SUNSCREEN. TOWEL. COOLER. Oh, and beach umbrella, in the event of sun or rain. All right, we’re off.
Visitor information: 800-833-3494
Gaudy. Motel-infested. Irresistible. The bright lights of the big boardwalk and beach keeps luring revelers into America’s oldest operating seaside amusement park. That, however, counts as just one out of the 29 miles of sand. From Waddell Creek Beach and Marsh to Twin Lakes State Beach, all sorts of sprawling space invites beachcombers to these perpetually sunny climes. Besides some of the most respectable surfing this side of the Pacific, Santa Cruz harbors diverse and often rare species such as the black swift and the Monarch butterfly.
Directions: Highway 1 and 17 intersect. From here, follow the signs to Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk (408-426-7433 hotline, www.beachboardwalk.com/bwevents.html). For other beach directions, call visitor information.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset for state beaches.
Activities: Surfing, fishing, kayaking and boating. Dogs, which must be leashed, are permitted only at Manresa, Palm, Rio del Mar, Seabright and Twin Lakes state beaches.
Facilities: Some have parking (under $7), restrooms, outdoor showers, picnic areas, grills. Call visitor information regarding a specific beach.
Nearby outings: Endless possibilities from mountain biking to birdwatching to shopping. The 91st season at the Boardwalk premieres two new rides: Whirlwind (kid roller coaster) and Orient Express (family roller coaster in “dragon” train); and Climb’n’Conquer, a 24-foot climbing wall. The Lighthouse Field State Beach houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (408-429-3429).
San Gregorio State Beach
Highway 1, San Gregorio (650-879-2170)
White sands and pulsing waves define it as classic Pacific, but the few folks you’ll spot crawling on hands and knees aren’t supplicating sun worshippers. They’re collecting shells and rock from the decent pickings hereabouts. As for swimming, the cliffs shield some of the cold, creating almost a lagoon with relatively warm waters. San Gregorio is the largest of the neighboring Pomponio, Pescadero and Bean Hollow state beaches. At low tide, you can walk the five miles to Pescadero, but gaps and private beaches interrupt passage all the way to Bean Hollow.
Hours: 8 a.m.-sunset
Directions: About 11 miles from the intersection of Highways 1 and 92.
Activities: Fishing, surfing, ocean kayaking. Swimming at all four beaches is limited because of riptides. Dogs must be leashed; they are not permitted onto Pescadero Marsh Preserve.
Facilities: Parking ($5), restrooms/outhouses, picnic tables, barbecue grills at nearly all the state beaches.
Nearby outings: Call the office regarding equestrian trails. From San Gregorio Beach, a mere one-mile jaunt takes you to the minuscule former resort town.
Half Moon Bay State Beach
Kelley Avenue, Half Moon Bay (650-726-8820)
Roses with scents as subtle as their pale pink coloring. Spiky artichokes enfolding delicious green hearts. Heaps upon heaps of orange pumpkins. Moist fog and fertile marine soils nurture this year-round bounty, so a sandy coastside (especially one rimmed with magenta wildflowers) borders on decadence. The trade-off: The same fog makes summer days brisk or just plain windy. Still, some days when the sun deigns to smile upon you, actual warmth creeps through your layers. Summer heat takes a little while to get here, like in September, but it’s still worth a day trip. The main Half Moon Bay headquarters and campsite is at Frances Beach. During low tide, it connects with Venice, Dunes and Roosevelt beaches.
Directions: From Highway 1 south, make a right onto Kelley Avenue. From Highway 101 south, take Half Moon Bay Road/Highway 92. The route joins up with Highway 1 just about one block north of Kelley Avenue.
Hours: 8 a.m.-sunset
Activities: Fishing, surfing. Rip currents and cold ocean waves limit swimming opportunities. Dogs must be leashed ($1). Coastside Trail accommodates hikers and bicyclists. Parallel horse trail runs from Dunes to Frances Beach. Commercial horseback rides and bicycle rentals available.
Facilities: Parking ($5 day use), restrooms, outdoor cold showers, picnic tables, barbecues, camp sites.
Nearby outings: Main Street saves itself from being too precious through sincerity. Country crafts and cosmopolitan coffee satisfy the urban and suburban tourist. Take an extra cooler to bring home produce.
James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Moss Beach, Highway 1 (650-728-3584)
The enclave has enough sand for the requisite castle construction, but the draw is one of the largest intertidal reefs in California. The ebb and flow recreates whole new marine worlds on this rocky coast, designated a reserve in 1969. Distant terraces blunt the waves, so adults and children can wade safely among the sedimentary rock but as always, never turn your back to the sea.
