach with some of the most incredible soft white sands and amazing views of the sunset, then you will want to visit Carmel beach. It is easy to see why this is one of the most popular beaches in Northern California and is even known all over the world. 

Carmel Beach is located right next to the beach town of Carmel-by-The-Sea. It is about a 2-hour drive south of San Francisco. Visitors from all over the world come here each year.

It is a great surfing location, as it is known for having clear water and good waves. Surfers have even spotted dolphins and sea otters out in the water. 

This beach is very dog friendly. Dogs are free to run without a leash. Some great spots to access the beach are at the parking lot on Ocean Avenue, the on-street parking on Camino Real and along Scenic Road which can be found next to Carmel beach. 

The one-mile-long crescent shape of Carmel Beach is the perfect place to spend some time on the coast. Visitors enjoy swimming, surfing, kayaking, volleyball, and beachcombing. It is also an amazing place to watch the sunset. There is a walking trail that runs along the entire area. 

This is the most southern beach on our list of the best beaches in Northern California, but it is a world-renowned beach that you should visit. 

2. Fort Funston Beach 

View of Fort Funston Beach in California.

Just outside San Francisco is Fort Funston Beach. It is one of the prettiest beaches in the bay area and also one of the best beaches in Northern California. It is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Fort Funston Beach is known for its 200-foot high sandy bluffs and expansive trails for hiking and horseback riding. The views from the bluffs are breathtaking. You might even be lucky enough to see some hang-gliders, as it is one of the most popular hang-gliding locations in the country. 

It is also a great spot to watch the sunset. Some even say that the view of Fort Funston Beach is one of the most beautiful views in Northern California. During whale migration season you can sometimes spot whales off in the distance. 

Since it does get so windy at this beach, if the weather report is calling for high winds you might want to visit another day. On top of the bluffs overlooking the beach, there are hiking trails and a hang-glider platform. 

Two places to access this beach are from the easy one-mile paved Sunset Trail or the more difficult Sand Ladder near the southern end of the beach. Swimming is discouraged since the currents are strong and it can be very dangerous. 

This beach is one of the best beaches in the Bay Area to bring your dog, as it is very dog friendly and you can let your dog run free without a leash. Fort Funston is also the location of Battery Davis, a former harbor defense installation during WWII. There are tunnels and concrete remnants that you can explore near the trails. 

3. Asilomar State Beach

Waters of Asilomar State Beach in Northern California.

Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove is a narrow one-mile strip of sandy beach and rocky coves along Sunset Drive. This beach is part of the Asilomar Marine Reserve. It is a marine protected area, so you are not allowed to fish or collect shells and rocks. 

Across the street from the beach is the Asilomar Dunes Natural Preserve. This 25-acre area of dunes has boardwalks and scenic outlooks overlooking the stunning coastline and waters of Asilomar Beach. 

There is parking right next to the beach and you can walk down a short trail to go down onto the sand. This beach does have riptides and unpredictable surfs, so be careful near the water. 

If you visit low tide, there are some great tide pools for exploring. There are also flat sandy sections and walking trails along the top of the beach area. 

Located right near the beach is the Asilomar Conference Grounds. Which is a hotel and conference center that is a location for family reunions and social events. The Asilomar State beach is also a popular location for watching the sunset and is also next to the famous “17-mile road”. 

This famous road follows the coastline through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove and passes by some of the most expensive mansions, through an exclusive gated community, famous golf courses, and scenic attractions. 17-mile road is one of the most scenic drives in America

With the breathtaking views, beautiful sand and water, and all that there is to see and do near Asilomar State Beach, it is easy to see why this is one of the best beaches in Northern California. 

4. Rodeo Beach 

Rodeo Beach in Northern California.

Another stunning Bay Area Beach located just 3 miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge is Rodeo Beach. This beautiful beach cove is a must-see beach near San Francisco and a beautiful spot for hiking, surfing, or exploring the beach. 

This Bay Area Beach is within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is a popular destination for locals and tourists as it is easy to access and very close to San Francisco. There is parking right near the beach, so accessing the beach is just an easy walk from the parking lot. 

Rodeo Beach is also the perfect spot for birdwatching. On the south end of the beach is Bird Rock. A small arched rock out in the water that you can spot birds on if you have binoculars. Rodeo Lagoon is also great for bird watching. 

