Frisbees, Fido, and Free-Spirted: The Ten Best Beaches on the Rugged NorCal Coast

by Eileen Strauss on May 19, 2022


NorCal Beaches

Hang-glide, Hang Ten, and Hang Out on the NorCal Coastline


The beaches of California are some of the most maginificent on earth, with surfing, swimming, and sightseeing extending from the hot and sultry Mexican border to the mystical and rough Oregon coast. 


Both northern and southern California beaches are widely known for their natural beauty, sandy shores, and large surfing communities, but what separates the north and south is the vibe.


If you’re a little over the glitz, glamor, heat, celebrity, and sun worshiping of the Southland, or you’re just looking to for a cool place to relax with a book, toss Frisbees, run with dogs, enjoy great food, and witness magical sunsets on a baja blanket, head north to the 300 laid back beaches of NorCal, where the star of the show is the scenery and chill ambiance. 


The rugged Northern California coastline has some of the most spectacular scenery and activity-packed beaches in the world. From the action of the San Francisco Bay to the laid back Lost Coast, from the solitude of Redwood Country to the quaint village of Caramel, Northern California beaches have it all. 


Enjoy a vast array of coastal opportunities like hang gliding, surfing, kayaking, and hiking – and apres sol activities like wine tasting, boardwalk amusements, outdoor concerts, open-air markets, and world-class dining. From the wide sandy shores of San Mateo to  wild and remote Centerville, NorCal’s beaches are the perfect mix of bohemian lifestyle, coastal community, and natural beauty not found anywhere else in the US. 


But for pup parents, one of the best parts of traveling to the state’s northernmost beaches is the vast array of dog-friendly free public access beaches. If you’re looking for a place to enjoy sand and sun with your best friend, see our post, A Guide to the Best Dog Friendly Beaches in NorCal.


With dozens of popular beaches just minutes from San Francisco, and miles of remote, deserted beaches along the fabled Lost Coast, whatever you’re looking to do,  (or if you’re into doing nothing at all) you’ll find it along the northern coast of the Golden State. Below are some of our favorite NorCal beaches. 


Hang-gliding in NorCal


#1) Fort Funston, San Francisco


Nature lovers and adventurers will love spending an afternoon at Fort Funston in Golden Gate National Recreational Park. A southernmost beach with 200 foot high bluffs on the most western edge of San Francisco, Fort Funston is the premier hang-gliding spot in the country. 


With networking trails ideal for hiking, horseback riding, and dog walking,   one of the star attractions aside from the hang-gliding ledge is the “magnetic sand.” The dark sand, made of a mineral called magnetite actually sticks to magnets, is a kid-friendly attraction not to be missed.  Sand dollars that line this beach make it a great spot for shell collectors. After a day at the beach, head back to your car via the popular Sunset Trail with its murals and graffiti-covered walls. 


Tips and precautions


  • The surf and undertow can be extremely dangerous.

  • The trails to the beach are very steep, making for a strenuous hike 

  • The loop trails at Fort Funston are paved and wheelchair-accessible; the trails down to the beach are not.

  • If your pet gets stuck on the bluffs, do not go after it, the risk of falling is greater for you than your pet.


 Carmel Beach

#2) Carmel-by-the-Sea


One of the most iconic spots on the west coast, the pretty-as-a-
postcard village of Carmel, with its storybook cottages and manicured 
gardens surrounds a white sandy beach that draws thousands of visitors 
from all across the country. 


Home to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house, rugged Carmel Point, and Pebble Beach Golf Links, surfers can catch a ride on the waves, while dolphins swim freely about.   

Ranked as one of the top dog beaches in California, with no leash laws, expect to see pups of every shape, size, and age, running in the sugar sand and splashing in the aquamarine surf.  



  • The beach to surf is significantly affected by tide, wave duration, sand bar formation, and swell direction. 

  • The wave and water conditions can change rapidly

  • A wetsuit is a must if you plan to remain in the water for any length of time as the water hovers at a cool 50 degrees.





Carmel Bay's protected cove hosts an annual sandcastle-building contest, where sand sculptors from all over the globe come to display their amazing creations. Bird lovers are encouraged to stay for the sunset at Carmel Bay to see long-billed curlews and squadrons of pelicans flying in V-formations right above the waves.  



Clam Beach, Trinidad, California

3) Trinidad


Trinidad is a quiet coastal town, approximately 25 miles north of Eureka. One of California's oldest seaside cities, set on the city’s shoreline, Trinidad is one of NoCal’s  diamonds-in-the-rough.


A short walk down a forested bluff takes you to Trinidad State Beach, with its dramatic coastal beauty emerging from the tree line. Enormous sea stacks punctuate the wide-reaching beach, with birds and trees flourishing atop these massive boulders.


A wild landscape  that really shines  at sunset, popular activities at the beach include hiking, sunbathing, and exploring tide pools at low tide. South of the beach, the jutting Trinidad Head is also a popular place to visit where   hikers can gain an excellent perspective over the entire beach scene from atop of the imposing head. 


