by James Han
The Golden State coast is dotted with dozens of beach towns that offer stunning views of the Pacific Ocean while showcasing the quirks and highlights of local cuisines, attractions and parks. While Southern California boasts a number of sun-soaked beach communities featuring postcard-perfect blue skies and sand, Northern California offers hundreds of miles of its own vibrant, breathtaking coastline, replete with staggering cliffs, redwood forests, architectural landmarks and gorgeous mountain surroundings. Whether you’re a California local looking for a quick weekend getaway or an adventurer exploring everything the shoreline has to offer, we’ll walk you through a few popular and off-the-beaten-path Northern California coastal towns that you’ll want to return to again and again.
This iconic seaside village just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge is a whimsical enclave that offers plenty of charming sights and delicious seafood to elevate your weekend. On a sunny summer afternoon, you’ll get a lovely view of the San Francisco skyline, rolling hillsides barnacled with pastel houses, yacht-filled marinas and a floating colony of houseboats famous for the artists and counterculture personalities who call this enclave home. Though there is an abundance of waterfront activities to experience — including sunset sailing, kayaking and coastline biking — you can just as easily turn around, take a puff of your invigorating Mistifi pen and immerse yourself in the redwoods of Muir Woods.
Pro tip: For breathtaking views and gorgeous photo ops of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, take the thrilling 25-minute ferry from Sausalito to San Francisco and complete your trip with an afternoon in the Golden City.
Monterey is a well-known go-to destination for unbeatable coastal views, a world-renowned aquarium, kayaking opportunities in the bay and wildlife close-ups of whales and seals. But this port of entry earns its nickname as California’s “First” City with a rich history that has attracted celebrated painters, writers and other figures for more than a century. Amble around Cannery Row, site of a famous fishery that has since been restored into a gorgeous neighborhood with plenty of waterfront shops and restaurants, or explore the sprawling scenic wonders of nearby Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Carmel and 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach.
Pro tip: For memorable photos of some of the most stunning locales, bring your camera to 17-Mile Drive and capture the landmark Lone Cypress Tree.
3. Point Reyes
Point Reyes National Seashore is a 71,000-acre swath of protected coastline in Marin County, about an hour north of San Francisco. A haven of natural beauty, Point Reyes features more than 150 miles of trails with unforgettable coastal views and Alamere Falls, a dramatic 40-foot cascade that serves as a stunning reward after a seven-mile (one-way) hike. Other attractions include its beaches flanked by sandstone cliffs, sprawling pastureland, an abundance of fauna including gray whales at Drakes Bay and elephant seals at Chimney Rock, and the famous Point Reyes Lighthouse constructed in 1870. With other picturesque sites like Sausalito, Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais nearby, you’ll have enough to fill a multi-day itinerary.
Pro tip: While Alamere Falls and the Point Reyes Lighthouse make for fantastic photos, take a short trek up to the Peter Behr Overlook for beautiful overhead beach cove shots.
4. Bodega Bay
Located 70 miles north of San Francisco, Bodega Bay is a small Sonoma County town that offers a relaxing, slow-paced alternative to crowded coastal hubs. With fewer than 100 full-time residents, this sleepy fishing village offers plenty to see and do in addition to its beaches, including vineyards and wine tasting, cliffside whale watching, and zones for surfing and bodyboarding galore. You can even go tidepooling in Schoolhouse Beach or venture into rolling grasslands at Crane Creek Regional Park.
Pro tip: Bring your camera along to capture the crashing waves and white-foam seaspray at Duncan’s Landing Overlook, or the fiery orange-pink and yellow cliffside succulent patches at Rocky Point Beach.
5. Crescent City
Originally a shipping city (with a reputation for plenty of shipwrecks due to its jagged coast), Crescent City is a Pacific Coast beachfront town with a range of scenic attractions. With harbors, river rapids, sand dunes and one of the best redwood forests in California, Crescent City is an underrated gem that offers the most adventurous travelers a glimpse of the natural wonderland along the California-Oregon border.
Pro tip: Explore (and snap a pic) among the towering, ancient redwoods at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, or go fishing and kayaking at Smith River, one of the cleanest and most complete river systems in the world.
6. Shelter Cove
Shelter Cove might be considered off the grid — to get to this beach town, you’ll need to travel along a winding 25-mile road. But what lies at the end is well worth the out-of-the-way trek. With its striking Black Sand Beach, tide pools, bike trails and an epic top beach backpacking hike along the Lost Coast Trail, you’ll find endless amazement in one of the state’s most remote and underrated stretches of shoreline.
Pro tip: With no streetlights, Shelter Cove is a wonderful place to stargaze. Take a few puffs of your favorite Mistifi indica pen for full-body relaxation, then lie back and snap some shots of the constellated evening sky.
Situated in Mendocino County, Gualala is a paradise of redwoods, waterfront views and a thriving, sought-out art and culture scene. Named after the river that runs through town and empties into the Pacific, Gualala features its own show-stopping coastline and serves as the perfect homebase for other nearby adventures. In the summer, float along the Gualala River and take an afternoon trip to nearby Salt Point State Park, which boasts a plethora of hiking trails, a pygmy forest and picture-worthy rhododendrons.
Pro tip: Take your dream shot of the white sand beach, dunes and lustrous marine environment of Gualala Point Regional Park before you hunt for sea glass and shells. (It’s also the perfect place to relax, rejuvenate with a hit of Mistifi’s sativa pen and fuel up with a picnic of our favorite snacks to pair with your high.
Cayucos is just a few miles north of Morro Bay, and the perfect relaxing getaway to both satisfy your wanderlust and give you a time-capsule experience that conjures up the aesthetic of the Old West. With saloons and antique shops and casual dining with gorgeous beach views, Cayucos is a cozy coastline town that will feel immediately like a home away from home. Enjoy a puff or two of Mistifi’s Balancing CBD Blend to get in a serene state of mind, then stroll the quiet palm-lined streets, see the well-known murals and loll through the easy trails and rocky coves among the 353 acres of Estero Bluffs State Park.
Pro tip: With its panoramic ocean view, Estero Bluffs State Park is the perfect place to capture some truly jaw-dropping sunset views.
James Han is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Los Angeles. When he’s not deep in a Google Doc, you can find him reading, watching films and taking long walks.
Travel Lens — 15 Best Things to Do in Sausalito
Cannery Row — Experience Cannery Row
Adventure Password — Top 6 Photo Spots in Monterey County, California
California Department of Parks and Recreation — Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Pebble Beach — 17-Mile Drive
National Park Service — Point Reyes: Alamere Falls
Sonoma County Regional Parks — Crane Creek Regional Park
Trail4Runner — Bodega Bay Sonoma Coast Photography Spots
California Department of Parks and Recreation — Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Siskiyou Land Conservancy — Smith River Estuary
California Department of Parks and Recreation — Salt Point State Park
Gualala River Redwood Park — Gualala River
Sonoma County — Gualala Point Regional Park
California Department of Parks and Recreation — Estero Bluffs State Park