Swimming in California

Most of my swimming has been in California. It’s a fabulous place to swim and I feel lucky to live here. Seeking out swims has also led me to new parts of the state I’ve missed out on in my nearly fifty years of living here. Some aren’t on this list because I don’t even know if I could find them again or it was just me hopping in on the side of the road somewhere. But here are most of the places I ventured to in California, beginning with my home swims in the San Francisco Bay and then broken into swims to the north and swims to the south.

San Francisco Bay Area

Albany Bulb, Albany

My home swimming spot. It is a lovely place to swim, looking out across to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. It was where I started open water swimming and it is a great place to begin. There are no strong currents or waves. A sandy beach makes getting in and out is easy (except in the very lowest tides where it can get mucky). The only occasional fear (for me) is the friendly, but sometimes overly curious seal who has been known to frolic around us. And the absolute best thing about the bulb is the incredible community of swimmers. Every day at 8 am you will almost always find at least a few swimmers getting in; with others going before and after. At the weekends there is usually a big group at 8 am we often have coffee and treats afterward. Later in the day parking gets tough (especially on weekends) and windy afternoons bring out the kite surfers, so I tend to reserve the bulb for morning swims.

Berkeley Marina, Berkeley

A Marina picture from back when we use to wear wetsuits

What I love about swimming at the Marina is that it always feels festive. Swimmers, sailors, kayakers, windsurfers; there are always people in the water enjoying the bay. Sometimes there’s a band playing onshore or an exercise class in the parking lot of HS Lordships. If I’m going to swim alone, this is my favorite spot because I don’t feel alone. It’s also my go-to spot for an afternoon swim because, although there are all kinds of wind-powered vessels in the water, for the most part, everyone co-exists and looks out for each other (unlike the kite surfers on a windy afternoon at the bulb who don’t seem to be expecting swimmers and scare me). Though I wouldn’t swim here without a bright cap and floaty (though I’ve seen others do so). Currents aren’t too strong or risky here. There are stunning views of the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, and the Oakland and Berkeley Hills. There are also showers and hoses to rinse off afterward.

At low tide get in at a little beach to the right of HS Lordships. It’s a slightly rocky descent to a sandy beach (at low tide, the beach disappears when the tide comes up).

The rest of the time the docks in front of Cal Sailing Club are a popular entry point (and the point with access to hoses and showers after). The end of the middle dock has the shortest drop-off to the water for the easiest entry (and, more importantly, exit). Most of the swimmers swim to the right, out to HS Lordships, and, for a longer swim, around the corner to the old pier.

If you are interested in an organized open water swim experience, Odyssey Swim Club swims out of the Berkeley Marina.

Keller Beach, Point Richmond

Keller Beach is one of the more popular East Bay swimming locations. Every day you can find someone to swim with at Keller Beach. East Bay Open Water Swim has a google group with nearly 1,000 members who regularly post invitations to swim all through the day, all week long (I don’t know what to link to, but hopefully folks can find the group by searching the name and google groups). Keller Beach also boasts an incredible view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge peeking out from behind Angel Island. There is a bit more of a current here than at the bulb, but it’s relatively protected. They also have showers.

Keller Beach is my favorite spot for a sunset swim and a full moonrise swim (full moonset is amazing at the bulb, but moonrise not so much because it rises to the east where the blaring lights of the Golden Gate Fields racetrack obscure the majesty). It’s an easy entry from a sandy beach.

Aquatic Park, San Francisco

Aquatic Park is the most famous of the local outdoor swimming spots. Two world-class rowing and open-water swimming clubs are located here—the Dolphin Club (founded in 1877) and the South End Rowing Club (founded in 1873). It’s a lovely, protected cove with a big sandy beach to get in and out. It’s a popular swim spot so you will nearly always have company. You couldn’t invent a more quintessential San Francisco setting: On one side is the famous Ghiradelli Square sign, which lights up at night and must be quite the sight for those swimmers who brave the dark. Directly across from the sign is Alcatraz, which looks incredibly close from here. Facing Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge peeks out from the left, and to the right is Hyde Street Pier with its tall ships. Inside the cove, it feels very safe and there is little to worry about in terms of currents, outside the cove it can be more challenging so best to understand the tides and currents before venturing too far.

