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Discovering the Bay Area’s hidden beaches from Half Moon Bay to Point Reyes

By Ben Davidson, Correspondent - Mercury News

The Bay Area’s Pacific coastline is one of our greatest attractions. The beaches that dot and dapple this rugged meeting of land and sea are why many of us live here. We love how our beaches, large or small, have moods that change with the weather and day of the week, and almost all of them offer a distinctive sense of solace and serenity that can only be found on a sandy, wave-lapped shore.

Don’t like summer crowds? No worries, there are plenty of less-visited beaches in the Bay Area where amazing scenery can be discovered and enjoyed, even on weekends. And our epic wet winter has created a spectacular spring bloom on the coast that will last well into early summer, making a hidden beach adventure this year even more rewarding.

Here are some of our favorite, lesser-known beaches to check out.

Secrets along the San Mateo Coast

Bean Hollow State Beach is an easy stop for Highway 1 travelers heading south to Santa Cruz or north to Half Moon Bay. The park has two free parking areas, both fairly small, and there are also pull-outs along the road where you can access the park’s shoreline path between Pebble Beach and Bean Hollow Beach.

My hands-down favorite of these strands is Pebble Beach, a small sandy cove flanked by tide pools and lined with rounded, ocean-polished rocks on its shore. (Note: Enjoy the sights, but collecting of any kind – including pebbles – is prohibited.) My favorite features of Pebble Beach are the amazing, intricate rock formations called tafoni— mudstone, siltstone and sandstone ledges sculpted by the ocean’s salt spray and coastal winds. I love photographing these rocks; if you look long enough, you’ll start to see animal-like shapes — dragonflies, crocodiles, reptiles and dinosaurs — in the rocks.

RELATED: The best Bay Area seafood shacks in Half Moon Bay and Point Reyes

The two beaches are connected by the mile-long Arroyo de los Frijoles Trail that runs from Pebble Beach to Bean Hollow. Interpretive panels along the trail allow visitors to enjoy a self-guided tour. Harbor seals and their young are often seen napping on the shallow rocks just off the beach or swimming in narrow channels. Seabirds, especially gulls and Brandt’s cormorants, are abundant, and there is ample opportunity to observe delicate sea creatures in the park’s tide pools, home to anemones, crabs, sea urchins and other marine inhabitants. Please only observe; do not touch or disturb the tide pools. And don’t go in the water. Swimming is dangerous here because of cold water, rip currents and heavy surf.

Pebble Beach is located half a mile south of Pescadero. The parking lot has chemical toilets and stairs that go down to the beach. Bean Hollow Beach, located another half mile south, has a small parking lot with picnic tables and chemical toilets. Details: parks.ca.gov/beanhollow

Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Bluff

Ross’ Cove and nearby Mavericks Beach are secreted away below the ocean-facing bluff of Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay. Make your way through the winding backstreets of Princeton-by-the-Sea to the small, free parking lot (with chemical toilets) at the base of the point or a nearby overflow lot on the way to the bluff. A supremely photogenic coast greets you after a short hike up West Point Avenue to an unmarked trail leading to the Ross’ Cove trail and a steep descent to the beach. To access Mavericks Beach, follow the easy-going West Shoreline Access trail from the parking lot around the southern tip of Pillar Point.

The 220-acre bluff top includes a section of the California Coastal Trail and offers views of Half Moon Bay and Pillar Point Harbor, agricultural lands and the world famous Mavericks surf break located approximately half a mile off shore, due west from the Pillar Point Air Force Station (the big golf ball-like structure).

Ross’ Cove, the beach below the westernmost side of the bluff, is part of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and located within the Montara State Marine Reserve. It has been designated as a Marine Protected Area, the highest level of protection. It’s perfect for beach walks and picnics and offers stellar Pacific views. Mavericks Beach offers tide pools and views of Princeton harbor. Harbor seals are often seen frolicking nearby or resting on rocky shelves.

After beach-going, be sure to check out the park’s bluff-top Jean Lauer Trail, which wanders along the oceanside cliff and is open to hikers, joggers, bicyclists, equestrians and dog walkers. Details: smcgov.org/parks/pillar-point-bluff

Outside the Golden Gate

An amazing escape from San Francisco’s city streets can be found at secluded Marshall’s Beach, located just north of Baker Beach at the base of the Presidio’s Batteries to Bluffs trail. A large, free parking lot is located near the top of the trail, or for a longer walk, you can park at the Warming Hut parking lots and follow the Bay trail to the Coastal trail to the Batteries to Bluff trailhead.

Wander from the lot through a small grove of Monterey Cypress, then descend down a series of steep wooden steps, past a small outlook with dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, to the rock-strewn beach. In summer, sand typically replaces the winter beach stones, and you can enjoy the sandy shore while you picnic or wander the shoreline toward the bridge past huge, wave-swept boulders. (Note: The strands of sand hidden beyond these boulders are popular with au naturel sun bathers.)

he trail and beach offer spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean, Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate. If you’re lucky, in summer, you can spot migrating humpback whales off the coast and occasional bay porpoises and harbor seals swimming by. Shorebirds abound, and native wildflowers dot the serpentine rock cliffs and trailside. Marshall Beach is an epic spot for sunsets over the Pacific, but be prepared for the steep climb back up to the parking area. No restrooms or water available. Details: presidio.gov/places/marshalls-beach

Point Reyes treasures

Perhaps the most zenlike beach strolling experience in the Bay Area can be found at delightful Limantour Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Miles of solitude and serenity can be found on this wide, sandy beach skirted by dunes and coastal grasses. The calm shore is gently lapped by waves, making it safe for play along the water’s edge. The beach runs from long, narrow Limantour Spit (closed until June 30 protect harbor seal pups) for more than four miles southeast to Santa Maria Beach and Sculptured Beach, where a collection of rocks reveal tide pools at low tide.

Limantour is a bountiful wildlife area, where you can see shorebirds feed in the wetlands and along the beaches, especially during the fall. Ducks abound in winter, and harbor seals are often seen bobbing offshore or basking in the sun at the western end of the spit. Mother gray whales and their calves are seen along the shoreline during the spring. Free parking and restrooms available. Details: nps.gov/places/point-reyes-limantour-beach

In Tomales Bay State Park on the Point Reyes peninsula, Hearts Desire Beach is a hidden gem, a perfect day trip destination in bucolic West Marin. This shallow, sheltered cove is swimmable on hot summer days and a great place to picnic, go for a hike or launch a kayak. One of the finest remaining virgin groves of Bishop pine in California is found in the park’s Jepson Memorial Grove, reached by way of a mile-long trail. Wildlife in the area includes foxes, raccoons, badgers, weasels, rabbits, deer and bobcats, and birdlife is abundant. There’s plenty of space to lose yourself, but the parking lot ($7-$8 day use fee) is in high demand, so if you’re visiting on a weekend, plan on arriving early. Restrooms and water are available. Details: parks.ca.gov/tomalesbay

 

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