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Swimming in San Francisco for Rookies: Places to Visit

by Gloria Louden
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If you are looking for a place to go swimming in San Francisco this summer, you may be thinking that you’ll have countless options because, after all, it is California! California may be famous for sunny weather and long, sandy beaches with people basking in the sun and swimming in the warm water. But what many people don’t realize is that this description refers to South California! North California is an entirely different story.

In fact, anywhere north of Point Conception, near Santa Barbara, you’ll find a different climate that, for most of the year, is not warm enough for swimming. Not only is the weather chilly and windy, but the waters are cooled down by cold Pacific currents. What’s more, this locale is home to many shark species — most notably, the leopard shark.

However, that is not to say that the San Francisco Bay has nothing to offer in terms of swimming options. Browse through my selection of the most popular swimming holes in the Bay area. They are all reasonably warm during the summer season and, most importantly, perfectly safe.

Saltwater Swimming in San Francisco

#1. China Beach

China Beach is a small, secluded cove in the San Francisco Sea Cliff area. It is sheltered by towering cliffs on either side, so it doesn’t get very windy for most of the year. It is usually not too busy, so it is perfect for people who don’t like crowded beaches. The water is quite cold, but in the peak of summer it gets warm enough for a dip.

This beach is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. That makes it a protected landscape, which means it is one of the cleanest beaches in California. It has a splendid view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which makes it ideal for snapping some Instagram-worthy photos!

There is a restroom as well as showers available for visitors right there on the beach. However, there are no lifeguards, which can be tricky, as the area has frequent rip currents. When the weather is too cold for swimming, you can explore the beautiful hiking trails that surround the beach.

#2. Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach

Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach is part of the State Park in Alameda, CA. It is a 2.5-mile stretch of deposited sand. Thanks to that, the beach isn’t muddy like all the other spots in this area. The water is shallow, which makes it excellent for families with kids, as well as people just learning how to swim. Also, the water here is warmer than anywhere else in North California.

On the beach you will find a bathhouse with several changing rooms. You won’t find any lifeguards, however, so take extra care of your children.

The beach is, nevertheless, a favorite family spot. It has many barbecue pits, picnic tables, and a lawn usually used for baseball games. The warm, shallow sea is ideal for wading, and a little further up the beach there is a place popular among windsurfers.

#3. Heart’s Desire Beach

Heart’s Desire Beach is a tiny, picturesque cove that is part of Tomales Bay State Park. It is sheltered by Inverness Ridge, which means that it’s rarely foggy or windy, and it almost never has strong tides.

Its calm and also shallow waters make it is a beloved place among families. For that reason, it can get a bit crowded during the summer. The parking space is also limited, so make sure to arrive early. However, keep in mind that phone reception is often spotty, so let everyone know you’ll probably be out of reach for the day.

#4. Coyote Point Recreation Area

Coyote Point Recreation Area in San Mateo County is a favorite swimming and picnicking place in this area. Its west part is also one of the top spots for windsurfing in North California.

This one is another location that is often visited by families, as the beach is long and sandy and the waves are usually small. Also, the Recreation Area has the Magic Mountain Playground that the kids go wild for. They might also enjoy visiting the splendid wildlife and science museum and zoo, the CuriOdyssey, that is also nearby.

#5. Oyster Point Park

Oyster Point Park is a public marina and park in South San Francisco. There you will find a yacht club, a fishing pier, a windsurfing ramp, and a sandy beach. The beach is a small cove at the foot of Mt. San Bruno, and it has relatively calm waters.

You can also explore the surrounding scenery by taking a walk along the San Francisco Bay Trail. Whatever you choose to do, know that both the beach and the trail get quite noisy. There are often planes flying over the area from the nearby San Francisco International Airport.

#6. McNears Beach County Park

McNears Beach is a stretch of a sand-covered beach on San Pablo Bay in San Rafael. The ocean water here is calm and warm, but murky. So if you prefer clear waters, there is a public pool in the park that you can use. Apart from the large pool, the park offers tennis courts, a picnic area, several lawns, and a fishing pier.

Freshwater Swimming in San Francisco

#7. Del Valle Regional Park

Del Valle Regional Park is more of a lakeside resort than an ordinary swimming hole. It is an enormous park in Livermore, covering over 4,300 acres. In its center, there is the five-mile-long Del Valle lake, surrounded by oak trees. There are two areas of the lake that are overseen by lifeguards, although you can swim anywhere you choose.

The park offers a variety of fun things to do — motorboating, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and windsurfing are just some of the options. The place is great for overnight camping, too. Also, it usually draws quite a crowd, so I can’t say that it is tranquil in spite of its beautiful, natural setting.

#8. Lake Anza

Lake Anza might just be the best swimming hole in the East Bay area — except when it is closed due to algae contamination, that is. It is a human-made recreational spot that offers plenty of attractions that are also part of the Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley.

The lake itself is warm and attracts a lot of visitors. The shallow parts are conveniently marked with tape, so you know where your children can splash around safely. The remaining parts are rather deep and, therefore, adult-only.

#9. Spring Lake Regional Park

Spring Lake Regional Park is a 320-acre park in Sonoma County with a wide range of attractions for the whole family. The lake itself covers around 72 acres, but it is mostly used for windsurfing, fishing, and boating.

The most popular swimming spot here is the three-acre lagoon that has a lovely sandy beach with a snack bar. The lagoon is open to the public from Memorial Day until Labor Day, and there are lifeguards on the premises. There is a popular campground, as well as a picnic area that is shaded by lush trees.

In the nearby Howarth Park, there is a huge amusement park, in case you need ideas on how to provide more activities for your kids.

#10. Contra Loma Regional Park

Although Contra Loma Regional Park has both a big lake and a small lagoon, swimming is only possible in the latter. The lake mostly serves for fishing, windsurfing, and boating, while the lagoon has a sandy beach and a snack kiosk. However, it is open only during the summer and only when the lifeguards are on duty.

Swimming in San Francisco Water Theme Parks

I know that conditions for swimming in San Francisco, even in the warmest of the summer days, are still not warm enough for everyone’s taste. In case you find the Pacific waters of the Bay area too chilly all year round, then pools and waterparks are better options for you. Here are my top picks.

#11. Raging Waters, San Jose

Raging Waters is a 23-acre waterpark that is part of Lake Cunningham Regional Park in San Jose. In fact, this one is the largest waterpark in all of North California. This park abounds with entertainment options, from pools of various sizes to crazy waterslides and other splashy attractions.

Apart from the waterpark, Lake Cunningham Regional Park has a 50-acre lake filled with catfish and trout, as well as a skate park, several picnic areas, and a marina where you can rent a boat for the day.

#12. Boomerang Bay, Santa Clara

Boomerang Bay, or South Bay Shores, is part of the Great America Theme Park in Santa Clara’s Silicon Valley. It is located in the vicinity of the San Francisco 49ers’ headquarters and the Levi’s stadium. This amusement park is popular among the locals, regardless of their age. There are water slides of various sizes, a water fort, an endless river perfect for float tubing, and an exceptionally amusing wave pool.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, my choices of spots to go swimming in San Francisco will prove useful to you. It is easy to fall in the trap of thinking North California beaches are just as warm as those further down south, especially if you are not a local. With that in mind, I wanted to share my favorite places for swimming in San Francisco and make your quest for the perfect dipping spot so much easier.

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