A round-up of our 5 favorites
KIRBY COVE, NEAR SAUSALITO
Tucked just northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, this pocket beach in the Marin Headlands is accessible only by a 1-mile downhill hike, which keeps away the crowds taking snapshots atop the headlands. The quiet coarse-sand beach is a good spot to watch ships passing under the Golden Gate Bridge ― and you might even spy a whale. You'll also get a great view of the bridge. A 4-unit campground here ($25; call 800/365-2267 for information and reservations) is expected to reopen in September once hazardous trees have been removed.
INFO: From U.S. 101, take the Sausalito exit and follow signs to the Marin Headlands. Take Conzelman Rd. to its end and hike 1 mile down the fire road to the beach. Free. 415/331-1540.
NEARBY TREAT: You'll find views of San Francisco as nice as those from Kirby Cove from restaurants in downtown Sausalito. Try the upscale French cuisine at newly opened Antidote ($$$$; dinner Tue-Sun; 201 Bridgeway; 415/331-9463).
FORT FUNSTON, SAN FRANCISCO
Human visitors can stroll the beach, explore Battery Richmond P. Davis, the World War II fortification built here in 1939, and watch hang gliders ride the updrafts along Funston's high, sandy cliffs, but the place is probably best loved by San Francisco's canines ― you'll be amazed at the number of dogs and dog-walkers roaming the trails here.
INFO: Skyline Blvd. at John Muir Dr. in the city's southwest corner. Free. www.nps.gov/goga/fofu or 415/239-2366.
CHINA CAMP STATE PARK, SAN RAFAEL
Quiet and warmImmigrants from the Canton district of China built a shrimping village on San Francisco Bay here in the 19th century, exporting the haul back home and selling to merchants in nearby cities. But after a few decades, prejudicial laws drove the community out. Today you can tour a small museum at quiet China Camp Village on the beach or picnic on the grassy bluffs, imagining the bustle of long ago as you gaze at the East Bay's golden hills. Dip a toe in the water; bay temperatures are as warm as you're likely to find. This is one of the few places in the Bay Area where oak woodland habitat still reaches, uninterrupted by development, to the bay shore. Trails ― like the moderate 15-mile Oak Ridge to Ridge to Bay View to Shoreline loop ― extend up into the hills for hiking and mountain biking.
INFO: From U.S. 101 in San Rafael, take the N. San Pedro Rd. exit and go east 5 miles to the park. $5 per car. www.parks.ca.gov or 415/456-0766.
NEARBY TREAT: Grab take-out crab sandwiches and shrimp cocktails at Western Boat & Tackle Shop ($; call for hours; 101 Third St., San Rafael; 415/454-4177).
PEBBLE BEACH STATE BEACH, NEAR PESCADERO
The big draws at this cove beach along the San Mateo County coast are the rocks. The bluff's golden sandstone has been worn down by water and wind into stunning sculptures and patterns. The beach's rock forms are called tafoni, a Sicilian term. Tafoni is created when water leaves behind mineral deposits that eat away at a rock with an inner layer that is softer than its exterior material.
INFO: About 7 miles south of La Honda Rd. on State 1; park at pullouts or in the Bean Hollow State Beach lot (fee per car). www.parks.ca.gov or 650/879-2170.
NEARBY TREAT: Duarte's Tavern ($$; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; 202 Stage Rd., Pescadero; 650/879-0464), in a ramshackle building with a classic bar, has served tasty fish for 110 years.
SEACLIFF STATE BEACH, APTOS
Built during World War I, when metal shortages made a cement ship a good idea, the SS Palo Alto was towed to Seacliff Beach as a short-lived floating dance hall in 1929. The beach offers miles of nice walking and great swimming. Several bluffs are full of swirly shaped marine fossils; call the visitor center (831/685-6444) to join free weekend guided fossil walks.
INFO: From State 1, head west on State Park Dr. to park. $6 per car. www.santacruzstateparks.org or 831/685-6500.
NEARBY TREAT: Along with cottage charm, Café Sparrow ($$$; call for hours; 8042 Soquel Dr., Aptos; 831/688-6238) serves delicious seafood.