Best Places to Go Swimming in the San Francisco Bay Area     

 


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When people think of California, they think of warm, sunny beaches crowded with people swimming in the ocean. That's Southern California! Northern California is a whole different environment. The boundary between Northern and Southern California, ocean environment-wise is around Point Conception, which is north of Santa Barbara. The water temperatures, the waves, the appearance of the beaches, and the marine life are very different. Southern California beaches are broad and sandy, with gentle waves, warm water, and warm-water fish, such as yellowtail, barracuda, and bonito. Northern California beaches tend to be rocky, wind-swept, with huge waves crashing into sheer cliffs. The ocean waters here are cold and often treacherous, with undertows, rip currents, and great white sharks. The fish up here are coldwater species, such as salmon, sturgeon, and striped bass. The beaches up here are great for scenery, tidepooling, fishing, and exploring, but not for swimming, with a few exceptions. That doesn't mean there's no place to go swimming outdoors. You just have to know where. Besides the ocean, there are bays, rivers, and lakes. Here are some of the best places I've been to or have heard of:

    Saltwater

    • Tomales Bay State Park, Hearts Desire Beach: This is the most pleasant place to swimming in Northern California. The water is warm. Inverness Ridge shields the beach from the fog and cold winds that whip Point Reyes to the west. There are no waves. If it wasn't for the tides and the salty water, you'd think you were swimming in a lake. The water is shallow for a long distance, which makes for safe wading. The beach is small and can get crowded on summer weekends, but a short hike in either direction can take you to similar and much less crowded beaches.
    • Hearts Desire Beach, Tomales Bay State Park

    • Santa Cruz area beaches: When the weather heats up in the South Bay, Hwy 17 gets jammed with traffic heading to the beaches of Santa Cruz. While other beaches on the coast are likely to be chilly and foggy, the Santa Cruz area beaches are more likely to be sunny. The most popular beach is the Main Beach, which is next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. This beach is very popular and can get crowded in the summer.  Other Santa Cruz area beaches which are suitable for swimming are Santa Cruz Harbor Beach, Twin Lakes State Beach, New Brighton State Beach, Seacliff State Beach, Rio Del Mar Beach, Manresa State Beach.

    • Santa Cruz Main Beach and Boardwalk

    • Lover's Point Beach, Pacific Grove: The Monterey-Carmel area has some of the most scenic beaches in the world, but they are mostly not suitable for swimming. One exception is tiny Lover's Point Beach in Pacific Grove. It is located in a small protected cove, surrounded by cliffs. The water is warm and calm. Excellent tidepools and climbing rocks are nearby. This is a great place for kids.
    • Lover's Point Beach

    • Crown Memorial Beach, Alameda: The waters of San Francisco Bay are warmer and calmer than the Pacific Ocean, but there are much fewer swimming beaches. The problem is that the Bay shoreline is muddy. If you tried to enter the Bay at many places, particularly in the South Bay, you could get stuck in the mud up to your knees. One exception is Crown Memorial Beach in Alameda. This is a 2.5-mile long sandy beach, but the sand isn't natural. It was dredged up and deposited there. The water is shallow for long distances and is fine for wading and swimming. The north end of the beach has rocky tidepools (see below) and the Crab Cove Visitor Center.
      Crab Cove and Crown Memorial Beach, Alameda

    • Coyote Point Recreation Area, San Mateo: This is one of the very few decent swim beaches on San Francisco Bay on the Peninsula. Coyote Point is a very popular park, right on the Bay Trail. It is on a rocky point of land, a former island, just south of San Francisco International Airport. It has several playgrounds, picnic areas, a yacht harbor, and the Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education. It has a long stretch of sandy beach, with small wind-whipped waves. The east side of the beach is popular with swimmers and waders. The west side is a launching point to wind surfers. The waters between SFO and Coyote Point is one of the best windsurfing areas in the Bay Area.
      Coyote Point Beach, San Mateo

