Summer has arrived in the Bay Area, dazzling and puzzling us with the spectacular yet unpredictable symbiosis of sunshine and fog. On the day of the solstice, I joined throngs of like-minded revelers at Stinson Beach, soaking in 84 degrees of unfettered sun. Two days later, I awoke immersed in a cloud of thick mist.
During a Bay Area summer, you never know what you are going to get on a day at the coast.
On one particularly sunshiny day, my family and I ventured to Point Reyes for a picnic at Drakes Beach. Despite radiant blue skies without a trace of fog, we were met with relentless, biting winds that blasted our faces with sharp particles of sand.
Looking at our children dressed for the Arctic, shielding their faces and squinting their eyes, we decided to spare them the misery and find a friendlier spot. We ended up on the other side of the peninsula, at Heart’s Desire Beach on the protected shores of Tomales Bay State Park.
Stepping out of the car, the air was still and the sun was warm. Just a few miles from sandblasting and riptides, it felt like another world. I knew then how this beach got its name.
My wife noticed a guy sitting on a bench near the parking lot with a dog and a ukulele, wearing the same Flaming Lips shirt she was wearing that day. She proudly showed off her shirt to the guy who, equally excited, asked us if he could play us a song.
He had the music and lyrics to every Flaming Lips song in a black binder that he excitedly flipped through while taking requests. My four-year-old son, who is better versed in indie music than the average adult, chose “Waiting for Superman.”
I kept a beat with my fist on the table and we sang the song together.
We followed a thickly wooded path that led to the beach. Sword ferns covered the forest floor and moss hung from the branches that perfectly framed the picturesque beach, crowned by the cliffs of the rocky headland.
Strikingly beautiful, with calm, warm and shallow water, Heart’s Desire Beach is my favorite beach in the Bay Area for my 3 and 4-year-old kids.
The following is the rest of my top five, all of which are sheltered from the chilling battery of coastal wind, with shallow and calm water that is warmer than the ocean.
2. Crown Memorial State Beach, Alameda.
Once dubbed the “Coney Island of the West,” Crown Memorial State Beach was the site of a popular amusement center from the late 1800s until the Great Depression. It now boasts a great sandy beach, San Francisco skyline views, picnic spots, restrooms and perfect East Bay weather. Explore interactive exhibits on the flora and fauna of the Bay at the Crab Cove Visitor Center and marvel at their 800-gallon aquarium filled with native wildlife.
3. Schoonmaker Beach, Sausalito.
The marina at Schoonmaker Point makes the already calm Richardson Bay even more placid at this picturesque spot popular with little diggers, waders and swimmers. With restrooms, free parking, cool boats to admire and popular brunch spot Le Garage nearby, this 2.3 acre sandy beach is a great spot to spend a Saturday.
4. China Camp Beach, San Rafael.
San Pablo Bay’s tranquil waters make China Camp Beach a great place for wading, swimming or splashing. It is also a great place to skip rocks.
What makes this beach unique is that it stretches along what remains of a 19th-century Chinese fishing village. Established initially as a fishing camp by Chinese workers at a nearby dairy ranch to earn extra money, it grew into a town of 500 residents, supporting general stores and even a barber shop. Three million pounds of shrimp were harvested here annually, dried on the nearby hillside and exported to China. One descendant of these pioneering fishermen remains and operates a charming snack bar at the village, which also features a small museum depicting the settlement’s history.
There is no fee to enter China Camp State Park, but it costs $5 to park in one of their lots. Restrooms, changing rooms and outdoor showers are all available.
5. Lake Temescal, Oakland.
With a long sandy beach, calm and shallow water, restrooms and a convenient location near Highway 24 and the Caldecott Tunnel, this beach offers a peaceful urban escape with minimal planning required.
One of the three original parks established by the East Bay Regional Parks District, the parkland surrounding this former drinking water reservoir includes two play structures and numerous picnic sites. Parking costs $5 when the kiosk is manned and a small beach fee is sometimes collected ($3 for adults, $2 for kids, under 1 is free).
While nothing compares to the drama and immensity of the ocean, these beaches offer more reliable weather, inviting water and peace of mind that the kids can splash around safely, allowing you enjoy the beautiful setting.
What are the best beaches for little ones near you?
Tell us in the comments below or, better yet, submit a place for publication.
Neil is a full-time dad, writer and recovering criminal defense attorney. He lives in Mill Valley with his wife and two kids.