Less than an hour from San Francisco, California, lies a four-mile long sliver of coastline sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountains. Stinson Beach has a lengthy, soft sand beach and a low-key town center with little more than the essentials: a post office, grocery, two restaurants, and a handful of stores. At low tide, the Bolinas Lagoon at the town’s far end welcomes hundreds of harbor seals and thousands of birds. The friendly village vibe, abundant wildlife, trail-filled foothills, and vast, dune-backed beach feel a world away — making a weekend at Stinson Beach a refreshing break from urban living.
Where is Stinson Beach and how to get there from San Francisco?
As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco, you’ll see the Marin Headlands, where the North Coast Range begins. You’ll exit to 101 North at the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach exit and follow signs that will take you up and over these mountains. Whether you take the road along the coast or through the interior, the path involves lots of winding turns that scare car sickness-prone people away from even visiting Stinson. (Just keep your eyes on the road and you’ll be fine). You’ll arrive in Stinson about thirty minutes after you’ve exited the 101 North — unless you’ve left late on a sunny weekend. Depart San Francisco before 10:00 AM to avoid bad traffic. While arriving by car is much easier, the Marin Transit bus does provide service from Sausalito or Mill Valley into Stinson Beach and Bolinas.
Stinson Beach weather
Stinson Beach is often socked in, a result of hot air inland pulling up cold air from the chilly Pacific Ocean. But the blanket of fog and the beach’s grassy dunes lend a meditative air to the place. The nicest days are often in spring and fall, when inland temperatures are lower and hence don’t tug up the cold fog from the ocean. June is usually sunny, but climate change may alter that in favor of fog. Pleasant weather can last even into November, depending on the year; a Thanksgiving weekend could call for down jackets or for surfing. If it’s foggy in the summer, sometimes both the north end of the beach and Bolinas across the channel are sunnier, due to the topography.
What to do in Stinson Beach
Hiking the Coast Range Mountains
The mountains that keep Stinson Beach feeling so remote are full of evergreens that disguise several spectacular trails. On the forest drive into Stinson, several trails depart from the Bootjack and Pantoll campground parking areas. One of these is the Old Stage Road that takes you up to the West Point Inn, an off-the-grid lodge at 1,800 feet with spectacular SF Bay and city views. Keep going and you’ll eventually arrive at the 2,570-foot peak of Mount Tamalpais.
You can also access plenty of trails from town. The Steep Ravine Trail starts behind the fire station, taking you uphill a mile and half — maneuvering a wooden ladder at one point — to the Pantoll Ridge. You could head right back down, or descend instead on Old Mine Trail and then take the Dipsea Trail into town. The entirety of the Dipsea Trail runs 7.5 miles from Stinson to Mill Valley, so stay on the Stinson side and enjoy the ocean views. In fact, “The Dipsea” is an annual race where runners edge past each other on steep, narrow, root-rutted paths. The century-old race is perilous, so be happy you’re just hiking it.
To avoid a poison oak rash, hike with long pants and socks. If not, wash your legs afterwards with cold water and dish soap or Tecnu, both of which can remove the poison oak oils before they get into your pores.
Visiting a great National Park Service
On the way to Stinson Beach, you’ll pass signs to Muir Woods National Monument, a magical forest of varied trees and stunning old growth redwoods whose size you have to see to grasp. Some of the redwoods, which are well over 200 feet in height, are more than a thousand years old — and they have another thousand years to grow. When you arrive, ask about guided ranger tours, which are held often. The park is open every day, and reservations are always required. On your way back to Stinson after visiting Muir Woods, grab a beverage at the Pelican Inn, an Old World pub that looks like it was transported straight from the British Isles.
Thirty minutes north of Stinson Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore is another great spot for hiking and wildlife-watching. Tule elk and snowy plovers are among the resident animal species. Elephant seals often relax on the beach, while whales migrate just offshore. The park contains 80 miles of coastline, with memorable locations like Alamere Falls, which gushes straight into the sand, four large beaches, and the Point Reyes Lighthouse — the latter of which is only reached via a narrow staircase down a very long ridge. If you head to Point Reyes for some hiking or beaching, pick up savory sandwiches at the Inverness Park Market on your way in.
Going to the beach
Naturally, the main draw is the 3.5-mile-long Stinson Beach itself, which you access via a parking lot by the town center. You can only reach the opposite end of the beach, next to the channel into the Bolinas Lagoon, by walking the three-plus miles to get there — unless you own a home, or know someone who does, in the gated Seadrift area. On the beach, you can look out at distant San Francisco and the Farallon Islands across the water, weather permitting.
Surfing at Stinson Beach
Surfing is big here, even if the waves in Stinson are rarely epic, and the Live Water Surf Shop will fill any surfboard and wetsuit rental needs. You can sign up for lessons via Live Water as well. Summertime swells tend to be weak all along the coast, but they improve in the fall, when you can find clean, longboard-friendly left-handers at The Patch surf break in Bolinas. Rent gear or arrange lessons at the Bolinas 2 Mile Surf Shop.