Moonstone Beach County Park, at the north side of the Little River mouth near Trinidad, is popular with both surfers and families. A great spot for surfing, surf kayaking and just walking, this picturesque beach with rocks and large sea stacks that poke up out of the surf is famous for its large two-humped rock island, known as Camel Rock. Explore the hidden caves at low tide and get out and enjoy the waves at high tide. 


CaliCase Dry Bag


Bring a to keep your belongings safe, but leave your dog leash behind when visiting Trinidad’s pup parent-popular coast. 


Glass Beach, Fort Bragg


4) Glass Beach, Fort Bragg


An unusually beautiful spot, Glass Beach is the well-known southern beach of MacKerricher State Park in Fort Bragg, getting its name from the smooth colorful glass pieces that are spread throughout the pebbly beach. After years of currents and tides smoothing the edges of broken bottles, what was once a trash dump has become a California treasure. 


While it’s  illegal to remove any glass from Glass Beach, it hasn’t stopped people from taking what seems like a harmless amount. Over the years, these seemingly innocent pockets full of souvenirs, the beach has become depleted of its namesake.


Still beautiful, trails leading  from the Glass Beach to other glassy beaches outside of the state park boundary are hidden gems for photographers and Instragramers. 



Big Sur

5) Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur


Famous for its gorgeous sands and stunning rock formations, bring your waterproof camera when visiting  Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur. Towering rock formations and crashing waves at sunrise and sunset make this beach a photographer’s paradise. Keep an eye out for the purple-y colored sands caused by the run-off rainwater from the surrounding cliffs. 


Though not a beach for swimming, it’s an ideal spot for those looking to climb rocky terrain, take great photos, and take in the views of a lost wilderness right in the middle of NoCal beach country.  Stay at one of the luxury wooden cabins for hire at Glen Oaks Big Sur,  and make this unique beach experience a part of your overall California vacation plans. 


6) Stinson Beach, Marin County


A mere 20 miles north of the city of San Francisco and two and a half miles from the secluded Bolinas Bay, sun-drenched Stinson Beach is one of the best swimming beaches in Cali, popular among locals as a favorite spot to escape the San Fran fogs. 


Kids with sand buckets and longboard surfers crowd the lines at the burrito stand while lifeguards keep watch over the white-crested waves. Seals dive, kite flying, cormorants cruises, and a stop on one of the best hikes out of San Francisco are among the other reasons to visit Stinson. 


Dipsea Trail 


If you visit in June you can watch or participate in the 7.4 mile Dipsea Race, the oldest trail race in the country. 



California's Lost Coast


7) Centerville Beach, California's Lost Coast

Centerville Beach is near the charming Victorian town of Ferndale, about a 4.5-hour drive north of San Francisco.  This nine-mile-long, windswept beach is part of the Lost Coast, a vast stretch of raw, undeveloped Northern California coastline that stretches through Mendocino and Humboldt Counties.

Centerville Beach is a county park with  tall cliffs with many hiking trails. Horses and dogs are allowed on the beach, as are vehicles and ATVs. This wide, flat beach is stunning but the water is very cold and rough.


Baker Beach

8) Baker Beach


With a dramatic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and just minutes from downtown San Francisco, the mile-long Baker Beach offers postcard-like views of the iconic structure, the Marin Headlands,  and Lands End.


Beyond the sand, Baker Beach has a picnic area with barbecue grills and picnic tables. A popular walking beach, the waters are rough and cold with extremely strong currents.  Situated within the city limits, Baker Beach is easily accessible by public transportation.



9) Three Rocks Beach 


Three Rocks Beach delivers on the key ingredients for a great beach. Located in Half Moon Bay,  30 minutes south of the San Francisco International Airport and less than an hour from downtown, the beach is relatively undeveloped, with the nearest homes set back a few hundred yards from the sand, but still easily accessible by car.


Rugged rocks create a lot of tide pools, great for exploring. The surrounding tall cliffs are also fun to explore, with hiking trails leading to their precipices. This beach has wide, flat sandy sections and other areas with huge boulders and rocks.


Three Rocks Beach is open to the public, but it’s also home to the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay Victorian seaside resort. Perched on top of the cliff adjacent to the beach, the resort offers  dramatic views of the coastline in both directions, making it an excellent spot for photographers and IGers.


Santa Cruz Boardwalk

10) Main Beach, Santa Cruz


For a classic summertime beach experience, Main Beach in Santa Cruz is as good as it gets. With its wide shoreline of soft, golden sand and reasonably gentle surf, Santa Cruz’s Main Beach is a big, wide, flat beach with family-fun activities. 


Home to the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, one of the top attractions in Santa Cruz since 1908, beachgoers have enjoyed the shops, carnival games, and amusement park rides lining this old-school, mile-long wooden boardwalk for over a century. Both listed as historic landmarks, the Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Looff Carousel are family favorites of this boardwalk, the oldest in California. Part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, dolphins, otters, sea lions, and whales can  often be spotted from the shore.


Main Beach is a great place for bodyboarding, surfing, sunbathing, and beach volleyball.