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The Best NorCal Beaches for Tide Pooling, Surfing, Hiking, and More

The California coast has long exerted a powerful pull for visitors in the summertime: When the weather heats up, locals and travelers alike start to dream of mornings riding Pacific waves, afternoons of lazy beachcombing, and evenings cooled by ocean breezes. 

Luckily, if you find yourself with California beaches on the brain this summer, we've got the perfect crash pads to help you take your vacation coast-side. Many of our Northern California hostels are graced with sea and sand right on their doorsteps. And with such an enormous variety of beaches, there's something for everyone. Just choose your favorite coastal pastime from our guide below and get ready to hit the beach!   

Tide-pooling

Montara Tide PoolOur two lighthouse hostels make fantastic bases for a day or weekend of tide pooling. Right in its own backyard, HI-Pigeon Point has rocks full of nooks and crannies for sea creatures. Borrow a water-resistant field guide from the front desk at the hostel and then clamor down the nearby cliff-side trails. Be on the lookout for starfish, crabs, abalone, and mussels during low tide. The hostel's even got a tide chart at reception to help you plan your visit. 

A two-minute drive (or one-mile walk) from HI-Point Montara, you'll find one of the premier tide-pooling spots in the state. The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a favorite with families, school groups, and plenty of adults. One of the most biologically diverse inter-tidal regions in California, this protected reserve sits on a three-mile stretch of coastline just south of Point Montara. Blossoming anemones, sea stars, hermit crabs, and even octopi have been known to make appearances here during low tide. And if you spy a little critter you don't immediately recognize (ever hear of a sea lemon or a gumboot chiton before?), volunteer docents are on hand on weekends and holidays to answer questions. 

Hiking 

Marin Headlands Golden Gate Bridge ViewThere's nothing better at the end of a long hike than feeling the ocean mist on your face and the salt air in your lungs. For hikes with scenic seaside payoffs at the end, the Marin Headlands, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, is unrivaled in the Bay Area. 

One of the best-known hikes in the Headlands, the Coastal Trail offers a beautiful trek with exactly the kind of scenery the name implies. But HI-Marin Headlands Assistant General Manager Meghan Ellwood has another suggestion that just may lure you off the beaten path.

When you start the Coastal Trail, Meghan advises, try "veering off towards the ocean on an unmarked, but legal trail, to a spot called Tennessee Point. This spot is beautiful: it's a peninsula overlooking Rodeo Beach and, on clear days, Muir Beach – and sometimes as far as Point Reyes! If you make it up to the top of the Coastal Trail at Hill 88, you get the most phenomenal view of land and sea and the city!" 

For a shorter, mellower hike, try trekking through the Tennessee Valley. You can start the two-mile hike, which ends at a picturesque little beach, right from the hostel. 

"Black Sands beach is another beautiful beach you need to hike to," adds Meghan. "There are metallic sands and beautiful city views." Get there by hiking up to Conzelman Road from the hostel, then to the Upper Fisherman's parking lot, and finally down a steep hill to the beach. (Be sure to check out a map of the Headlands' extensive network of trails to keep yourself on track).

Wildlife Viewing

Pescadero MarshThink Pigeon Point's only wildlife is in the tide pools? Think again. Ano Nuevo State Park, less than 10 minutes south of HI-Pigeon Point, is one of the largest main-land breeding colonies in the world for elephant seals. The mammals spend most of their lives at sea, but come ashore with their pups to molt during the summer months. You can also see harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks just in back of the lighthouse year 'round.

About six miles north of the hostel, the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve is the largest marsh between San Francisco and the Monterey Bay. Here, the Pescadero and Butano Creeks form a lagoon and estuary that's as much haven for bird-watchers as it is for their feathered friends. In all, some 200 species of birds have been sighted at the preserve including herons and egrets. To get here, park at the Pescadero State Beach; signs will point you to a trail that takes you safely under the highway and over to the marsh.

Urban Strolling

Ocean BeachNo time to sneak off for a full coastal getaway? No problem: you can still get a taste of the Pacific, even if your stay in Northern California is city-centric. Just in back of HI-San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf, pick up a waterfront trail and follow it west through Fort Mason, across Crissy Field, and over to East Beach. Here you'll find a local community unwinding: parents take small children to wade in the ocean, dogs chase Frisbees, and couples sit and admire the views of the nearby Golden Gate Bridge.

If you're feeling adventurous, jump on the N Judah bus downtown and ride it all the way to the Outer Sunset district, hopping out when you see the water of Ocean Beach shimmering up ahead. This three-and-a-half-mile-long expanse of sea and sand feels far removed from the city, even though you'll have to scamper across the Great Highway to get to it. While away the afternoon collecting sand dollars and watching the surfers bobbing in the waves, then stop for dinner and drinks along Judah Street before heading back inland.

Surfing

SurferAdvanced surfers will find some truly inspiring waves near our Pigeon Point and Point Montara hostels: it's no mistake that the legendary Mavericks surfing competition takes place each year along the coast between the two lighthouses. But beginning surfers may want to head a bit further south to Santa Cruz. About half an hour from Pigeon Point, Santa Cruz can only be described as hippie-meets-surfer-meets-academic. The little city is home redwood forests, miles of coastline, and one of the University of California's 10 campuses. It's also home to HI-Santa Cruz, comprised of five historic Victorian cottages within walking distance of the beach. Beginning surfers will want to try out Cowell's Beach, just a few blocks from the hostel. If you've brought your own board, the hostel will store it for you for free; otherwise, discounted board rentals and surfing lessons are available for guests. 

Getting off the Beaten Path 

Hoping for a truly unique day at the beach? Brave souls may want to scope out Tunitas Creek Beach, near HI-Pigeon Point. Tunitas Creek's famous for the sea caves carved out of its towering cliffs, but visiting them can be tricky: You'll have to carefully scramble down a rocky cliff side to get down to the beach. 

"Another amazing anomaly is Pebble Beach, about four miles north of the lighthouse," says HI-Pigeon Point General Manager Jeff Parry. "The small cove at this State Beach has millions of pebbles instead of sand. It's like an M&M truck crashed there and all the candy petrified into these pebbles." 

No matter what your style, chances are, Northern California's got just the beach for you. But if the road's calling you further south, be sure to check out HI's hostels in LA/Santa Monica and San Diego, too! Either way, here's wishing you a summer of sand between your toes, sunshine on your shoulders, and California dreams.

 

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If You Go 

Stay at one of HI's many coastside Northern California hostels: HI-Point Montra, HI-Pigeon Point, HI-Marin Headlands, or one of our three San Francisco hostels.