Nothing should be removed from the premises, but rock fans will admire the stony assortment along the beach. The cracked outcroppings resemble mosaic floors. Some stones are worn slick from the constant washings, but more amazing are those with pockmarked gouges from years of erosion. Low tide reveals about 30 acres of land, replete with more than 200 species of animals and 150 plant species, among them tidepool fish, sea stars, California mussel, mossy chilton, sea urchin and rock prickleback eel.
Directions: Follow the signs from Highway 1 to the reserve, which lies seven miles north of Half Moon Bay.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
Activities: Tidepools, birdwatching. No dogs allowed. Do not remove anything (except litter) from the reserve.
Facilities: Parking, restrooms, visitors center, tree-sheltered picnic tables.
Nearby outings: The Moss Beach distillery promises spirits both alcoholic and ghostly. Look for the sign at Cypress Avenue along Highway 1.
Montara State Beach
Highway 1, Montara (650-726-8820)
Its mere half-mile length belies its sunbathing allure. Parking overflows on either side of the downhill path and across Highway 1. The risks of crossing the busy road are apparently worth it, since families converge on this comforting sandy spit. Sunlight glints off the blue, blue waters and the pale yellow sand. Montara is warmer than the Half Moon Bay stretch, although the waters here still preclude a casual swim.
Directions: Highway 1 between Moss Beach and Pacifica.
Hours: 8 a.m.-sunset.
Activities: Surfing, fishing, picnicking. Rip currents and cold ocean waves limit swimming opportunities. Dogs must be leashed.
Facilities: Parking, restrooms. The adjacent Martini Creek has a parking lot.
Nearby outings: To the south, the fully automated Montara Lighthouse counts itself as a National Historic Place. To the north, trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking crisscross McNee Ranch State Park at the foot of Montara Mountain.
Pacifica State Beach
Highway 1, Pacifica (650-738-7381)
Don’t miss the turn lane next to the ranch house-styled Taco Bell. Otherwise, negotiating back to surf territory can require a little patience. Then again, odds are you’ve practiced patience waiting for the perfect whitecap here. Early risers come to conjoin with the water’s cresting energy. Throughout the day, well-trod sands testify to the beach’s popularity, despite its humble half-mile length. Should you come back during the winter and spring months, settle in for the acclaimed whale-watching vantage point. No boats needed here to see the gray whales making their yearly rounds.
A quarter-mile away, the much smaller Rockaway Beach (Rockaway Beach Avenue at San Mario Way) is another surfer venue. Don’t get tangled in the fishing lines, staked out for maximum rockfish, striped bass and ocean perch retrieval.
Directions: From the Bay Bridge, take Interstate 280 west to Highway 1 south. Pacifica lies about 15 miles south of San Francisco.
Activities: Surfing, boogie boarding, fishing. Dogs must be leashed.
Facilities: Parking, restrooms, outdoor showers, fire rings.
Nearby outings: The locals probably foster the unremarkable strip mall environs to defy tourists and upscale trendiness. Although protesting trendiness is always admirable, the plain suburbia clashes with the outdoor beauty. At any rate, consult the excellent Pacifica Internet Cafe Web site (www.ci.pacifica.ca.us/welcome.html) for historical overviews and nature opportunities.
Great Highway, San Francisco (415-239-2366)
Whipping west winds revive heat-struck victims, carry aloft kite buggies and churn the waters for surfers who live and die by the board. Its four miles run alongside Great Highway from Fort Funston to the Cliff House. Like many of the surrounding Pacific beaches, sunny calm descends in the fall, but sometimes it slips in on those deliciously rare summer days.
Sand dunes once secluded Ocean Beach from the rest of San Francisco. Despite the resolutely urban surroundings, creatures of the salt air still inhabit the beach. Redtail surfperch and striped bass flit by the surf, while seabass and halibut live farther offshore. Birders can spot western gulls, black oystercatchers, Brandt’s cormorants, pigeon guillemots and endangered California brown pelicans.
Directions: From the Bay Bridge, exit Fell Street and continue all the way to Golden Gate Park. At the park’s entrance, you can either take the Kezar Drive/Lincoln Way split or John F. Kennedy Drive to the Great Highway.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
Activities: Jogging, volleyball, kite-flying. Dogs must be leashed except between Stairwells 1 and 21 and south of Sloat Boulevard at Fort Funston.
Facilities: Restrooms, outdoor showers between Lawton and Pacheco streets.
Nearby outings: San Francisco Zoo lies at the south end. Past the zoo, Fort Funston provides a viewing deck, hang-gliding area and an environmental education center. Up north, Golden Gate Park is between Lincoln and Fulton streets. The Great Highway leads into the Cliff House and the GGNRA Visitors Center (see China and Baker beaches).