    • Oyster Point Park, South San Francisco: Built on an artificial peninsula, this park on San Francisco Bay north of SFO has a marina, yacht club, windsurfing launching ramp, fishing pier, 33-acre park, and 2.5 acre sandy swimming beach. The San Francisco Bay Trail runs around the periphery of the park along the Bay. The swimming beach is in a small cove, protected from waves, near the foot of Mt. San Bruno. The water is calmer than at Coyote Point.
      Oyster Point Park Beach, San Mateo

    • Parkside Aquatic Park, San Mateo: This small park has a sandy swimming beach with no waves. Even though it is saltwater, it is not on the Bay. It is on Marina Lagoon, between Foster City and San Mateo. It is a short distance from the Bay Trail.
      Parkside Aquatic Park, San Mateo

    • China Beach, San Francisco: This is the only San Francisco Beach outside the Golden Gate that is suitable for swimming, if you don't mind cold water. It is in the Seacliff district, located in a small cove surrounded by high cliffs, and is somewhat secluded. It is adjacent to the much more popular (and crowded) Baker Beach. The beach has a restroom and showers.


    • Crissy Field, San Francisco: Located on a site that was once a military airfield, Crissy Field is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Though it was the site of many historic flights early in the 20th century, when the National Parks Service took it over in 1994, they called it a "derelict concrete wasteland." After extensive restoration, it was opened to the public in 2001. It now consists of a tidal marsh with bridges, a long, sandy beach, sand dunes, a paved segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail, a large grassy field, and the Crissy Field Center.  The shoreline promenade leads north to a fishing pier, the Warming Hut, which has a gift shop and cafe, Fort Point, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The beach is a popular launching area for wind surfers. Intrepid swimmers brave the cold waters of the Bay. The protected, warm waters of the tidal marsh invite kids to play in them.
       



    • Miller/Knox Regional Park, Point Richmond: This is a 307-acre park on San Francisco Bay. It has a secluded cove with a swimming beach (no lifeguards on duty). The park also features a fishing pier, model railroad museum, a saltwater lagoon, picnic areas, and hiking trails around the lagoon and to hilltop views.

    • McNear's Beach County Park, San Rafael: This park is around the corner on the same peninsula as China Camp State Park. It has a sandy beach on San Pablo Bay. The waters of the bay are warm, but not clear. For swimming in clear water, the park has a large public swimming pool. It also has picnic areas, lawns, tennis courts, and a 500-foot fishing pier.
      McNear's Beach

    • China Camp State Park, San Rafael: This large state park has wide variety of terrains. It has campgrounds, hiking trails through the wooded hills, and an historic Chinese fishing village. On either side of a pier, which is still in use for docking shrimp boats, are small sandy beaches. The beaches are sheltered, and the water is calm.
      China Camp State Park, San Rafael

    Freshwater

    • Almaden Lake, San Jose: Almaden Lake is a former quarry that has been turned into a popular park. It is at the head of the Almaden Valley at Almaden Expressway and Coleman Road. It is walking distance from the Almaden Light Rail Station and is right along the Los Alamitos Creek Trail and at the start of the Guadalupe River Trail and Guadalupe Creek Trail. Part of the lake has been roped off to form a swimming area for kids. It is the only park in the South Bay that has a sandy swimming beach.  Lifeguards are on duty. A snackbar, picnic areas, and playgrounds with water features are nearby. Paddleboats are available for rent.
      Almaden Lake swimming area, San Jose

    • Cull Canyon Swim Lagoon, Castro Valley: This is a 360-acre park with a large fishing lake and a separate 1.5-acre swim lagoon. The swim area has a bathhouse, lawns, sandy beaches, and lots of shallow water for kids.
    • Cull Canyon

    • Don Castro Lake Swim Lagoon, Castro Valley/Hayward: This 101-acre park is on the other side of I-580 from Cull Canyon, in-between Castro Valley and Hayward. It has a fishing lake and swim lagoon that were formed by damming San Lorenzo Creek. A shallow part of the swim lagoon is roped off for small children. It has a bathhouse and a sandy beach.


