Travel

The Best Beaches in San Francisco

Don't forget your mask.

Despite the fact that San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides, it seems like residents tend to forget that with an ocean and bay often comes swaths of sand perfect for frolicking and lounging. Sure, SF’s beaches are not the ones that most people think of when they imagine “California beaches,” but we’ll take glacial water, staggering cliffs, and stunning views over crowds of sunbathers and surfer bros any day, especially during these times when socially distancing is of the utmost importance. After all, the best part about the fact that you often have to wear a puffy jacket at the beach is that it means thousands of people aren’t flocking to it.

For those who are hoping to get a little sunshine with their shoreline, the best thing to do is the exact opposite of what most of the world does and go in any of the months that aren’t summer months, especially if those months are September or October. And, it’s worth mentioning, though all beaches are open right now, if you’re driving to one, you’ll want to check to make sure the parking lots are open, especially on holiday weekends, as they’re sporadically closed to prevent crowds.

Clipper Cove Beach

Treasure Island
Everyone talks about how foggy San Francisco is, but one aspect of our weather that doesn’t get as much “love,” is the wind. During the summer, the ocean is still super cold, but the inland areas get really hot, and, fun fact: cool air always moves inland because high pressure (cold air) always flows to low pressure (warm air), which is what creates our beloved fog, but also the gusting wind. Wondering why the wind gets even more ferocious in the afternoon? That’s because it gets even warmer inland as the day progresses, but the ocean temp doesn’t change. 

Now that our science lesson is over, we can get to our point, which is: during summer months, the best beaches to visit are the ones that are protected. Which, as you may have guessed from the “cove” part, is a category into which Clipper Cove definitely falls. You’ll still want to go earlier in the day since much of the beach ends up in the shade in the afternoon, but that actually works out well because as the shadows start to creep across the sand, that’s your sign that it’s time to go to Mersea, a cool shipping container-style restaurant, for fish tacos and a margarita.  

Note: Usually, you can rent a kayak or SUP from Treasure Island Sailing Center that you can paddle to the cove, but because of COVID-19, that’s not currently an option.

China Beach

Seacliff
On a warm weekend, Baker Beach is going to be crowded and parking is going to be impossible, which is why those in the know, which is now you, go to China Beach, a tiny sheltered cove between Lands End and Baker Beach. While the views are almost as amazing as Baker Beach, China Beach is a lot smaller, which means if it’s above 75 degrees and sunny, you’ll still want to get there early to snag a good spot. When the sun isn’t shining, China Beach is still warmer than most other beaches, a major perk of the whole “sheltered cove” thing. At low tide, check out the tide pools or walk to Baker Beach to see starfish, anemones, and mussels clinging to the cliffside. (Just don’t linger too long unless you want to be cut off by the rising tide and forced to take the long way back -- about 15 minutes walking through a residential neighborhood.)

Besides being sheltered, other perks of China Beach are a picnic area with grills and a monument to the Chinese fisherman who used the cove as a campsite during and after the Gold Rush. It’s also part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which means that you can drink beer and wine, as long as it’s not in glass containers. Dogs, on the other hand, are not permitted.

Mile Rock Beach

Lands End
A relatively short walk along the Lands End Trail will bring you to the staircase that leads down to this tiny, rocky beach with views of the foundation of the Mile Rocks Lighthouse that was mostly demolished in 1966. Even if you’re just stopping for a break on your hike, it’s worth it to take a minute to visit this tranquil spot, grab a seat on a log, and watch the Pacific crash against the boulders and spray up into the air. Even better if you do it at sunset with a can of wine in hand.

Crissy Field

Marina/Presidio
What was once a US Army airfield is now a true San Francisco treasure. If you’re new to SF, you may not be aware that Crissy Field wasn’t always a recreational wonderland; in fact, it was literally toxic thanks to the dumping of hazardous materials by the aforementioned Army. But let’s let the past be the past and just be thankful that the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy teamed up to bring what they described as “a derelict concrete wasteland” back to its original glory and then some, and now it’s one of the prettiest places to visit in the city, thanks to dunes, a tidal lagoon, excellent bird watching, kiteboarders and windsurfers, and views of Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, the Downtown skyline, and the Marin Headlands. 