China and Baker beaches
Golden Gate National Recreation Area (415-556-8371, 415-561-4323)
Rescue boats anchor at small, secluded China Beach, but that doesn’t mean you can try riptide water rafting. Accessible via Sea Cliff Avenue, the site suits families content to picnic, sunbathe and dig in the sand.
At Baker, you would think the closer to the Golden Gate Bridge, the better the view. Yes, the sunset-red silhouette arcs stunningly over the murmuring bay waters and the magnificent Marin Headlands awe and inspire. But I’m talking about the views of the nude specimens, mostly male, broiling away like bleached chickens. Actually, this nonchalant shamelessness can be reassuring should you be reduced to your raw form. Indeed, the worse offender was a seal-shaped man clad in a white bikini he should have just disposed the Handi-wipe and been done with it.
Families who want to avoid the anatomy lessons can stay near the south entrance. The view of the bridge and headlands, that is still promises to be stupendous.
Directions: From the Bay Bridge, exit Fell Street, turn right onto Masonic Avenue, left onto Geary Boulevard, right onto 25th Avenue, left onto El Camino Del Mar and right onto Sea Cliff Drive toward China Beach. To get to Baker Beach, follow the same directions to 25th Avenue, then turn right onto El Camino Del Mar/Lincoln Boulevard. Follow the signs to Baker Beach, which should take you left onto Bowley Street’s parking lot.
Activities: At China Beach, limited swimming and no dogs allowed. At Baker Beach, fishing, GGNRA coastal trails and exploring the nearby Battery Chamberlin with the 97,000-pound “disappearing” cannon. Dogs must be leashed except in the Baker Beach area north of Lobos Creek.
Facilities: Restrooms, picnic tables, barbecue grills.
Nearby outings: The Cliff House verges on chintzy, but the desserts and unparalleled views deserve your attention. By the way, forget all the picture postcards of yesteryear if you’ve never seen the waterfront building before. This is the fourth incarnation, not the ornate Victorian estate of the 19th century. The GGNRA visitors center below reviews millionaire Adolph Sutro’s legacy; rangers also lead tours of the area.
Robert Crown Memorial State Beach
East Bay Regional Park District, McKay Avenue (510-521-6887, 510-636-1684 picnic reservations)
Sheer futility or artistic essence? The taupe sand here is the medium between imagination and reality. Deft hands pack the loose, raw material into an impregnable castle or its modern equivalent, a gated complex. High tide then flattens and smoothes out any evidence of man’s presence.
Actually, man’s presence is all around and underfoot. The former “Coney Island of the West” receded tremendously until a 1982 restoration pumped in San Francisco Bay sand. Periodic touch-ups fill out the man-made beach. Winter storms swept debris into Crown Beach like it was a giant dustpan. Cleanup efforts have left six neat piles, leaving plenty of romping room.
Muse upon the ephemeral nature of creation at the 32nd annual sand castle and sand sculpture contest running 9 a.m.-noon June 20, when astounding replicas of real estate and other creations rise from the grains.
Call 510-562-7275 for other EBRPD swimming beaches such as Contra Loma Regional Park in Antioch, Cull Canyon regional Recreation Area in Castro Valley and Del Valle Regional Park near Livermore and Temescal.
Directions: From Highway 980 south, exit 11th/12th street. Turn left on 5th street into the left lane. Take the Webster Street tube turnoff. Continue down Webster Street, turn right on Central Street, then left onto MacKay Avenue.
From Highway 80 north, take the Broadway offramp, then turn left onto Broadway into the left lane. Turn left into the Webster Street tube. Continue down Webster Street, turn right on Central Street, then left onto MacKay Avenue.
Hours: Beach, 5 a.m.-10 p.m.; park, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Crab Cove Visitors Center and Marine Reserve, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
Activities: Bicycle trails, bird watch, fishing, windsurfing.
Facilities: Parking, bathhouse, restrooms, picnic tables, grills, sports fields, visitors center and exhibits.
Nearby outings: Oh, the lure of Foster’s Freeze, the landmark that marks tiny McKay Street. A wee bit more substantial would be a dim sum brunch at East Ocean Seafood Restaurant (1713 Webster St., 510-865-3381) after the morning dip. How this managed to sneak out of Chinatown, I don’t know, but it’s inexpensive and very, very good.
10. Muir Beach
Highway 1, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (415-388-2596)
This rocky beach serves as a quieter reprieve to its glamorous, sandy blond neighbor Stinson Beach. Quieter, of course, is relative: Weekend crowds do lay claim to the squishy patches of gray sand, especially after visiting nearby Muir Woods National Monument.
Despite occasional gusts of Pacific winds, bikinied figures still languish here on sunny days. A sandbar funnels warm waters from Redwood Creek to a tiny lagoon, where people wade when the ocean surf proves too chilling.