This beach is a large open area, perfect for spending some time on the sand by the water. It is also a great surfing location. Rodeo Beach has small dark, pebbly stones of brown, red, green, and blue.

The views of the ocean right on the water are stunning, and it is also an amazing view looking down on the beach from some of the many trails that lead up the surrounding hills.

One of the best trails near the beach is the 5.1 mile Rodeo Beach Coastal Trail. This trail is relatively easy and has some great views. For the best views, you will want to continue to the steeper Miwok trail. It is a bit steeper, but the views of the Pacific Ocean and the beach below will be worth it.

If you are in the Bay Area and you are looking for a beautiful easy to access beach, then you should take some time to explore all Rodeo Beach has to offer.

5. Carmel River State Beach 

Sand and blue ocean water at Carmel River State Beach.

Discover this picturesque beach in Northern California right outside the adorable town of Carmel, California. Carmel River State Beach is a one-mile stretch of soft white sand with amazing blue waters. 

The beach is just steps away from the town of Carmel. There are some other great beaches in Carmel but this beach is a bit of a local secret, so it is normally less crowded than the others. It does have a small parking area that can fill up quickly, so make sure you arrive early.

Carmel River State Beach is where the Carmel River empties into the ocean. It has some breathtaking views, and some say that the water here just looks bluer and that that water temperature is a bit warmer. It is the perfect beach for families, kids, and it is very dog-friendly. 

Do note that this beach can be very dangerous for swimmers due to its steep drop-off and rip tides, so be very careful near the water.

Next to this beach is also the Carmel River Lagoon and the Wetlands Natural Preserve which attract many different species of birds. This makes it a popular location for birdwatchers, kayakers, and scuba divers. 

You can also check out the Carmel Meadows Trail which is a nearby 0.6-mile short easy trail for scenic ocean views and the opportunity to see wildlife up close. Carmel River State Beach is one of the prettiest and best beaches in Northern California. 

6. Baker Beach

A view of the waters and Golden Gate Bridge at Baker Beach.

Want to hang out at a beach right under the Golden Gate Bridge? Baker Beach in San Francisco is one of the best beaches in the Bay Area, where you can enjoy the beach and see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge

Baker Beach is one-mile long, and like many of the other best beaches in Northern California, this beach does have large waves, an undertow and rip currents, which makes it unsafe for swimming. 

The beach features panoramic views of the Golden gate as well as the Marin Headlands and Lands End. It is a popular spot to hang out in the city and a great place to sunbathe. 

Just be careful if you are exploring the North end of the beach as many say that clothing is optional in this section. 

Another popular thing to do at Baker Beach is to check out the Battery Chamberlin, a missile that was built in 1904 to defend the city against the war. You can get a demonstration if you attend the first weekend of each month. 

There is also the nearby easy 3.9 mile Baker Beach Coast Trail that goes throughout the bluffs above Baker Beach. The trailhead begins at the Fort Point National Historic Site

A trip to Baker Beach would be a fun thing to do if you are in San Francisco and it would also be a great place to get some photos on the beach with the Golden Gate Bridge.

7. Glass Beach 

Colored glass pieces at Glass Beach in California.

Thousands of people from all over the world visit this northern California Beach each year. Glass Beach is located within the MacKerricher State Park in the small coastal town of Fort Bragg which sits at the bottom of a rocky cliff. 

Glass beach is famous for its shores covered in small pieces of colored sea glass. It is the result of a town dump site that existed from 1906 to 1967. 

There were once three different dump sites. Through the years larger items and metal has been removed from these sites, but what remains is the glass that has been weather by the waters of the pacific ocean and turned into beautiful sea glass. 

Since there were three different dumpsites there are three different beaches in this area that are covered in glass. They are very close to each other and you can easily walk each different section of Glass Beach.

While these glass beaches are not very big, they will keep you entertained for hours just looking at all the different colors and shapes of the sea glass.

Try to visit on a sunny day when the colored glass pieces are even more impressive since they sparkle and glitter in the sun. 

Locals say that the tide brings in a new glass every day, so each visit to this beach will always be different. Just make sure that you don’t take any of the glass homes, as it is illegal to take a glass from this state park. 