During non-pandemic times, the options for fun are plentiful. Set up at one of two picnic areas with grills, stay overnight in the city’s only campground, grab a sandwich at the Warming Hut, or explore Fort Point, an impressive piece of “Third System” architecture that sits directly below the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, we’re still in pandemic times, which means none of those places are open (although the picnic areas are definitely getting use). Fret not, you can still sit on East Beach and watch the kite surfers, and even wade in the water since this is Bay water not take-your-breath-away (literally) frigid Pacific Ocean water. There’s also bird watching at Crissy Marsh, more beach at the West Bluffs (this is also the best place to picnic/grill), the waterfront Promenade where you can walk, jog, or bike, as well as tons of other spots where you can just kick back with your dog, a beer, and that sandwich from Marina Subs you were smart enough to pick up on your way.

Mountain Lake Beach

Presidio/Inner Richmond
A secret oasis in the middle of the city
Mountain Lake Beach is one of SF’s last surviving lakes and is totally under-the-radar. The 1,700-year-old freshwater lake and surrounding area were recently restored, which means native species are slowly coming back, and the animals are living their best lives. (If you even dabble in ornithology, you’ll want to bring your binoculars.) This is definitely more of a “pack a picnic and enjoy a quiet afternoon” type of spot than a “gather a bunch of friends for a party” type of spot. If you’re in the need for a little moment of serenity, you’re almost guaranteed to find it here.

Baker Beach

Presidio
Thanks to “this is why we live here” outside-the-Gate views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, Baker Beach is frequented by locals and tourists, as well as brides and grooms wanting to get that perfect wedding photo. Also: naked people. At least on the north end where clothing is optional, a thing more people than you’d expect take advantage of considering how cold it usually is. 

The view (of the bridge, not the naked people!) isn’t the only thing that makes this beach the most popular in SF. It’s also dog-friendly (off leash north of Lobos Creek and leashed south of it) and has a picnic area with grills tucked away in a Cypress Grove right off of the parking lot (get there early to grab one, especially on a sunny day). Nearby, there’s also an interesting piece of history: a Battery Chamberlin, which holds the last “disappearing gun” of its type on the West Coast. Usually you can go on the first weekend of the month to see a demonstration, but that’s not happening at this time because of COVID-19.

As far as the weather goes, it’s hit or miss. On sunny days, it can definitely be warm enough to lay out in a bathing suit, and on foggy and windy days, you’ll want to wear whatever it is you wear in the snow. Regardless of the weather, you definitely don’t want to go into the water because the currents and riptide are no joke.

Ocean Beach

Sunset and Richmond
You’ll occasionally see people dropping in at Fort Point, but when it comes to consistent and quality surf spots  in SF, OB easily takes the prize. (And not just because there really aren’t many others, although also that.) The 3.5-mile long beach spans from the zoo on the south to the Cliff House on the north -- and is also SF’s widest beach by far (good for staying six feet apart from everyone else). Like almost all of SF’s beaches, you should not go in the water due to a strong shore break and monster rip currents (seriously, Ocean Beach is one of California’s deadliest beach due to drownings), but you can let your dog play off leash from stairwell 1 (Fulton Street) to stairwell 21 (across from Beach Chalet). Just make sure he’s on a leash between Lincoln and Sloat because tickets are a common occurrence for beach-goers who break the rules.

Ocean Beach is also known for its fire rings where people set up “camp” and make hot dogs and s’mores, but -- yeah, you know what’s coming -- those are closed temporarily due to COVID-19. What’s not closed, and possibly is even cooler is that if you go when the tide is very, very low, you can walk to Ortega Street and (try to) see the ribs of the hull of “King Philip” (one of 20 ships that wrecked on the beach between 1850 and 1926) sticking out of the sand just offshore. It’s a rare occurrence, but it’s pretty magical when it happens.

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who, as a teenager, fell asleep hidden in the dunes of Baker Beach on a Thanksgiving family outing. Don’t worry; the turkey didn’t burn. Her family couldn’t find her, so they went home to make sure dinner wasn’t ruined (before sending someone back to fetch her). Follow her on Instagram @daisysf for more “fun” stories like this.