Calm Waters: The Bay Area’s Best Swim Beaches

There’s something about the beach that lets the kids lose themselves in endless fun and exploration, but until they can handle the surf, some of the Pacific beaches are just too challenging for parents and kids alike. While many reservoirs and lakes are off limits, there are plenty of beachy options around the Bay Area where you get all the perks of the seaside without anxiety-inducing rip currents and waves. The best of the best are in the East Bay but in San Francisco, Marin and the Peninsula you’ll still find surf-free swim beaches that will keep everyone smiling.

crissy-field

Photo: David Lytle via Flickr

San Francisco

Crissy Field
When the sun’s out, East Beach is full of families building sandcastles, digging and running in and out of the waves. There’s room for everyone. For those wanting to avoid the surf, a lagoon makes an ideal splash spot for little ones. The Beach Hut Café serves snacks and coffee and there’s ample parking. The beach is popular with the city’s dog owners so be prepared to make some four legged friends. The west end of Crissy Field, though smaller, is another great option.  The Warming Hut offers sandwiches and goodies, there are BBQs and picnic tables and the kids can while away hours playing in the more gentle surf and looking for crabs. While the water is usually clean and safe, watch out for posted signs and wildlife and go in the morning as the wind usually gets up by mid afternoon.

Mason St. off Marina Blvd.
San Francisco, Ca
Online: nps.gov

aquatic_park_san_francisco_beachPhoto: Erin Feher

Aquatic Park
Home to the famous Dolphin Club and their rivals the South Bay Rowing club, there are lots of serious swimmers in the water here.  See them as inspiration for your little ones who can play on the beach and splash in the surf-free water within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach isn’t spotless (you’ll likely find the odd cigarette butt) but don’t let that put you off. You are a short stroll from Fisherman’s Wharf and if the kids tire of the beach, there are the historic boats at Hyde Street Pier to explore for a small fee.

900 Beach St. at Polk
San Francisco, Ca
Online: nps.gov

Tilden Lake Anza S Lewis (1)Photo: East Bay Regional Park District

East Bay

Lake Anza
Set in Tilden Regional Park, this popular, dog-free swim spot always feels like a local secret, tucked away in the midst of hiking trails, below the picturesque hills. The stretch of sandy beach is sheltered from the wind and typically gets plenty of sunshine. Hungry swimmers can recharge at the Lake Anza Beach Club with nachos, smoothies, sandwiches and ice cream. When the kids are done with sand and water, the park also boasts a carousel and steam train, so there’s still plenty to explore. The Lake Anza swim season runs from the end of April to mid September with lifeguards on duty daily. The cost is $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for kids.

Lake Anza Rd. off Central Park Dr.
Berkeley, Ca
888-327-2757
Online: ebparks.org

Cull Canyon 4Photo: East Bay Regional Park District

Cull Canyon
The lagoon here is ideal if you’ve got little ones because of the gentle gradient. The kids can splash around in the shallows and build up their confidence in the water while you post up at one of the shaded picnic areas, enjoy the white, sandy beach and dig in for the day.  There’s a bathhouse and vending machines and lifeguards on duty daily from June through to August. A beach access fee applies ($3.50 for adults, $2.50 for kids) but parking is free.

18627 Cull Canyon Rd.
Castro Valley, Ca
510-544-3076
Online: ebparks.org

Del Valle Regional Park
This spot has not one, but two swimming beaches opening for the season. While swimming is permissible through much of the five-mile-long lake, the East and West beaches offer lifeguard services between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. from June through August, with no fees required. And when the family’s all toweled off, the park has picnic facilities, boat rentals, and a visitor center to keep you occupied.

7000 Del Valle Rd.
Livermore, Ca
510-544-3143
Online:ebparks.org

DC_pubaffs_2006-8                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Photo: East Bay Regional Park District

Don Castro Regional Park
Swimming in the lagoon is this park’s main attraction. The sandy beach is surrounded by mature trees and has easy parking.  There’s a large roped off section at a depth of 2ft for the little ones to paddle in and the lifeguards are vigilant. Swimming is only allowed when they are on duty, 11am to 6pm daily during the summer. There is a vending machine and a large lawn area when you’re done with the sand. No dogs are allowed and beach umbrellas and wheelchairs are available for those who need them on a first-come, first-served basis.

22400 Woodroe Ave.
Hayward, Ca
Online: ebparks.org

SC-Slewis-01photo credit: East Bay Regional Park District

Shadow Cliffs
Just a mile outside downtown Pleasanton is a sweet sandy spot for swimming, picnicking, boating, and general fun in the sun. A former gravel quarry, this little swimming lagoon is ideal for kids to cool off and splash around; even early in the morning the water is far from chilly.  There’s a bathhouse and refreshment stand open on weekends in spring and fall, and daily during summer months. Lifeguards are on duty June through mid August, but swimming is allowed throughout the year.  The cost is $6 per vehicle and there’s a $2 fee to bring a dog.

