McNear's Beach Park is one of those special places that I hold close to my heart. I grew up literally around the corner from it, and spent a lot of time there as a child. It's still one of my favorite places to spend the day in Marin, especially now that I have kids of my own. McNear's Beach is a 55-acre county park located on the shores of San Pablo Bay. It's the a perfect place to go on a warm day to wade in the bay, swim in the pool, picnic, fish, take in spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay Area, and more.
McNear's Beach has been popular with Bay Area residents since the 19th century, when the McNear family owned most of the property in what eventually would become San Rafael's Peacock Gap neighborhood. The McNears operated a beach resort at the present location of the park, as well as a nearby quarry and brickyard.
McNear's Beach offers a variety of things to do for visitors of all ages. The beach itself is a somewhat rocky affair, with lots of broken shells and interesting stones to pick over. You can wade and splash in the shallow and gentle San Pablo Bay waters, but the biggest attraction is the swimming pool, which gets pretty busy on a hot day. In addition to the popular main pool, there's a toddler pool, too. The McNear's Beach pool opens to the public this Memorial Day weekend (May 25–27), and stays open through Labor Day.
My family loves to go to the beach, and there are plenty of places to do this in and around Marin. While many of the beaches along the Pacific Ocean are unsuitable for swimming, there are also many beaches that are ideal spots for swimming, wading, and splashing in the water, especially on warm summer days. Here are some of our favorites. Click on the links for more info.
Abbotts Lagoon Beach
A one-and-a-half mile hike takes you over bridges and sand dunes to this beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. It's home to many shorebirds, including the endangered snowy plover. A great beach for playing in the sand, but not for swimming due to dangerous surf and rip currents.
Located just off Tiburon, Angel Island State Park Pack is the largest Island in San Francisco Bay. Pack a picnic and jump on ferry to this unique island. Quarry Point and Ayala Cove are two beaches that are both sandy and protected from the afternoon breezes, so it's perfect for an afternoon of family fun. There are no lifeguards, and swimming can be hazardous because of the strong currents.
The San Francisco Presidio's Crissy Field has undergone many changes in its lifetime, from tidal marsh to airfield to one of the Bay Area's premier recreation areas. Crissy Field is a great place to spend the day with the family, and has a wonderful mix of outdoor attractons, amenities, and local businesses, as well as spectacular views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Crissy Field is a fantastic destination for walking, bicycling, kite flying, or playing at the beach. It offers a waterfront promenade and trails that are popular with dog walkers, runners, and cyclists (and parents, judging from the number of strollers we usually see there), as well as a clean stretch of sand along San Francisco Bay.
The water here is perfect for wading and playing in the gently lapping waves. Lawn areas and picnic tables, some with charcoal grills, are available, too, so bring a picnic and your beach blanket and umbrella and spend the day. Torpedo Wharf, a pier on the north end of the field, is a popular spot for fishing and crabbing.
On the Marin County coast, you'll often find better weather in the winter than during the foggy summer, so this time of year is a great time to head out to the beach. One family favorite in Marin is Limantour Beach at the Point Reyes National Seashore. Limantour boasts gentle surf, stunning views, and miles of sandy beach.
Named after a French merchant shipwrecked here in the 1840s, Limantour Beach is located along Drake's Bay, and is close to Point Reyes Station and the Point Reyes National Seashore park headquarters on Bear Valley Road. As you drive over Inverness Ridge, you'll see evidence of the 1995 Mt. Vision fire in the form of the young fir and pine trees that line the roadway.
Along the way, you'll see trailheads and parking areas for several popular trails, including Sky and Muddy Hollow trails, as well as a youth hostel and the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center. There are also several scenic overlooks that afford stunning vistas of Tomales Bay and the Limantour Estero.
One of Marin's underrated treasures is China Camp State Park, located east of San Rafael. It's not as famous or flashy as other local outdoors spots like Mt. Tam, Muir Woods, or Point Reyes, but it has a charm all its own and offers plenty for families to do and see. Situated on the shores of San Pablo Bay, China Camp State Park offers stunning views, plenty of hiking and mountain biking trails, walk-in camp sites, picnic areas, beaches, and a historic 19th-century Chinese fishing village. Topography ranges from oak woodlands to grassland to salt marsh, with even some redwoods thrown in for good measure.
