San Francisco is not usually referred to as a beach town. Of course, the occasional heat wave brings out the bikinis, but San Francisco’s beaches are more about soaking up the scenery rather than the sunshine.
Historic sites and beautiful views are the main attractions. Jackets are not required, but you might want to grab one before heading out to one of San Francisco’s sandy, or not so sandy, beaches.
Note that San Francisco beaches can be very dangerous, even for experienced swimmers. Tragedies occur every year when people disregard the warnings about the Pacific Ocean’s dangerous waves and treacherous tides. Rogue waves can appear even on the calmest of days.
Aquatic Park Beach
The beach at Aquatic Park is a well-used stretch of the Bay. Aquatic Park is located within the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at the western end of Fisherman’s Wharf and near the turnaround for the Hyde Street cable car line.
Be sure to check out the Art Deco, ship-like Maritime Museum at the end of the beach which was originally built as a public bathhouse by the WPA.
Aquatic Park Beach is a popular swimming spot, especially for members of the Dolphin Club who brave the waters year-round. The club sponsors an annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon in October that requires participants to jump off a ferryboat and swim the 1.5 miles from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park as the first leg of the competition. Brrrrrr.
San Francisco East Beach (Crissy Field Beach)
Popular with wind surfers and kite surfers heading for the excitement of surfing below the Golden Gate Bridge, East Beach also attracts bicyclers, rollerbladers and joggers.
Picnic areas at East Beach provide great views of sailboats on San Francisco Bay from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz Island.
Crissy Field and East Beach are very family friendly—dogs are allowed off leash—but is frequently chilly and almost always windy. If you get cold you can visit the Crissy Field Warming Hut Bookstore and Café.
Like the Municipal Pier at Aquatic Park you can fish or crab on Torpedo Wharf—no fishing license required. Crissy Field’s restored tidal marsh attracts a variety of birds including egrets and herons while nearby sand dunes are popular for sunbathing.
Baker Beach, a mile or so of sand on the west side of the Presidio, provides some amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Be warned that the northern end of Baker Beach is clothing-optional.
Military enthusiasts might want to time their visits for the first Saturday or Sunday of the month. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., demonstrations of the Battery Chamberlin’s disappearing gun are given. Disappearing guns (they could be hidden from potential air attacks) that were similar to the 50-ton rifle now displayed were installed in the early 1900s and then again during World War II (the earlier guns were dismounted for use elsewhere in World War I).
China Beach is a tiny cove between Baker Beach and Lands End. A secluded spot below the Seacliff neighborhood for picnicking and sunbathing (weather permitting), the area was named for the Chinese fishermen who anchored their boats here. Like most San Francisco beaches, you will often see people fishing here.
This small beach has a limited number of first-come first-serve grills in a small grass area plus restrooms and cold water showers. A deck with hip-walls permits sunbathing out of the wind. At high tide the small beach is split in two by a large rock. At low tide you can walk all the bay to Baker Beach.
No lifeguards are on duty at China Beach, so swimming is not recommended.
While there aren't any sandy beaches at Lands End this is a good place to enjoy San Francisco's wildest and rockiest coast with views of the Marin Headlands and Point Bonita Lighthouse.
As its name implies, the Lands End coastal area is about as far west as one can go in San Francisco. The waters off this rocky and treacherous spot are the final resting places for more than a few ships wrecked off this unforgiving shore.
Trails offer cliff-top walks or shoreline ambles. Walkers are advised to be cautious on any such “amble,” as rocks—and their relationship to landslides—and the ocean’s tides and waves have sent visitors to the hospital or worse.
The Costal Trail, which runs from the Cliff House to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, is wheelchair accessible from the parking lot and view point above Sutro Baths near the intersection of Point Lobos and 48th Avenue. Along the way you can visit a memorial to the USS San Francisco, a WW II cruiser involved in the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.
Ocean Beach is a relatively narrow stretch of sand that runs for 3+ miles south of the Cliff House and the ruins of Sutro Baths; the Great Highway runs alongside the beach.
Strong currents make this beach a favorite spot for surfers, who usually wear wetsuits to protect themselves from the cold—some might say “frigid”—water. It is a popular place to watch the sunset as well as a great place for a bonfire—the Park Service has installed artistic fire rings in designated spots where such fires are allowed.
On those fog-free days when the thermometer hits unseasonable highs, Ocean Beach is where many San Franciscans come to cool off. Caution: many swimmers have drowned here and strong waves have swept beachcombers out to sea.
Once part of the Pacific Coast’s fortifications against a feared Japanese attack during World War II, Fort Funston no longer houses guns in its Battery Davis. Instead, school children explore the fort’s empty casements when attending programs at its environmental education center.
Fort Funston’s rugged headlands and sand dunes (some as high as 200 feet) make exploring worthwhile. A stretch of beach at the foot of the cliffs attracts walkers and horseback riders.
Whenever a steady onshore breeze is blowing, look up and you will probably see hang gliders. Fort Funston is rated for H-3 (intermediate) flights. A viewing deck on the hillside (near the parking area) provides views of the daring gliders as well as the scenic coast. Tear your eyes away from the pilots to check the waves occasionally and you might see a passing whale or two.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2013 Lee W. Nelson