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Travel Planning Tips for Northern California Beaches

Driftwood sculpture on the beach at San Gregorio in Northern California
Driftwood stacked on the beach at San Gregorio. Photo © Elizabeth Linhart Veneman.

The Hollywood view of California beaches is all about long stretches of sugary-white sand drenched in warm sunshine, populated by sun worshippers lounging on the sand and surfers riding the photogenic waves. Nothing could be further from reality when it comes to Northern California beaches.

Make no mistake—you’ll find gorgeous beaches along the coastline, but it’s a different kind of beauty. Craggy cliffs tower over narrow, rocky sand spits teeming with tide pools and backing into ever-changing sea caves. Wide swaths of beach are covered with driftwood, semiprecious minerals, polished sea glass, and ancient fossils. Nonetheless, hardy beachgoers bring their folding chairs, umbrellas, coolers, wetsuits, and surfboards to these beaches to enjoy a day on the sand and surf.

Tips for Visiting a Northern California Beach

  • Dress in layers: North Coast beach temperatures can hover in the 50s even in the middle of summer. Wear a sweatshirt and warm pants over shorts and a T-shirt, and wear all that over your swimsuit.
  • Prepare for dampness: Fog and drizzle are ubiquitous on the coast, even when it’s sunny and hot only a few miles inland. Bring a wool or fleece cap in addition to your optimistic sunhat. And toss a warm synthetic jacket in your pack (not a down jacket, as down doesn’t keep you warm when it’s wet).
  • Bring appropriate footwear: Most North Coast beaches are not barefoot friendly. Exploration of rocky beaches and tide pools demands either specialized water shoes or good broken-in hiking boots. Jellyfish sometimes wash ashore on California’s northern beaches, making bare feet or even beach sandals a painful proposition. And on beaches where fires are allowed, some people just cover over an abandoned fire with a little sand, which could give a hot foot to the next beachcomber to walk by. Even if you choose to go barefoot on the sand, carry a pair of closed-toed shoes with you, just in case the going gets tough farther down the beach.
  • The water is cold: Going swimming or surfing? Wear a wetsuit and booties if you don’t want to chance hypothermia or needing to be rescued by the Coast Guard.
  • Learn about fire restrictions: Fires are illegal on many California beaches. Check restrictions for the beach you are visiting before lighting a driftwood bonfire to keep warm.
  • Wear sunscreen: Even if a layer of fog covers the sun, you are still at risk of sunburn; locals call it a “fog burn.”
  • Prepare your kids: Bring plenty of beach toys and talk up tide pool walks, but don’t promise the little ones a swim in the ocean. The reality is that it is likely too cold, too rough, or otherwise unsafe to swim.
Maps - Northern California 7e - Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts
Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts

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Rocky beach with Golden Gate Bridge in bg. Pinterest Graphic, NorCal beaches.