California’s northern coast looks very different from the southern coast, but very similar with Oregon’s coast. When you decide to explore Coastal California north of San Francisco, don’t rush it because there’s a lot to see — scenic ocean views, giant redwoods, and small coastal ambiance. Individually unique in their own ways, the following Northern California coastal towns offer an escape from the everyday busy lifestyle while instilling an unforgettable sense of euphoric bliss.
Hidden in West Marin less than an hour from San Francisco, this quaint coastal hamlet boasts the best swimming beach in Northern California. Beautiful soft white sand stretches down the shoreline. Shallow depths with a sandy bottom make this beach worthy of a swim. The chilly water may take a little getting used to, but it’s refreshing on a sunny day.
Explore the village streets along the beach, check out art galleries, and stop for a bite at local restaurants which offer anything from casual beach delights to fine dining that includes wine and an ocean view. A local tradition is Shakespeare On The Beach, best attended at sunset and a great way to experience Shakespeare in a small, intimate, outdoor, family-friendly environment.
Dillon Beach lies at the mouth of Tomales Bay in northwest Marin and is the only privately owned beach in Northern California. Dogs are welcome. The beach is great for long walks, shell searching along the surf’s edge, and whale watching. The steep drop-off and frigid waters make swimming without a wetsuit tolerable but difficult. Surfers find epic waves in the Shark Pit at the mouth of Tomales Bay, but beware because great white sharks are often seen roaming the bay. There is a general store in town, and the Dillon Beach Café is known for its fried calamari, clam chowder, and freshly baked bread. Dillon Beach is a little over an hour’s drive from San Francisco, making it a great day-trip destination.
In the past, this tiny village in Sonoma County was a thriving fishing town, but it is probably best known for Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds, filmed here in 1961. Bodega Bay is located 30 minutes from Santa Rosa and has a reputation with San Francisco Bay Area residents as a place to unwind and relax in local spas and Zen Gardens.
Pamper yourself with an amazing massage, body treatment, and a facial at The Bodega Bay Lodge, renowned for its spa treatments and facilities. Have some fresh seafood at The Spud Point Crab Company, or go for a full dinner with some sublime Sonoma wine at The Drakes Sonoma Coast, the best seafood restaurant in town.
The setting of this tiny scenic village has few rivals on either coast in terms of breathtaking beauty. Nestled in the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Coastline, Mendocino has become a huge draw to photographers, artists, and tourists worldwide, who treasure its small-town aesthetic pleasures. Despite being a small village, Mendocino is known for some of Coastal California’s most popular accommodations and restaurants. If a romantic weekend getaway is what you need, nothing beats The Little River Inn, where a beautiful ocean view, challenging golf course, day spas, and fine dining highlight this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Fort Bragg is located on the Mendocino Coast, three hours north of San Francisco, and is known for its stunning scenery and a variety of family-friendly activities. Noyo Harbor is one of the few surviving working harbors on the west coast. The harbor makes for a great seaport scene as fishing vessels pull out to sea and return with fresh catch.
There are some excellent seafood restaurants along the harbor. The Noyo Harbor Inn, located at the marina, is a highly rated B&B with rooms overlooking the harbor. While in town, explore the tidepools at Glass Beach, ride the famous Skunk Train, tour the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, or just browse unique shops and art galleries in historic downtown Fort Bragg.
Eureka is California’s largest coastal city north of San Francisco and is known for its proximity to ancient redwood trees, as well as its vast wildlife. Humboldt Bay has over 300 species of birds and 40 species of mammals, not to mention an abundance of salmon and steelhead that pass through the bay on their way to spawn. Historic Old-Town is a charming part of town, rich in culture, featuring Victorian homes dating back to the 1850s when the fishing industry flourished here. Eureka has a refurbished waterfront area you don’t want to miss, featuring a variety of fine eateries. Fly into Eureka’s airport, or make the beautiful five-hour scenic drive from San Francisco.
Maintaining a hidden gem quality, this quaint seaside village offers the most charming coastal vibes on the California coast. Located 30 minutes north of Eureka, Trinidad is one of the oldest coastal towns in the state. Visit Moonstone Beach for your photographic dream shot of the scenic coastline and famous offshore rocks.
Make sure to get back up to Trinidad State Beach by early evening to catch one of the most breathtaking sunsets on the West Coast, an unforgettable emotional experience that can bring tears to your eyes. There are wonderful local restaurants in town, so make sure to spend an entire day in Trinidad for an unparalleled coastal experience.
Surrounded by a wall of mighty redwoods to the east and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the west, Crescent City lies just 20 miles from the Oregon border, making it California’s northernmost coastal town. A few minutes from town is the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, where you’ll find one of the world’s largest groves of ancient redwood trees, some over 1,500 years old and 300 feet tall.
Other local sights that shouldn’t be missed include the amazing view of the harbor from the B Street Pier, the elk herds that inhabit Crescent Beach, and the Battery Point Lighthouse. A 90-minute ride from Eureka, this classic seaside town has it all — plenty of lodging and dining options, tons of activities, and so much natural beauty.