5 Must-See Tide Pools in San Francisco

December 7, 2021

Before you roll your eyes and tell me that you’re not a surfer, hiker or bird/whale watcher, allow me to introduce you to my favorite activity as a San Francisco resident.

It all started when I was moving to California two years ago.  I knew that I was heading to 200+ days of sunshine, beautiful beaches, awe-inspiring national parks, and weather that should only be permissible in romantic comedies.

What I did not know was that I would find a passion that will most likely last a lifetime; tide pools.

Tide pools from Canada, Copenhagen, New Zealand, and even Australia get most of the press but there are some fantastic tide pools right here in the U.S.!

Exploring tide pools is the perfect activity for solo travelers, couple travelers, or couples with children. They are also the perfect mix of adventure along with sightseeing and so incredibly Instagram-worthy. 

Let’s explore what tide pools are, what marine life you can see there and the 5 best tide pools around San Francisco.

What are Tide Pools?

Tide pools are small “pools” found on a rocky ocean shoreline filled with beautiful marine sea-life. They are mostly found on intertidal shores which is the area that is above water at low tide and below water at high tides.

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Also, they are filled with beautiful sea creatures such as solitary anemones, aggregating anemones, limpets, sea stars, hermit crabs, sea urchins, by-the-wind-sailor and so many more. 

The best part about tide pools in San Francisco is that there is no complex equipment, gear or training required to enjoy them. All you need is to read the tide charts, put on an outfit that preserves body heat, and don some rain boots to enable walking on slippery rocks. 

Close up photo of a tide pool in California, USA

photo credit: Prasanth KV via Facebook

What Can You See at Tide Pools in San Francisco? 

Most tide pools contain a number of overlapping species so let’s start with an overview of what you can expect to find in them. 

Your adventure begins with the first set of rocks itself. Closest to the shore you’ll find a large number of limpets, barnacles, snails, striped shore crabs, hermit crabs, jellyfish, and by-the-wind sailor.

Snails, Crabs, and Jellyfish

In varying colors of white and brown, limpets look like flat seashells and barnacles look like spiral ones. They are accompanied by several species of snails which range between having spiral shells to conical shells in brilliant colors like red, coral and even transparent.

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These glorious beginnings also include crabs hidden in the wet and dry crevices between rocks. Occasionally these first few pools will also include jellyfish and by-the-wind sailors. Jellyfish are easy to spot but by-the-wind sailor looks just like a brilliant blue shell shining from under the water. If you spot the shell, look closely and you will see a jellyfish-like creature attached to it. 

Mussels and Anemones

Walk a few paces ahead and you enter the delightful world of California mussels, anemones, tide pool sculpin, starfish, and hopkin’s rose. California mussels are indistinguishable from the landscape at first so watch your step as you advance along the rocks. Two species of flower-like anemones are most commonly observed at tide pools, solitary anemones and aggregating anemones. 

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However tempted you may feel, do not touch either of them. Anemones are predators and you’ll definitely be rewarded with a stinging sensation!

They are occasionally accompanied by starfish, making the little pool look like a universe of stars and flowers. Adding a dash of color to this universe is a brilliant pink slug called the hopkin’s rose. As all of them are relatively stationary, the darting grey tidepool sculpin fish breaks the spell with its playful movements. 

Wide shot of people looking in the tide pools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: NOAA's Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary via Facebook

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, San Mateo County

The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a treasure trove of marine creatures. As the name suggests it is a protected marine zone that is home to brilliant tide pools and a restricted beach dedicated to seals!

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Of all the tide pool species described so far, you can expect to see almost all of them on a good day. I have personally spotted shore crabs, hermit crabs, by-the-wind sailor, hopkin’s rose, limpets, snails in at least four colors, solitary anemones in green and blue, aggregating anemones and tide pool sculpin.

When to Arrive

It is prudent to get to the Reserve two hours before low tide and gradually enjoy the pools as they appear. The rocks at the Marine Reserve tend to be extremely slippery so make sure you wear your rain boots. 

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The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is about a 30-40 minute drive from San Francisco and whilst the Bay Area has some public transport, it is not suitable for these locations.

Closing hours of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve may vary by season but it is usually open from 8AM throughout the year. To begin to plan your visit to this reserve, you need these tide charts. Tide charts contain two low tides and two high tides a day and the best time to get there is two hours before the low tide so you can see as many tide pools as you can.

Over looking where the ocean meets the rocks during sunset at Bean Hollow State Beach in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks via Facebook

Bean Hollow State Beach, San Mateo County

Located about a 20 minute drive from Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and about an hour from San Francisco, Bean Hollow State Beach competes with the former in every possible manner.