Shopping at local shops
If your perfect weekend includes shopping, you’ll find a couple of options in Stinson Beach, starting with the aforementioned Live Water Surf Shop. Sweatshirts with Live Water’s catchy No Sharks logo make great gifts, as do the beaded bracelets and other beachy accessories. Destination Stinson is the place for beach cover ups and framed photographs. Pick up a book at the Stinson Beach Bookshop or, sign up for a Marin Library card and borrow books from the Stinson Beach Public Library. You’ll find upscale gifts like handmade ceramics and elegantly jarred jams at Parkside Cafe Marketplace.
Perusing art galleries
Stinson is better suited for admiring the beauty outdoors, but the Claudia Chapline Art Gallery does have some amusing sculptures made with found objects. Over in Bolinas, the Bolinas Gallery is much more extensive, showcasing several lesser and better-known local artists. Its garden passage out back is a pleasant place to sit.
Restaurants at Stinson Beach
The Parkside Cafe is really three restaurants side by side. A tiny kiosk in the middle serves coffee and baked goods and is the go-to for your morning java. To its right, the Parkside Snack Bar looks like your typical beach burger and fries vendor serving teens and kids at a standup window. The huge difference is that the burgers are made with grass-fed beef, the fish tacos come with freshly made salsa and avocados, and the home churned soft serve ice cream is all-natural.
On the left side is the Parkside Cafe restaurant, which has a cozy indoor dining room with a fireplace and an inviting outdoor area where the wooden tables are shaded by umbrellas or warmed by heat lamps. The market fish of the day, often a locally caught halibut, is plated with perfectly sauteed veggies, homemade pesto, and black roe. It’s a terrific dish. The fish and chips and the vegetarian quinoa also hit the spot. Skip the fish tacos, though, which are tastier at the Parkside Snack Bar.
Address: 43 Arenal Avenue, Bolinas, CA 94924
The Breakers Cafe has a pleasant outdoor area and a rather long food menu with all kinds of tacos, wraps, sandwiches, and burgers. Stick with something basic and you’ll be satisfied. Since the Sandpiper Bar burned down (the building is being replaced), Breakers is currently the only bar in Stinson Beach, serving such thirst-quenchers as micheladas, margaritas, and “Adult Slurpees.”
Address: 3465 Shoreline Hwy, Stinson Beach CA 94970
This Bolinas restaurant serves every meal of the day and brunch on weekends. The huevos rancheros are a great morning choice. Since the fishermen who ply these waters keep their boats moored in Bolinas, don’t hesitate to order the Fresh Catch tacos or fish n’ chips. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, the Coast Cafe also has you covered, with a baked tofu or fresh pesto tagliatelle. The wine list is astounding.
Address: 46 Wharf Road, Bolinas, CA 94924
The Bolinas People’s Store
Bolinas grew up in the 1970s as an artists colony and hippy haven. While monied SFers buying property in Bolinas are coming in, the old hippies fortunately remain. The organic, vegetarian, and cooperatively run People’s Market grocer is emblematic of this. Every afternoon, you can buy freshly made tamales or soups at the market and enjoy them out in the courtyard.
Address: 14 Wharf Road, Bolinas, CA 94924
This great little restaurant housed in an old house in Bolinas is only open Thursday through Sunday most months, but call ahead to be sure and to make a reservation. The dining area is split across the first floor’s separate rooms, so your table will be in a cozy little nook. The menu changes weekly, but always features a creative and tasty salad, crispy fries, and artisanal, thin-crust pizzas. Add in super service and a great selection of wines and you have a delightful dining experience.
Address: 11 Wharf Road, Bolinas, CA 94924
Grocery shopping at Stinson Beach
If you decide to cook at your cottage or rental, stop at Good Earth Natural Market on your way into town for excellent produce and meats. The quality is tiptop, but so are the prices, so you could also stop at the Safeway or Whole Foods in Mill Valley. The Stinson Beach Market has nice local cheeses and meats, as well as bread from the Parkside Bakery, but the produce there is seriously limited. You could always drive to Bolinas and pick up crisp lettuce, just-laid eggs, and other goodies at the farmstand there.
Stinson Beach hotels and rentals
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We would have listed Smiley’s as a place for a drink, but we don’t want you to drive the dark road back to Stinson afterwards. The problem would be solved if you just stayed in Bolinas, and even at Smiley’s itself. It’s best to choose one of the six guestrooms behind Smiley’s iconic wooden two-floor building, which resembles an actual 1800s saloon. You could stay in the suite above the saloon, but if it’s a Friday or Saturday you’d need to close down the bar before crawling upstairs — as weekend revelers can be noisy.
Address: 41 Wharf Road, Bolinas, CA 94924
The Sandpiper Lodge offers queen rooms and kitchenette rooms, as well as studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom cottages. Although it’s a short walk to the shore, you won’t have ocean views as you’ll be behind the sand dunes that keep the beach looking healthy and natural. The rooms are simple and refined, with white walls and, in the cottage, white wooden ceilings. The petit hotel fills up quickly, so book ahead.
Address: 1 Marine Way, Stinson Beach CA 94970
Eleven Wharf Road
On the upper floors of the same converted house of the Eleven restaurant are two simple but lovely rooms you can stay in. They are rented out through Airbnb in a listing for room one and another for room two.
Address: 11 Wharf Road, Bolinas, CA 94924