    • Temescal Regional Recreation Area, Oakland: This park is in the Oakland Hills near the junction of Hwys 24 and 13. It was originally built as a drinking water reservoir. Now the lake is used for fishing and swimming. Part of the lake is designated as a swim area.

    • Quarry Lakes Regional Recreation Area, Fremont: This park is next to the Alameda Creek Channel. Gravel from the quarries were used in railroad construction. The quarries here were established in the mid-19th century, but the recreational facilities were not developed until 2000.  There are 3 lakes here. Horseshoe Lake is the most developed. It has picnic areas and a boat launch. It is stocked with trout and catfish and is a popular fishing spot. Part of Horseshoe Lake is fenced off to form the swimming area. It has a sandy beach, restrooms, vending machines, and lifeguards. The Alameda Creek Trail runs along the south edge of the park and can be used to access the park in 2 places.
      Quarry Lake, Fremont

    • Lake Anza, Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley: This is one of the oldest parks in the East Bay Regional Parks District. It is a big park with 2079 acres, with a lot of attractions. One of them is Lake Anza. This is a beautiful scenic lake with a tree-covered shoreline. Part of the lake has a sandy swimming beach. The shallow area is roped off for kids. Farther out is an adults-only swimming lane. The beach has changing rooms and a refreshment stand.

    • Shadow Cliffs Regional Recreation Area, Pleasanton: This 249-acre park was formally a gravel quarry. It has an 80-acre lake with part of the lake roped off as a swimming beach with lifeguards. It has lots of picnic areas, boat rentals, and a 4-flume waterslide. The lake is stocked with fish and has produced some trophy-size catches. At the west edge of the park is a BMX park. On the other side of a high levee are ponds that are part of Arroyo Del Valle. Dirt and gravel trails lead around the ponds.
      Rapids Waterslides at Shadow Cliffs Regional Park  Swimming Beach on Shadow Cliffs Lake

    • Del Valle Regional Park, Livermore: This is a huge park, covering 4316 acres. It is located 10 miles south of Livermore, surrounded by oak-covered hills. Lake Del Valle in the center of the park is 5 miles long. It is a narrow lake with several coves and bays. Swimming is allowed all over the lake, but there are 2 designated swim areas with lifeguards. It is a popular boating lake. All kinds of boats are allowed and may be rented, from kayaks to motorboats. It is an excellent fishing lake for planted trout and warmwater fish. The park has a large family campground and several youth group campgrounds. It has miles of trails and is the gateway to the backcountry Ohlone Wilderness Trail.

    • Contra Loma Regional Park, Antioch: This is a 780-acre park with an 80-acre reservoir. It has a swim lagoon next to the main lake, with a sandy beach and a concession stand. It has lifeguards in the summer. Swimming is only allowed when lifeguards are on duty and only in the swim lagoon. The reservoir is popular for fishing, boating, and windsurfing. The park is next to Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, Antioch Community Park, the Delta De Anza Regional Trail, and the Black Diamond-to-Mt. Diablo Regional Trail.

    • Veterans Memorial Beach, Russian River, Healdsburg: The Russian River is a popular destination for canoeing, kayaking, float tubing, swimming, fishing, and camping. There are many swimming holes along the river and small beaches, both public and private. The most popular public beach is Veterans Memorial Beach in Healdsburg, near Hwy 101. It has a long, sandy swimming beach watched by lifeguards in the summer. A shallow area near shore is roped off for young swimmers. The water in the center of the river is deep because of a dam downstream. The park has restrooms and shady picnic areas. Other popular swimming beaches on the Russian River are Johnson's Beach in Guerneville and Monte Rio Beach.
      Veteran's Memorial Beach, Healdsburg

    • Spring Lake Regional Park Swim Lagoon, Santa Rosa: Spring Lake is a 320-acre Sonoma County park located between Howarth Park (City of Santa Rosa) and Annadel State Park. It has a 72-acre lake for fishing, boating, and windsurfing. It has a separate 3-acre swim lagoon with a sandy beach and conession stand. It is staffed by lifeguards and is open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. It has shady picnic areas and a campground. 152-acre Howarth Park has a small amusement park with a train, carousel, and pony rides, as well as a lake for boating and fishing. Annadel State Park has 5000 acres and 35 miles of trails through oak woodlands and meadows. Lake Ilsanjo has a warmwater fishery.
      Spring Lake Swim Lagoon, Santa Rosa