Through the years, many people have ignored this warning, and so glass beach has less glass today than it did many years ago, but it is still worth the visit to this unique beach. 

The actual beach is very rocky and unsafe for swimming, but if you visit when the tide is out you will get to see tide pools and explore all the beautiful colors of this little beach. 

8. Moonstone Beach County Park

An aerial view of Moonstone Beach County Park.

There are two beaches in California called Moonstone Beach, so make sure you don’t confuse this one on our list of the best beaches in Northern California with the other Moonstone beach located in the southern part of the golden state. 

Moonstone Beach is located 5 miles south of the small fishing town of Trinidad California just off Highway 101. This beach is a scenic sandy beach with some large rocks out in the surf. At the northern end of the beach are some hidden caves for exploring at low tide. 

There is also the well-known Camel Rock which are two rocks that almost look like a camel hump. Moonstone Beach is a popular spot for surfers and families. 

There is a small river called Little River that flows out into the ocean. Due to the slow river current and warmer waters, kids can play safely in the river. Moonstone beach is also dog friendly and if you go at low tide you will most likely find some sand dollars. 

This hidden little northern California beach doesn’t get as busy as many of the other beaches in the state. It is the perfect place to enjoy some peaceful time to yourself out by the water.

The views are simply incredible, rocky cliffs with lush greenery on one side of the beach and amazing ocean views on the other. 

Moonstone Beach in Northern California is a beach that you should visit at least once, but you will probably want to return again and again.  

9. Pebble Beach 

View of Pebble beach rocks and tide pools in Northern California.

Amazing views, rocky tidepools, agates, and sandy coves are what makes Pebble Beach in Crescent City one of the best beaches in Northern California. This beach is also the most northern beach on this list, as it is only about a twenty-minute drive to the Oregon Border

Pebble Beach is about 2.5 miles long and has many different parking areas and coves. Even if you don’t have time to stop and go to the beach, driving along Pebble Beach Drive offers some stunning views of the Ocean. 

The southern section of Pebble Beach is rockier and you will find beaches covered in small pebbles and large rocks with tide pools to explore. The northern end of the beach flattens out and is a large sandy area with the view of Preston Island, a large rock just off-shore. 

Pebble beach is a popular location for surfing, whale watching, spotting sea lions, birdwatching, and hunting for agates. Pebble Beach borders Point Saint George where there are hiking trails and stunning views overlooking this beautiful Northern California beach.

10. Big River Beach at Mendocino Headlands State Park

Big River Beach at Mendocino Headlands State Park in California.

Just outside the small northern California town of Mendocino, about 3 hours north of San Francisco, is Big River Beach. This popular beach is located in the Mendocino Headlands State Park and is where the Big River flows into the Pacific Ocean. 

This beach is a local favorite and one of the best beaches in Northern California, but it’s not normally crowded. The Iconic Big River Beach is a large white sandy beach that is tucked into the Big River Estuary

Accessing this beach is easy as there is a parking lot right next to the beach. There are many coves and caves to explore. It is a great place to bring the kids since the waters of the river are calm and safe for playing in the water. It’s also popular for canoeing and kayaking. 

Big River Beach is perfect for finding shells, surfing, and enjoying the many birds and wildlife in the area. One side of the beach borders the Pacific Ocean and the other is a view of the lush green forest and Big River Estuary which is made up of 7,000 acres.

11. Gualala Point Regional Park

Gualala Point Regional Park beach and greenery in California.

Located right off Highway 1 in Sonoma County is Gualala Point Regional Park. This oceanfront park features a scenic beach, estuary, river, campground, and trails. There is so much to see at this popular Northern California beach.

The driftwood-covered sandy beaches are normally not too busy, and perfect for taking a stroll along the beach. On the beach, you might even spot some seals.

One thing that makes this beach one of the best beaches in Northern California is that it has some hiking trails along the bluff with breathtaking views of the ocean and beach below. 

The Gualala River flows through the park and dumps out into the ocean. There are over 2.9 miles of coastal trails. The Gualala Bluff Trail has some great views of the ocean and ends at an ocean overlook where you can often spot whales. 

This beach is great for exploring and picnicking, but it is not safe for swimming as the surf is very dangerous. 

Some trails lead to the campground which is connected to the park. These trails go through the trees and have some unique views of what many call the “hobbit tunnels” where you can walk through small tunnels of trees. 