If you don’t believe in looking back, you can skip the Muir Beach Overlook further north on Highway 1. You’d miss some tremendous sights on this coastal bluff. During winter and spring, you can glimpse the mottled gray whales passing by.
Directions: From Interstate 580 west, take Highway 101 south to Highway 1. Follow signs to Muir Beach off Highway 1.
Hours: 9 a.m. to one hour after sunset.
Activities: Rock/surf fishing, birdwatching, kite-flying. Dogs must be leashed until they reach the beach past the habitat restoration areas.
Facilities: Restrooms, sheltered picnic tables, barbecue grills.
Nearby outings: The northeast turnoff of Muir Woods Road from Highway 1 brings you into the reservoir of coastal redwoods. The national monument’s 560 acres entail six miles of walking trails, some of which connect to Mount Tamalpais State Park.
11. Stinson Beach
Highway 1, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (415-868-0942, 415-868-1922 surf hotline)
The smell of fresh tar slightly edges out the acrid odor of boiling brake fluid on the way to Stinson Beach. The lines haven’t been painted yet on the dried black asphalt puddles, marking where the road crumbled under winter’s lashing rains. That should rivet your eyes on the road and off the mesmerizing panorama. When the prince of beaches finally comes into view, your brain starts churning out superlatives such as “spectacular” and “awe-inspiring.” Mount Tamalpais generously angles back enough to allow more sunshine to slip over this long, sheltered crescent opposite glimmering Bolinas Bay. Fortunately, you can revel in the scenery for hours as you crawl behind weekend summer crowds. This, my friend, is quite a beach, and you’ll just have to share.
Directions: From Interstate 580 west, take Highway 101 south to Highway 1. Follow the signs to Stinson Beach.
Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Activities: Swimming, surfing. No dogs allowed.
Facilities: Parking, restrooms, changing rooms, picnic tables, barbecue grills, snack bar.
Nearby outings: Tie-dye and peace symbols mingle with aromatherapy and angels. Beach trinket shops and art galleries line up along Highway 1 around the beach entrance. Continue north to Bolinas Lagoon Nature Preserve or head south and turn onto Panoramic Highway for Mount Tamalpais State Park .
12. Point Reyes National Seashore
Bear Valley Visitors Center (415-663-1092; www.nps.gov)
Miles upon miles of sand. Some may extol the waters of Pacifica, others may embrace Santa Cruz’s sun spirit, but Point Reyes harbors an unmatched genteel splendor. Visitors never feel isolated, not with migrating gray whales, velvet butterflies, herds of bellowing tule elk and winged creatures. (Did I mention the miles upon miles of sand?) Several beaches rim the peninsula, from Wildcat Beach to McClures Beach near the tip to Marshall Beach bordering Tomales Bay.
The more popular draws include Limantour, Drake’s and Palomarin beaches. You can pull an overnighter at Coast Camp, accessible to the luscious and pristine Sculptured Beach facing Drake’s Bay. Storms have closed off the shorter Fire Lane Trail, but you can hike the 2.8-mile Coast Trail from the American Youth Hostel off Limantour Road. Coast Camp has a faucet, outhouse and grill facilities.
The storms have shut down quite a few trails, but call the helpful visitors center, which will go over closures. You can print out a map from the National Park Service Web site.
Directions: To get to Bear Valley Visitors Center, from Highway 101, exit Sir Francis Drake/San Anselmo and drive 21 miles, then turn right onto Highway 1. Cross the Richmond-San Rafael bridge on 580 west, take scenic Francis Drake Boulevard route for 22 miles, turn right onto Highway 1, then after 100 yards turn left onto Bear Valley Road, left turn past barn to the visitors center.
To get to Palomarin, go on Highway 1 south, take the last right turn before Bolinas Lagoon, then turn left at dead end onto an unmarked road. At the next intersection, turn left onto Horseshoe Hill Road, then turn right after one mile at stop sign onto Mesa Road. The 4-mile route turns into a dirt road which ends at the Palomarin trailhead.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset unless you have bonfire permits good until midnight. Bear Valley Visitors Center, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends and holidays; Kenneth C. Patrick’s Visitors Center at Drake’s Beach, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends.
Activities: Seal and birdwatching, picnicking, hiking, tidepooling. Leashed dogs allowed at North, South, Palomarin, Kehoe and south side of Limantour beaches (Pierce Point Road off Sir Francis Drake Highway). Call information to check on swimming conditions and trail access for a particular beach.
Facilities: Limantour, Drake’s, Palomarin, Point Reyes, Kehoe and McClure’s have parking, restrooms, picnic gear and telephone. Visitors center at Drake’s and Palomarin beaches.
Nearby outings: This is it. Where else would you want to go?
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features