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San Francisco Beaches

Surf, swim or lay out in the buff without leaving the city

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San Francisco Beaches
Raimund Koch/Getty Images
Although it is a stranger to balmy breezes, the Northern California coast is a magnificent stretch of rugged splendor and when the weather turns sunny and warm, locals do flock to the beach. San Francisco holds several scenic beaches, including nude beaches, within its compact borders and there are dozens of other options immediately up and down the coast. Even in mild weather, the Northern California coastline, with it's dramatic cliffs and hidden coves, is great place to hike and explore some pristine nature.

Beaches within the city of San Francisco

  • Ocean Beach: This 3.5 mile flat stretch of sand lines San Francisco's western border and caps Golden Gate Park's western end. While it lacks the rocky topography that creates the coves, sea stacks and other features that typify many of the area's beaches, Ocean Beach is popular with local surfers and it is a kite flyer's paradise due to the unobstructed winds blowing in off of the Pacific. Ocean Beach is also home to the San Francisco Zoo and Fort Funston, where 200-foot bluffs launch hang gliders out over the surf. After sunset, Ocean Beach comes alive as bonfire parties light up the night.

    Getting there: Take the "N" Judah to visit the northern section near Golden Gate Park and the Cliff House, or the "L" Taraval to go to the Zoo and Fort Funston. Parking is available.

  • Baker Beach: With the Golden Gate Bridge and the contoured slopes of the Marin Headlands as a panoramic back-drop and a gorgeous arc of golden sand that is largely protected from the wind due to it's north facing location, Baker Beach is packed with locals on sunny days. The eastern side of the beach, towards the bridge, is nude and gay-friendly, while the western side is more mainstream. Baker Beach is actually located within the Presidio National Park, and there are large picnic areas and even coastal hiking trails surrounding it.

    Getting There: If coming by public transit take the 38 Geary Muni Bus from downtown, get off at 25th Avenue and walk north about five or six blocks to the beach. Beach-side parking is available.

  • China Beach: Located just east of Land's End and the Legion of Honor, China Beach is a small cove surrounded by dramatic cliffs and dotted with craggy rocks where it feels like the city has dropped away completely. Awesome views from the picnic area, which is located on the cliffs above the beach, and the fact that it is rarely overcrowded make China Beach a romantic destination for couples to escape to.

    Getting There: China Beach lies just west of Baker Beach, but you must wander through the super upscale Sea Cliff neighborhood a bit (Via Sea Cliff Avenue) in order to access the parking lot and stairs that lead down to the beach.

Beaches in Marin County

Located right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Marin County is not only home to charming bay-front communities, like Sausalito, but to a gorgeous stretch of protected California coastline dotted with endless beaches.
  • Rodeo Beach: One of the closest Marin County Beaches to San Francisco, Rodeo Beach is part of an expansive natural area that features a lagoon filled with wildlife, an interpretative nature center and even a youth hostel housed in historic military barracks for those that would like to spend the night. The beach itself is wild and wind swept, but hiking around the hills and bluffs offers amazing views over the Pacific Ocean.

    Getting There: Drivers cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take the first exit (Alexander)and follow Bunker Road till it ends. The Muni Bus 76 Marin Headlands makes the trip from downtown San Francisco on Sundays and Holidays.

  • Muir Beach: This picturesque cove is located just west of the famous Muir Woods national Monument redwood tree grove and is a great place to enjoy a sunny afternoon after a hike in the forest. Nudists flock to the northern end of the beach while families enjoy the splendid views from the overlook picnic area. An abundance of hiking trails through the coastal cliffs appeal to nature buffs.

    Getting There: Cross Golden Gate Bridge and continue northbound on Highway 101 for about three miles to Exit 445B Mill Valley/Stinson Beach, which takes you onto Highway 1. Muir Beach is the first beach you will get to.

  • Stinson Beach: Widely considered one of California's most beautiful beaches, Stinson Beach is a popular hang-out for surfers, sunbathers and even swimmers, despite the frigid water temperatures. There are lifeguards here in the summer as well as a snack bar, picnic areas and BBQ facilities. Stinson Beach is about as close to Baywatch as you are going to get in Northern California.

    Getting There: Continue up Highway 1 another four or five miles from Muir Beach.

Beaches South of San Francisco

The coast that runs south of the city is a continuous stretch of coastal communities, most of them small towns, until you get to the college town of Santa Cruz. Many of the beaches in this area are State Parks or other protected wilderness areas and rarely experience the crowds of beach-goers that can fill up the beaches to the north. Notable beaches worth checking out include Montara State Beach, just south of Pacifica and nudist-friendly San Gregorio State Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay.

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