A perfect way to truly experience this California beach is to spend a few days or longer at the Gualala Point Regional Campground. This nearby campground is along the river and features swimming holes, more hiking, and redwood trees.

12. North Salmon Creek Beach

The shoreline of North Salmon Creek Beach in Northern California.

Another great California beach is located in Sonoma County. North Salmon Creek Beach is right off Highway 1 about 2.5 miles north of Bodega Bay. This beach is a popular location for surfing, kite flying, fishing, picnics, and exploring the beach. 

The North Salmon Creek beach has easy access to the sand and two short paths lead out to the mouth of the Salmon River. If you go even further south past the creek the beach continues and turns into South Salmon Creek Beach

The entire Salmon Creek beach area is about 2 miles long. This is not a very safe beach for swimming since there are dangerous riptides and have been shark sightings, but you can swim in the waters of the creek. Also, no dogs are allowed on this beach. 

There are many beaches in this area and they are all part of the Sonoma Coast State Park Beach System. This beach has nice clean sand and lots of driftwood. You will sometimes see little structures that people build from the driftwood. 

Make sure you check out the tide pools and you might even see some starfish and other sea life. At low tide, you will often find sand dollars laying in the sand. This beach has some beautiful scenery and it’s one of the best beaches in northern California. 

13. Agate Beach

A view of Agate Beach from the Parking area above.

If you are willing to hike a bit to get down to this more secluded beach, then Agate Beach is a place you should visit. The beach is two miles long, and an ideal spot for beachcombing and hunting for agates.

Agate beach is located about 6 miles north of the small fishing town of Trinidad. It is part of Patrick’s Point State Park. This state park borders the beach and is tucked in the heart of California’s coastal redwoods. It includes hiking, campgrounds, and some incredible views of the ocean and redwoods.

The parking area of Agate Beach is accessible by accessing Patrick’s Point State Park. The actual beach itself is harder to get to as you have to hike down a fairly steep hill from the edge of the bluffs. 

Agate Beach is popular for surfers and a great place to go for some alone time. Since it is harder to access, it isn’t as busy as many of the other northern California Beaches. Swimming is not advised due to the dangerous waters, but you can walk for miles on this beach. 

Dogs are not allowed on this beach. It’s a great place for spotting wildlife as there are tons of birds, and you might see some sea lions and whales out in the water. It is easy to see why this secluded beach is a favorite of so many on the northern California coast. 

14. Natural Bridges State Beach

Rocks of Natural Bridges State Beach at sunset.

Located right outside Santa Cruz is the popular Natural Bridges State Beach. This beach is most famous for its rock formation right off the coast that looks like a bridge connecting two large rocks. 

It’s also a great place to spot wildlife as there are often birds covering the natural bridge’s rock. If you visit in October – January you will get to see the 100,000 Monarch Butterflies that migrate to this area during winter. The butterflies are located in the nearby Monarch Preserve.

Natural Bridges Beach has some amazing tide pools that are packed with colorful sea anemones, starfish, and hermit crabs. This beach is a popular destination for families and it has nice soft sand that is perfect for relaxing and enjoying a day on the beach. 

Visitors also enjoy boogie boarding, swimming, and sunbathing. There are no dogs allowed on this beach, but they are allowed on the neighboring paved roads and parking lot. 

The beach is a small part of the bigger 65-acre Natural Bridges State Park where you will find trails, picnicking areas, bathrooms, a visitor center, and more. 

16. Trinidad State Beach

Trinidad State Beach in Northern California.

Trinidad State Beach is located just a few minutes off Highway 101 right outside the beach town of Trinidad. The views at this beach are simply breathtaking. It is also very easy to access as the parking area is right next to the beach. 

This little beach is a great place to relax and an even better place to watch the sunsets. It is also very close to the unique little town of Trinidad which has some great restaurants, gift shops, and places to stay. 

Trinidad State Beach is very close to the marina, so you may see boats coming and going from the harbor area. This beach is also a popular place for surfing, photography, beachcombing, and fishing. 

You will find lots of ocean life at Trinidad State Beach. There are seals, sea lions, crabs, and birds. This beach is a great place to come and enjoy the ocean and the beauty of the North Coast. 

17. Goat Rock Beach

Goat Rock Beach parking area and waters.

