You don’t have to pay for a day at the aquarium to see some sea life up close. The California coast has loads of opportunities for exploring the unique ecosystems called tide pools. Here you can gaze upon sea anemones, seastars, hermit crabs and tons of tiny fish that live along the rocky shore. The key is to find out when the tide will be low as the aquatic life is best viewed when the tide is 2 feet or lower.
China Beach is in a tiny cove tucked between Lands End and Baker Beach in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco. A great spot for a photo of the kids with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, this beach has a grill and picnic tables (plus bathrooms, yay!) available for public use. At low tide, head down the long flight of stairs to the sand and take a walk along the shore towards Baker Beach to check out the sea anemones, mussels and seastars clinging to the rocky crevices. Parking can be tricky so arrive early in the day for the best chance of grabbing a spot in the small parking lot.
Sea Cliff Ave.
San Francisco, Ca
Crab Cove (Crown Memorial State Beach)
Tide pools in Alameda? Yep, for over 35 years Crab Cove Visitors’ Center has brought marine and shoreline exploration to the East Bay. Turn off Central Ave. at McKay Ave and you’ll find the visitors center where they have aquariums, sea life viewable under microscopes and history about the city of Alameda. Head down to the shore to check out the many crabs, snails and other sea creatures that take up residence in the tide pools there. Docent-led tours are available so check with the visitors center for information. In the summer months, Crab Cove also hosts a free evening concert series on the second Friday of the month.
1252 McKay Ave.
Cost: $5 parking fee
Visitors Center hours: Wed – Sat 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (Oct – Feb) and until 5 p.m. the rest of the year
Marin and Sonoma Counties
This 2-mile ocean shoreline boasts a fantastic tide pool in addition to frequent visitors such as whales, sea lions and many different types of shorebirds. Agate Beach is part of the Duxbury Reef State Marine Sanctuary—the largest soft shale reef in California—which creates an incredibly biodiverse coastal area. A lucky kid exploring the rocky tide pools may come across a giant green anemone which is rumored to measure up to six inches across! Parking is $2 and dogs on-leash are permitted.
Cost: $2 parking fee
Point Reyes National Seashore
The intertidal zones of the Palomarin Beach and Sculptured Beach are excellent places to explore the animals that enjoy the tides’ eternal ebb and flow. Make sure to arrive with plenty of time to explore as both beaches require a decent walk from the parking area. You will be rewarded by seeing limpets, sand crabs, black turban snails, purple sea urchins and more.
Point Reyes Station, Ca
Bodega Marine Lab
If you are up north visiting the quaint coastal town of Bodega Bay, you need to swing by the Bodega Marine Lab. A research unit of UC Davis, the Bodega Marine Lab opens its doors on Fridays from 2 – 4 p.m. for marine lovers of all ages. Kids can explore (and even touch!) some of the many creatures that inhabit the tide pool that is right outside the facility entrance. Volunteers pass around prickly sea urchins and slimy seastars to the delight of all young visitors. Free tours are available (donations welcome) but they are better suited for school-aged kids and up as they can be a little long for younger tikes.
2099 Westside Rd.
Bodega Bay, Ca
Peninsula and Further South
James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Just a short drive from scenic Half Moon Bay you will find the James Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. This 3-mile stretch of protected beach, tide pools, marshes and bluffs is a great place to bring the kids. Admission is free and on weekends and holidays you can find volunteer naturalists roaming the tide pools who are willing to point out sea urchins, barnacles, seastars and more. Very close to the tide pools is an area that is reserved for the harbor seals, a fun sight in their own right. No dogs allowed and remember to wear some good shoes for gripping the slippery rocks.
200 Nevada Ave.
Moss Beach, Ca
Linda Mar Beach (Pacifica State Beach)
This surfers’ destination is in a protected cove with a great beach for the kids. There is a small creek that empties into the ocean in the middle of the beach—perfect for little ones who want to get wet but aren’t interested in the waves. If you are there during low tide, head to the southernmost point on the beach and you’ll come across some great tide pools full of all sorts of crabs and sea anemones. Parking is $5 for 4 hours of fun, and if you get hungry there’s even a Taco Bell right on the beach.
Highway 1 and Linda Mar Blvd.
Cost: $5 for up to 4 hours of parking, or $9 for the whole day
Just south of downtown Half Moon Bay, this beach offers beautiful views without the crowds. The easiest access point to the tide pools is to park at the end of Poplar Street at Poplar Beach and then head south along the water about a mile to the tide pools. You can also take the super scenic coastal trail along the bluffs above the beach but most of the paths down to the water a pretty steep for kiddos. The walk along the shore takes you right past the Ritz-Carlton.
Redondo Beach Road
Half Moon Bay, Ca
Pescadero State Beach
Between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz you will find Pescadero State Beach that includes three separate parking lots. The middle lot gives you access to the rocky shore and some awesome tide pools where you can spot sea stars and sea anemones a-plenty. There’s a restroom here if you need to make a pit stop and they also offer free guided tours of the marshland on the first Sunday of the month at 10 a.m.
Natural Bridges State Beach
This Santa Cruz beach is great for viewing all sorts of sea life as well as the amazing, naturally formed rock bridge out in the water. State beach parking is $10, or park just before the beach entrance on Swanton Blvd. for free if there’s a spot. If you head north along the beach you can climb the rocks to access the tide pools. This can be tricky for little ones, so ask at the Visitor Center for directions to get to the pools through the neighboring mobile home park. If you visit in the late-fall or winter, don’t forget to check out the Monarch Preserve for the yearly migration of up to 100,000 monarch butterflies! Also nearby is the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, another great place to learn about Bay Area marine life.
2531 West Cliff Dr.
Santa Cruz, Ca
Asilomar State Beach
Rocky terrain, crystal clear blue water and tons of sea life inhabit this beach in Monterey Bay. There is ample parking and the beach is even handicap accessible for beach wheelchairs. Watch where you step so that you don’t crush the small creatures that reside there. The Point Pinos Lighthouse is a short walk along the coast but the bathrooms are not close by so plan accordingly.
1950 Sunset Dr.
Pacific Grove, Ca
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Hiking, wildflowers and sea life galore are the features of this picturesque area of Carmel. The best spot to check out the tide pools is on Weston Beach, just south and west of the main entrance. If you are lucky you may even spot a sea lion or otter frolicking in the waves. Volunteer docents are available to answer questions at the Sea Lion Point parking lot most days from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Highway 1 and Riley Ranch Rd.
Rules to Remember When Tidepooling:
1. Never turn your back to the ocean as the waves can be unpredictable.
2. Watch where you step so that you don’t step on an animal or its home.
3. Dress for the conditions. Days at the California coast can be cool and foggy. Non-slippery footwear is essential.
4. Check the tide schedule before you head out. There’s nothing worse than planning a day of tide pooling and showing up at high tide.
5. As with any outdoor adventure, remember to take only photographs and leave only footprints. That way we preserve our natural treasures for generations to come!
Where do you go to explore aquatic life? Let us know in the comments below!
—Kate Loweth and Gabby Cullen
All photos by Kate Loweth