2500 Stanley Blvd.
Pleasanton, Ca
Online: ebparks.org

CL_040706-28photo credit: East Bay Regional Park District

Contra Loma Regional Park
What about a nice, protected swimming lagoon in the heart of an 80-acre reservoir? Boating, picnicking, biking, and nature study are all popular at Contra Loma Regional Park and the swim lagoon has a sandy beach with restrooms and a concession stand. Lifeguards are on duty 11am to 6pm daily from June to mid August. For those making a day of it, there are shady picnic areas and even swim lessons and a Jr. Guard program held at the lagoon in the summertime. Similar to other East Bay Park swim spots, there is a small beach access fee.

1200 Frederickson Ln.
Antioch, Ca
Online: ebparks.org

chicken ranch beachphoto credit:  Jocelyn B via Yelp 

Marin

Chicken Ranch Beach
Don’t let the name put you off; this beach is hidden away just north of Inverness off Sir Frances Drake Boulevard and nestled along the west shore of Tomales Bay. Parking is free but the beach is poorly signed so be sure to check directions before you leave. When you reach the parking lot, a short trail leads to this mellow sandy beach with a gentle gradient.  The water is both warmer than the Pacific and wave-free so it’s perfect for paddling. While the beach isn’t huge, there’s plenty of room to spread a blanket, have a picnic and even fly a kite. Dogs are allowed on a leash and you’ll see paddle-boarders and kayakers as you look out over the water towards West Marin.

Sir Francis Drake
Marshall, Ca
Online: marincounty.org

Schoonmaker Point
Nestled in the calm waters inside a yacht harbor, this is a perfect beach spot for families with small kids. The water is sheltered and the beach has a gentle gradient, perfect for knee-high splashing and surrounded by boats docked in the marina. There are a number of restaurants nearby as well as grocery stores for picnic supplies. The word is out on this once secret beach though so the beachside parking fills up quickly.  If you’re not cut out for all-day relaxation, the Sea Trek Kayaking Center is right on the beach and kayak rentals start at $20 an hour, with options for kids and lifejackets for all.

Liberty Ship Way
Sausalito, Ca
Online: schoonmakermarina.com

paradisebeachphoto credit: Wes B via Yelp

Paradise Beach
Paradise is well-named. This bayside gem is quiet and secluded with mature landscaping, colorful poplar trees, wildflowers and rolling grassy hillsides above the San Francisco Bay. The beach runs along the east shore of the Tiburon Peninsula, nestled in a residential neighborhood.  There are lots of picnic spots, fishing off the pier and a sandy beach with no surf, perfect for paddling. The area is pet free but watch out for the parking fee, $8 during the week, $10 on weekends.

3450 Paradise Dr.
Tiburon, Ca
Online: marincounty.org

 

mcnearsbeachmarin

photo credit: Mariela D via Yelp

McNears Beach Park
Set in a beautiful sheltered cove along the shores of San Pablo Bay, this narrow bayside beach offers a fun, safe place for swimming and water play. If the kids are happier in a swimming pool, there is one right on the beach, open Wed-Sun from 11 a.m. til 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. at the weekends. As a bonus, there’s a snack bar, sand volleyball courts, picnic areas and newly renovated tennis courts. The pier is popular with anglers fishing for sturgeon, bass, perch and crab. The gentle gradient also makes carry-in boat access easy for kayaks and canoes. Be prepared for the parking fee, $8 during the week, $10 on weekends.

201 Cantera Way
San Rafael, Ca
Online: marincounty.org

parkside2012

 photo credit: Jennifer L via Yelp  

Peninsula

Parkside Aquatic Beach
This San Mateo gem has not a wave in sight. On one side of the sandy swim beach, there’s a play structure for kids, and on the other side, picnic tables if you prefer to keep the sand out of your sandwiches. The waters are part of the Marina Lagoon, between San Mateo and Foster City. There’s parking and restrooms as well as accessibility for boating and a sand volleyball pit.

1595 Seal St.
San Mateo, Ca
Online: cityofsanmateo.org

Oyster Point Marina
This sandy beach, over two acres long, has a roped off area for swimming in the peaceful waters. There is no lifeguard on duty but the site has picnic areas, restaurants and all the fun of watching the comings and goings of the nearby yacht club.  The water is part of the Bay and is tested weekly for safety. There’s a flock of Canada Geese that have taken a liking to this beach too so watch for closure signs or check the County of San Mateo Heath System site for details.

95 Harbormaster Rd. #1
South San Francisco, Ca
650-952-0808
Online: smharbor.com

Editor’s Note: Wondering where the South Bay beaches are? Santa Clara County has a policy that prohibits swimming in reservoirs and lakes, but as our list demonstrates, there are plenty of great options nearby!  

What are your favorite swim beaches in the Bay Area? Let us know in the comments below.

—Emily Myers