10 Photos of Northern California's Most Beautiful Beaches (Because You Need a Mental Vacay)

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California features no shortage of breathtaking coastline, but some sandy stretches outshine the rest. Epic vistas, rugged cliffs and even a place where boulders look like bowling balls—each of these beaches is more breathtaking than the last. They may be closed now, as we shelter in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy them virtually. Take in these stunning photos and grant yourself a mental vacation until it's time to visit them again.

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10. Jenner Beach In Jenner

The Russian River meets the Pacific at this quiet gem on the Sonoma Coast. It's a great place to spot harbor seals and sea lions sunning themselves on the spit. And January through May, it’s a primo area for whale watching.

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9. Capitola Beach In Santa Cruz County

The quaint little beach town south of Santa Cruz is a little like the San Francisco of the coast, with its brightly colored buildings perched above the beach. They're a fitting complement to the area's cotton-candy sunsets.

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8. Drake's Beach In Point Reyes

Drake's Beach is renowned for being the perfect place for taking peaceful strolls and stand-up paddleboarding on its calm waters. It's often shrouded with fog, forming quite the moody backdrop with those dramatic cliffs.

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7. Sand Dollar Beach In Big Sur

Despite the name, you probably won’t find sand dollars on this sandy stretch. Instead, look out for jade stones and polished sea rocks along the back of the beach. Keep your eyes peeled for surfers—this is one of the few spots in Big Sur to catch waves.

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6. Baker Beach In San Francisco

Name a more iconic view in San Francisco—we'll wait. This is the spot to catch the best glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. When it's OK to visit the beach again, it's worth mentioning that the northern section of the beach is clothing optional.

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5. Moonstone Beach In Humboldt County

The view is every bit as spectacular as the waves, which are good for all skill levels and surf styles. For landlubbers, there are tide pools and sea caves to explore.

4. Ritz-carlton Beach In Half Moon Bay

Hey, if it’s good enough for the Ritz-Carlton, you better believe it's where we want to be. When beaches reopen, it's worth noting that you don’t have to be a hotel guest to wiggle your toes in the sand here. There’s a small public parking lot before the main entrance with a trail that leads down to the beach.

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3. Bowling Ball Beach In Mendocino County

OK, so they’re not really bowling balls, but these mysterious round rocks were formed on the sides of the sandstone bluffs here. Years of weathering and erosion caused the formations to fall off and plop onto the beach, and they're most visible during low tide.

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2. Fanshell Beach In Pebble Beach

The only way to see this beach IRL is to pay the entrance fee to the 17-mile drive, but the self-guided driving tour is worth every penny. (It’s a bucket-list item if you’ve never been.) On a clear day, the water matches the sky and the white sand feels like a little slice of the Caribbean.

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1. Pfeiffer Beach In Big Sur

No surprise here: Pfeiffer Beach just might be the most gorgeous in the entire country. (OK, we’re a little biased, but still...) Purple-hued sand, clear turquoise water, a waterfall plummeting into the sea and magnificent rock formations make this beach almost otherworldly.

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allison mccarthy

San Francisco Editor

Allison McCarthy is a writer and editor with 15 years of experience in the industry. She's currently the San Francisco editor at PureWow, where she covers the best of what's...