    • Big Sur River (The Gorge), Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Big Sur: Located in one of the most beautiful areas in the world, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is one of the most popular state parks. The park has campsites in the redwoods and along the Big Sur River. Campsites reservations are a must and may have to be made months in advance for sites during the most popular months. The river has several swimming holes, but the most popular and spectacular is the Gorge. Getting there is an adventure in itself. It requires scrambling over and around huge boulders and wading through deep, cold, swift water. The reward is a big, deep pool at the base of a small waterfall. Though signs warn against it, and it is risky, you can see people climbing up the cliffs and jumping into the water. There are shallow pools on the way to the gorge that are more easily-accessible and suitable for children.
      Big Sur Gorge Big Sur River Gorge
Pool in the Big Sur River Big Sur River Gorge

Water Theme Parks and Aquatics Centers

  • Raging Waters, Sacramento. This water park is located at Cal Expo in the heart of Sacramento. It consists of 25 water attractions, including a wave pool (shown below):
    Waterworld

  • Raging Waters, San Jose. Raging Waters is located in Lake Cunningham Regional Park in San Jose. It covers 23 acres and is the largest waterpark in Northern California. with pools, waterslides, and water-themed attractions. Lake Cunningham Park has a 50-acre lake that is stocked with trout and catfish, a marina with boat rentals, picnic areas, and a skate park.
    Raging Waters

  • Boomerang Bay at Great America Theme Park, Santa Clara. The Great America theme park is in the heart of Silicon Valley in Santa Clara, next to the headquarters and future stadium of the San Francisco 49'ers. It has rides and entertainment for all ages. Part of the park is the Australian-themed water park named Boomerang Bay. It has water slides, an endless river for float tubing, a wave pool, and a water fort.
    Boomerang Bay, Great America, Santa Clara

  • Aqua Adventure Waterpark, in Fremont's Central Park (Lake Elizabeth). This 4-acre water park, next to Lake Elizabeth and Stivers Lagoon Nature Area, was built on the site of the former Puerto Penasco Swim Lagoon. Construction started in 2007 and opened in 2009.


  • Blackberry Farm, Cupertino. This popular facility in Cupertino, next to Stevens Creek and the Blackberry Farm Golf Course, went through a major renovation and was reopened in 2009. The public pools have a water slide, snack bar, lawns, outdoor eating areas, and a snack bar. Nearby are picnic areas, bocce ball, a playground and horseshoe courts. A trail along Stevens Creek leads to adjacent McClellan Ranch.


  • Roberts Recreation Area, Oakland
  • Harvey West Park, Santa Cruz
  • Antioch Water Park, Antioch
  • Waterworld California, Concord
  • Morgan Hill Aquatics Center, Morgan Hill
  • George F. Haines International Swim Center, in Santa Clara's Central Park. This Olympic-caliber facility is the home of the Santa Clara Swim Club, "with more athletes inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame than any club in the world, has developed 46 Olympians, 34 of them medalists. They have earned 51 Olympic gold medals, 17 Olympic silver medals and 11 Olympic bronze medals. These Olympians include Mark Spitz, Pablo Morales, Claudia Kolb, Don Schollander, Keena Rothhammer, Tom Wilkens and many more outstanding swimmers."  The center hosts world-class competitions. At an international meet in 2003, Michael Phelps set a world record here. As a city-owned facility, it is open to everyone.


  • Stanford University Avery Aquatic Center, Palo Alto. This facility is open for swimming for Stanford students, faculty, staff, and associates only, but the public can view the pools from the outside and maybe spot current and future Olympians.
For more ideas, see "Outdoor Fun in the San Francisco Bay Area."

Created by Ronald Horii 10/2/97
Updated  7/23/08, repaired 7/24/11, updated 5/28/12