Their tide pools can be accessed by descending a short staircase which is a bit slippery on account of the sandstone that stretches along the coastline.

Marine Life

This rocky shoreline is covered in Tafoni, which is rock that contains holes and patterns due to the weathering process. It makes for a stunning backdrop against the tide pools. 

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These tide pools are abundant in shore crabs, hermit crabs, limpets, barnacles, snails, tide pool sculpin, and the occasional jellyfish. The best part of this beach is that in certain parts of this beach, you can even watch little waterfalls form when a large wave crashes against a steep rock. 

When to Arrive

Bean Hollow is also open from 8AM to Sunset with the closing hour changing with the season. You can get all the latest scoop on the beach hours and any applicable restrictions here. Access the tide charts here to find a low-tide under one foot and you are guaranteed a wonderful time! 

Wide shot of Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park with a light house in the distance on the left and a bench in the center with a cloudy sky and bird in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park via Facebook

Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, Pescadero

This beach is a short five minute drive from the Bean Hollow tide pools which is highly beneficial as you can cover both on the same day. Pigeon Point is very different in landscape as it is relatively flatter and is accompanied by a stunning lighthouse.

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The access to the tide pools is also much flatter. These tide pools are resplendent with jellyfish, starfish, crabs and anemones. I have to admit that the jellyfish have been my main attraction to this beach. Ever since I spotted a jellyfish within a minute of arriving at the beach, I have been addicted to these tide pools. 

Much like the first two beaches, the best way to access this beach is by car and the driving time is about an hour. Pigeon Point beach maintains the same hours as the other beaches, you can check any local guidance regarding the same here. All you need is to find the low tide hour that works for you here and you’re all set. 

Shot over looking rocks and the ocean with a blue cloudy sky at Natural Bridges State Beach in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: Natural Bridges State Beach via Facebook

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

As the name suggests, this beach has some natural rock bridges along with abundant tide pools and monarch butterflies. In short, it is a microcosm of California complete with gorgeous sunsets and golden sand.

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This beach is ideal for a winter staycation as this is also the peak season for the monarch butterfly migration. With wheelchair access and beach wheelchairs for rent, this beach is one of the most accessible ones in the area.

Marine Life

Head down to the tide pools via a short descent from the parking lot and enjoy a fascinating sight of anemones, starfish, crabs and algae at the tide pools. You may even have a rare migratory whale sighting out at sea! 

When to Arrive

Being almost an hour and a half’s drive away from San Francisco, this beach is possibly the furthest of all those listed so far. However, if planned right, it can be an entire day of fun and make for a great day out. As always, make sure to check the opening hours and tide charts before you plan your visit. 

Looking over the beach with rocks on the right side and the Golden Gate Bridge in the background on China Beach at sunset in San Francisco, California, USA

photo credit: Adam Rion Birmingham via Facebook

China Beach, San Francisco 

On account of this beach’s close proximity to the city and spectacular views, it is an ideal choice. China Beach is resplendent with history as it is the beach where Chinese fishermen used to dock during the Gold Rush Era.

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It is located between Baker Beach and Lands End and the spectacular experience begins as soon as you descend the steps onto the sand. As you look to the left, you see the entrance to San Francisco Bay and to the right you can see Golden Gate Bridge.

In the direction of Baker Beach, is a section of rocks where a beautiful arrangement of vertical marine life adorns the rocks. Yes, you read that right. The anemones, mussels and starfish on this beach occur vertically! 

Transportation

Since this beach is within the boundaries of the city, there is easy access to it via public transport. If you are in favor of public transport, you can take the Line 1 bus from California Street & Presidio Avenue or the tram line M from Van Ness Station to 19 Avenue & Winston Drive from where you will change to bus route 33 and get off at 25th Ave & El Camino Del Mar for the beach.

If you want to take advantage of your proximity to the beach, grab a taxi and you will be there in roughly 20 minutes.

When to Arrive

Since the marine life is arranged vertically along the rocks, the low tide is extremely important for a successful visit here. Read the tide charts to find a low tide as below a foot as possible. This beach is usually open from 06:00 AM - 07:00 AM until sunset but it would be wise to check the current hours here before planning your trip. 

In conclusion, tide pools are a magical experience that adds a whole new dimension to your being. I have seen children and adults take equal amounts of delight in this experience.

The best part about this is that choosing to visit tide pools within the country is also a sustainable and eco-friendly option from an environmental point of view. So, fill your trip to San Francisco with a dash of marine magic and you will never regret the time when domestic tourism transported you to a dream zone!

What Tide Pools in San Francisco Did We Miss?

Have any favorite tide pools in San Francisco you love to visit? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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