Swimming North

Swede’s Beach, Sausalito

Hidden away down a steep set of stairs at the end of a small road in South Sausalito, this little beach is a great place to swim. Easy, sandy entry, beautiful views, and when I swam there (close to shore) no strong currents. I met a couple of other women who swim there regularly and they reported that the currents are usually fine close to the shore.

Paradise Cove, Tiburon

Another beautiful spot. When we swam here there was a big crew that was just getting out. We missed the chance to talk to them, but I got the sense that this is a regular spot for open water swimmers. You have to pay to park and then take a little walk down to the beach where there is a nice, sandy entry. We swam close to the shore and there was a pretty significant current on the day we swam so coming back was a lot harder than going, but we were close enough to the shore that it didn’t feel concerning. Bonus: ogling all the giant houses along the beach.

China Camp, San Rafael

China Camp Beach is a great spot. There’s a little cafe, a museum that tells the story of the Chinese fishing village that once occupied the spot, picnic tables, and a nice, sandy beach. It’s also a wonderful spot to swim. Pay to park at the beach (it’s $5 but the fee covers expenses of keeping the museum going so it’s worth it) and it’s easy to get in and out of the water. There are bathrooms and a shower to rinse off afterward. Swim out to Rat Rock and see the birds nesting. It is NOT a good place for a low tide swim as the black mud that you have to wade through to get to the open water is difficult to navigate. But it’s great at high tide.

Bass Lake, Marin

A little over two miles from the Palomarin trailhead on the Coast Trail, you come to a lovely little lake that offers beautiful, clear water for swimming. It’s deep and clean and surrounded by trees so you feel like you are in a secret hideaway. Highly recommended as a destination in itself or a stopping point on the way to Alamere Falls.

Heart’s Desire Beach, Tomales Bay

This is a magical beach along Tomales Bay. It tends to be calm, warmer than other places in the bay and it boasts a big sandy beach. There are other beaches along the bay and swimming from beach to beach is a beautiful adventure. Pay to park and it gets very busy on a warm, weekend day, so best to arrive early. We encountered seals and moon jellies (they don’t sting) on our swims.

Doran Beach, Bodega Bay

A two-mile stretch of beach along Bodega Bay, Doran Beach Regional Park offers lovely swimming as well as picnicking, barbecuing, and camping. With its sandy beach, easy entry, and calm waters, it’s a popular spot for swimmers. There is parking, bathrooms, and even a shower. When we swam there we encountered a seal, but there are regulars who swim there all year long and rarely see them close to shore.

Swimming South

Lover’s Point Beach, Pacific Grove

This is a gorgeous little cove in the Monterey Bay. Protected by a kelp forest it tends to get less surf than some of the other beaches and it’s a popular spot for open water swimming. Unfortunately, the wave action was too much for my wimpy self on the day we went, but I saw a bunch of other swimmers brave it. I look forward to going back and trying again. There’s street parking and an easy walk down a staircase to the sandy beach.

Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County

While staying in Pismo Beach last fall, I searched for open water swimming groups near me and found a group that goes out from Avila Beach all year long. I went back again in early January. It’s a great spot, with gentle waves, and a big sandy beach. I, of course, am terrified while swimming there because even gentle ocean waves scare me and sharks exist, but both times I’ve pushed beyond my fear and had a terrific swim here. The Avila Beach Dolphins swim here regularly all year long and can usually be counted on to meet at 11 on a Sunday.

La Jolla Cove, San Diego County

Last June my extended family rented a house in La Jolla for a week and, as I was just getting into open water swimming, I ventured down to the cove for a swim every morning. Each day was terrifying to me: between the wildlife (the beach is crawling with seals and sea lions, underwater is a marine preserve popular for snorkeling because it’s so rife with life) and the waves, I didn’t know what to be more afraid of. But all of those fears are mostly irrational; it’s a hugely popular spot for open water swimming–there are even buoys to mark your progress and a protected swimming “lane” where boats are discouraged. There are even lifeguards! It’s beautiful and fun and not to be missed if you find yourself in Southern California.