Goat Rock Beach is located near the mouth of the Russian River off Highway 1 in Sonoma County. This beach in northern California is known for its scenic shoreline, easy access, and beautiful sandy beach. 

While this beach is beautiful it is not a safe place for swimming. The waters and rip current are very strong. Even though you can’t swim in the ocean, you can swim in the Russian River part of the beach, as the current here is much safer. 

Goat Rock Beach is known for a large offshore rock that is flat on the top. One unique thing about this beach is that you can sometimes spot an entire group of Pacific Harbor Seals that hang out in the area. From February to April you might even get to see some of their sea pups. Just don’t get close to the seals. 

The beach is part of the larger Sonoma Coast State Park. Most visitors to the beach love to go beach-combing, birdwatching, and watch the sea life. Dogs are not allowed on the beach. 

There are some hiking trails on the bluffs and cliffs surrounding this beach. These trails offer some stunning views of the ocean below. 

18. Montara State Beach

Sandy beach area and waters of Montana State Beach in Northern California.

Montara State Beach is 20 miles south of San Francisco. You can get to the beach from two different access points right off Highway 1. It is a popular beach for photography due to the high sandstone cliffs that surround the beach. 

This northern California beach is great for visitors that want to explore the tide pools, surf, hike, or fish. The beach also has some strong waves so swimming can be dangerous. If you look in the coastal shrub along Montara State Beach then you might even be able to spot some of the different types of local birds. 

This beach is a wide sandy beach that is almost a mile long. Getting down to the beach area is a bit tricky as you do have to walk down a fairly steep trail and set of stairs. Within the area of the beach is also the McNeed Ranch which has hiking trails that go up to Monora Mountain

The hike up Monora Mountain is a moderately difficult 7-10 mile round trip and offers some great views along the way. Another popular trail on the McNeed Ranch area is the easier 2-mile round trip Gray Whale Cove Trail. During whale migration season you might even be able to spot some whales during your hike.

The hiking, picturesque views, and things to do at this beach make it one of the best beaches in Northern California. 

19. Drakes Beach

Sandstone cliffs and the sandy beach at Drakes Beach in California.

This wide stretch of beach is known for dramatic white sandstone cliffs. Drakes Beach is located within the Point Reyes National Seashore. This secluded beach is located about 1.5 hours north of San Francisco

Drakes Beach requires a long scenic drive to reach the actual beach. Once you reach the beach there is parking close by. The beach is protected by Chimney Rock, so the surf is more mellow for swimming and playing in the water. 

This long stretch of sandy beach is perfect for beachcombing and a great place for spotting sand dollars. There are also many sea lions on this beach. Drakes Beach is also a popular spot for taking pictures as it is so beautiful with the backdrop of the sandstone cliffs. These cliffs also help to keep parts of the beach from being too windy. 

Since this beach is located within the Point Reyes National Seashore, there is much more to do in the surrounding areas of the beach. There are numerous hiking trails including the 1.9 miles easy out and back Drakes Beach Trail that starts at the parking area and goes along the bluffs overlooking the beach. 

Another great hike with amazing views is the 1.75-mile round trip Chimney Rock Trail. This trail is known for its beautiful wildflowers in the Spring and leads along the ridge crest of the peninsula.

This hike is also a great place to see some great views of Drakes Beach from above. During whale migration season you may even spot some whales out in the water.

20. Seaside Creek Beach

A house on a large rock at Seaside Creek Beach in Northern California.

This beach is referred to as a hidden gem since it is beautiful and uncrowded. Seaside Creek Beach is located just outside Fort Bragg. This is also the area where Seaside Creek flows out into the ocean. 

Seaside Beach is known for its massive rock formations and scenic sandstone cliffs. This is a perfect spot to walk on the soft sand and look for sand dollars. You will also find the natural rock tunnel and the rock arch called Whale Rock

This beach is the perfect spot to get away from it all, just make sure that you try to arrive early as the parking area is small and limited to about 10 cars. If you are looking for more to do near Seaside Beach, then check out the MacKerricher State Park which is located about 5 miles to the north. 

The MacKerricher State Park is a great place for camping, hiking, fishing, viewing wildlife, biking, and horseback riding. While Seaside Beach might not be one of the most well-known beaches in Northern California, it is one of the best. 

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