Basking, bikinis and boardwalks: A breakdown of the Bay’s best beaches

From surfs to silky sands to sparkling blue waters, the Bay Area has a beach for everyone. But for those new to the area, choosing from the long list of destinations may be a daunting task. Here is a local’s selection of beaches worthy of a day trip from Stanford. 

The following beaches are reviewed based on their cleanliness, beauty, location, amenities, sand quality, accessibility and admission costs. 

Half Moon Bay State Beach 

Just a 40-minute drive from Stanford, Half Moon Bay State Beach is a go-to for many Bay Area natives for its natural beauty. The 4-mile-long strip, comprised of several separate beaches, features a narrow stretch of sand to relax on before the stunning blue waves of the ocean. 

Though the beach’s blue water and soft sand are pleasant, the highlight of the Half Moon Bay experience is the scenic drive and breathtaking flowers atop the coastal cliffs.

Starting at Stanford, the route guides you over the sparkling Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir and through tall trees and lush green mountains. Simply sitting in the car and listening to a gentle playlist while staring at the gorgeous flowers and distant waves was undoubtedly the best part of my visit to Half Moon Bay.

Wildflowers in bloom by the parking lot of Half Moon Bay State Beach. (Photo: MELISSA QIN/The Stanford Daily)
Cleanliness 7
Beauty
Location 6
Sand 7
Accessibility 7 (steep slopes in some areas)
Admission cost? $10 (for parking)
Distance from Stanford 20 miles

Pacifica State Beach

Popular for its surfing (and “the world’s most beautiful Taco Bell“), Pacifica State Beach offers a stark contrast to the quiet beauty of Half Moon Bay. Though I lack firsthand experience surfing, I can confidently say that the surfers swaying atop the waves looked like they were having a blast.

A beach on a windy and cloudy day. Two people stand holding their surfboard. There is a small stony hill in the background.
Surfers in wetsuits ready to jump into the waves at Pacifica State Beach. (Photo: MELISSA QIN/The Stanford Daily)

The beach is widely liked beyond the surfing crowd. Despite visiting on a cloudy weekday, the beach was packed with families playing frisbee or lounging in chairs, all accompanied by pop music playing from somebody’s portable speaker. 

Cleanliness 6
Beauty 6
Location 9 (many shops just across the street)
Sand
Accessibility 10
Admission cost? No
Distance from Stanford 30 miles

Baker Beach

Known for its proximity to the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach is the one spot I knew I couldn’t skip in this review. The impeccable view of the historic bridge establishes its place as one of the Bay’s most iconic shorelines. Located at the northern tip of the city, it borders the famous Presidio, allowing easy access to scenic trails and museums full of California’s history.

A photo of a beach with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Baker Beach welcomes the Saturday crowds with sunny weather and a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Photo: MELISSA QIN/The Stanford Daily)

The beach is a feast for the eyes in all directions. On its right is the iconic and larger-than-life Golden Gate Bridge, ahead lies the green Marin Headlands of the North Bay and, looking left, I was greeted with houses in all colors of the rainbow dotting the cliff side. 

Cleanliness 8
Beauty 9
Location 10 
Sand
Accessibility 10
Admission cost? No
Distance from Stanford 35 miles

Montara State Beach

Montara State Beach’s magical charm lies in its glimmering blue-green waters and light, pristine sand. The smaller visitor population compared to other Bay Area beaches is a bonus. The peaceful ambience and mesmerizing scenery make this the perfect place to spend an afternoon.

A photo of a beach with few visitors.
Visitors admire the spotless sand and glimmering waters at Montara State Beach. (Photo: MELISSA QIN/The Stanford Daily)

If you want to hike, park near the northern end and watch your step as you head down the steep, narrow path leading to the quieter side of the beach. Otherwise, park on the southern side and either settle down in the more crowded areas, or trek 10 minutes northward to set up camp in the more serene setting.

A small hill with a trail for hikers.
A narrow path down to the beach accessed through the northern parking lot. (Photo: MELISSA QIN/The Stanford Daily)

Overall, Montara State Beach is unparalleled in its natural beauty, from the light spotless sand to the breathtaking coastal cliffs. I will definitely be back with my whole family, lounge chairs and a beach umbrella. 

Cleanliness 9
Beauty 10
Location 5
Sand 9
Accessibility 6
Admission cost? No
Distance from Stanford 28 miles

Santa Cruz Beach 

When I visited Santa Cruz Beach on a Saturday afternoon, nearly every square foot of sand in front of the water was occupied by sun tents and umbrellas. The atmosphere was unrivaled: music blasted from speakers in all direction, mixing with the sounds of people laughing with their friends.

A beach with countless umbrellas and beachgoers on the sand.
A sea of umbrellas, tents and excited beachgoers at Santa Cruz Beach. (Photo: MELISSA QIN/The Stanford Daily)

The historic boardwalk features a diverse selection of rides that can either pack a punch, like the thrilling Fireball, or entertain the whole family, like the relaxed Sea Swings. 

Santa Cruz Beach is ideal for those looking to spend a day of unbridled fun. I recommend visiting on a weekday or early on a weekend so parking isn’t too difficult. Go on rides until you’re dizzy, then sit on the beach enjoying lunch from the vendors as you gaze out at the sparkling water. Finding a spot may be difficult, though!

Cleanliness 5
Beauty 5
Location 10
Sand 6
Accessibility 10
Admission cost? No
Distance from Stanford 45 miles

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.