It's hard to believe that this park is just a stone's throw from the hustle and bustle of San Rafael. I grew up in a neighborhood just a short distance from China Camp; it was always a favorite place to visit when I was growing up, and it still remains one of my and my family's favorite destinations for outdoor fun and adventure.
When the weather gets warm, it's time to think about going to the beach. Good, safe swimming beaches with warm weather can be hard to come by in Marin and Northern California, but they're out there if you know where to look. Some of them are hidden gems known only to locals and other insiders. Chicken Ranch Beach, located on Tomales Bay just outside the West Marin town of Inverness, is one of those well kept secrets. (So don't tell anyone about it, OK?)
Like Heart's Desire Beach up the road a bit in Tomales Bay State Park, Chicken Ranch Beach sits on the shallow, relatively warm waters of Tomales Bay. It's a popular place for families, with a gentle, sandy beach and no surf to speak of, only ripples that lap gently on the shore. Kids can wade, swim, play in the sand, and run to their hearts' content. Chicken Ranch Beach is a fabulous place to raise your beach umbrella, spread out a blanket or two, and spend the day relaxing in the sun. Since it's on the opposite side of Inverness Ridge from the ocean, the summer fog often burns back for a pleasant sunny day tempered by cool breezes from the mouth of Tomales Bay a few miles away. The West Marin vistas from the beach are spectacular, too. Unlike the beaches at Tomales Bay State Park, there's no entry fee here—it's free, if you can find it.
When the temperature rises this summer and you need to get away from the inland heat, heading out to the beach is always a popular idea. Unfortunately, the beach experience in Northern California, even on a nice day, can be something of a challenge, and usually involves donning multiple layers of clothing to stave off the cold ocean wind. Swimming at beaches here often involves putting your life at risk, too, with icy water temperatures, pounding surf, and deadly rip currents posing a hazard to even the strongest swimmers.
Let's face it: most Marin beaches are beautiful and dramatic, but you're pretty much limited to walking and playing in the sand.
Fortunately, there are some great local alternatives, if you know where to look. One of our favorite places to hang out at on a sunny day is Heart's Desire Beach at Tomales Bay State Park. On the opposite side of Inverness Ridge from the chillier ocean beaches of Point Reyes, Heart’s Desire is a white stretch of sand running along a calm, sheltered stretch of Tomales Bay. There’s no surf to speak of, and the shallow water is warm and perfect for wading, swimming, and just having fun. The swimming area is surrounded by buoys to keep boat traffic away (except for kayaks and canoes; it's a popular launching and put-in place for those), and there's often an anchored raft to swim out to.
While much of the nation digs itself out from snowdrifts and bundles up against the elements, we in Northern California can enjoy some delightful mid-winter weather, especially out at the coast, where it's often warmer than it is inland at this time of year. One favorite coastal destination for families is Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. Drakes beach's popularity has much to do with its sheltered location, amenities, convenient location, and beautiful scenery. Drakes Beach can also serve as a jumping off point for further exploration of Point Reyes, especially during the winter and spring when the winter shuttle bus program is in place.
Drakes Beach—named after Elizabethan seafarer Sir Francis Drake, who in all likelihood paid a visit to the area with his ship The Golden Hinde in 1579—is situated on the shores of Drakes Bay at the southern end of the Point Reyes Peninsula. Backed by dramatic white sandstone cliffs, Drakes Beach is sheltered from the weather by Point Reyes itself, so when it's windy and foggy and inhospitable at the lighthouse or North Beach, it will often be warm and sunny at Drakes.
One of San Francisco Bay's most prominent landmarks, Angel Island played a considerable role in the history of California and is now one of the region's favorite spots for hikers, bicyclists, tourists, and anyone who just wants to get away from the busy life on the mainland. It's a great place for a family day trip, with plenty of opportunities to picnic, hike, learn, and just take in the surrounding natural beauty.
We took the kids (2 and 5) on the ferry to Angel Island last week, and they had a great time. My son was so excited to take the ferry ride over there. Everyone had a great time riding on the top of the boat and looking around at the water and all the passing boats. The ferry ride over there is very quick and painless. We stopped at the cafe for some ice cream cones, which were very good and worth the purchase. I recommend bringing a picnic, a blanket, and some sand toys. There's a neat little beach for the kids to play in the sand and kick around in the water.