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Northern California is known ‘round the world as home to some of the prettiest beaches on the west coast. There’s something particularly dreamy about the rugged stretches of coastline that hug the chilly Pacific—and while pretty much all of them are quite impressive, not all beaches are created equal. Below, we’ve rounded up a few of the best beaches in Northern California. You’ll encounter local wildlife, catch some wild waves if you’re looking to surf, discover private coves, and be in total awe of how beautiful these beaches are.
Our top picks, below.
For wildlife: Jenner Beach, Jenner
It’s not uncommon to spot wildlife at this stretch of sand in Jenner, just north of the mouth of the Russian River. January through May, beachgoers can spot whales frolicking offshore, and year-round, visitors may see harbor seals or sea lions. Keep an eye out for beautiful rock formations and cool pieces of driftwood, too.
For total tranquility: Drake’s Beach, Point Reyes
You’ll likely find Drake’s Beach quiet and peaceful, as it’s a long drive to reach, thus not as popular. Since the waters are calm, this Point Reyes beach is an ideal spot for standup paddle boarding and splashing near the water’s edge with little ones. The nearby trails are great for hikes, most of which end with some beautiful views of the water.
For rugged beauty: Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
Arguably one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur is iconic. The water is shockingly turquoise, there’s a waterfall that plunges into the ocean, and amazing rock formations like Keyhole Rock (a naturally-formed arch) make the beach excellent for photographs. Visitors can enjoy tide pools, whale watching, and stunning views of the Pacific and the surrounding vegetation.
For a city escape: Baker Beach, San Francisco
If you’re visiting San Francisco but don’t want to stray too far from the city, Baker Beach is a great place to soak up some sun, cool off, and get stellar views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
For the prettiest drive: Fanshell Beach, 17-Mile Drive
The famous 17-Mile Drive that you have to take to get to Fanshell Beach is worth the trip alone—and once you’re at this picturesque beach, you’ll never want to leave Northern California. Sparkling white sand, vibrant blue waters, and beautiful rocks make Fanshell the stuff of dreams.
For playing in tidepools: Enderts Beach, Del Norte
Little ones will delight at the tide pools at Enderts Beach in Del Norte. Located within Redwood National Park, it’s less than a mile-long hike out to this beach where visitors will find driftwood-stroon sands and fascinating sea life in the tide pools at low tide.
For sea glass: Glass Beach, Fort Bragg
Funnily enough, this gorgeous beach used to be a dump, hence all the glass. Now, though, the beach is laden with colorful, worn sea glass, perfect for photographing (but please—don’t take any glass). Do be cautious near the water’s edge, though, as it’s known to be dangerous.
For really cool rock formations: Rodeo Beach
Multicolor pebbles and the dreamiest shades of blue ocean make Rodeo Beach one of Northern California’s prettiest. The large rock formations on the beach’s south shore are quite famous (you’ll find that they are photographed often), and you can spot local birds roosting in some of the larger ones, like the aptly named Bird Rock. If you’re looking for some serious birding, check out the nearby Rodeo Lagoon.
For beach hiking and dunes: Bodega Dunes
Whether you’re looking to beachcomb, hike through the dunes, or even explore on horseback, the vast stretch that makes up Bodega Dunes is the ideal place for sun-and-sand activities of all kinds. The dunes themselves are stunning, and the waters of Bodega Bay are a great place to fish or surf.