Tide pooling in San Francisco

golden gate

One of the most delightful pleasures of visiting the ocean are the colorful sea stars and anemone revealed in swirling pools of receding waves. I was stunned and brightened by the tide pools I encountered at Marshalls Beach. It was the first time I’d seen tide pools since moving to California, and it brought back fond memories of tide pooling with volunteers from the Seattle Aquarium at Puget Sound beaches.

Marshalls Beach is a “hidden” beach in San Francisco, located just south of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s part of the Presidio, a National Historic Landmark in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Yes, it’s a national park!

“Presidio” is Spanish for military post or fort, and that was its role beginning in 1776 when it was built and occupied by Spain all the way to 1994 when the U.S. Army lowered the American flag for the last time and it officially became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Today it retains its historic character with a modern twist: Among military buildings, cannons, and batteries are museums, hiking trails, restaurants, coffee shops, and even hotels on the Presidio grounds. Highlights for me have been the Walt Disney Family Museum, a sculpture called Spire by artist Andy Goldsworthy, and Marshalls Beach.

I hadn’t expected to go tide pooling when I visited Marshalls Beach on a foggy, windy, and cold afternoon. I was actually carrying my tripod, hoping to take some sunset pictures, but quickly abandoned that idea when I got to the parking lot and saw how overcast it was. My mood was pretty overcast too—this wasn’t exactly the clear day I hoped for to research the Batteries to Bluffs Trail for Modern Hiker.

Marshalls Beach is located midway along the Battery to Bluffs Trail. I just happened to have timed my hike with low tide, and found I could walk much further north on Marshalls Beach than I had on a previous visit.

I kept walking towards the Golden Gate Bridge, and as I paused to take pictures of the ocean and black oystercatchers, I began noticing huge fluorescent anemones bound to the barnacled rocks. I then began looking more carefully and couldn’t believe how many more anemone I saw as well as sea stars. It was cloudy, but I was swimming in technicolor.

Tide pooling at Marshalls Beach

Mileage: 2.0 mile roundtrip hike

Elevation gain: 300 feet

Trail conditions: Steep wooden steps, dirt trails, and sandy beach

Parking: Langdon Court parking lot. There are no restrooms here—the closest I believe are at Baker Beach. Break-ins have happened here, so take care and take your valuables with you. You can also park here on Lincoln Boulevard and take the Batteries to Bluffs Trail north to Marshalls Beach.

Parking pass: None for Langdon Court parking lot, parking is free

Trail directions: Take the Batteries to Bluffs Trail from the southwest corner of the Langdon Court parking lot and descend 240 feet in 0.4 miles to a signed junction with Marshalls Beach. Turn right and descend the last 50 feet to Marshalls Beach. Head north towards the Golden Gate Bridge for just over 0.5 miles to the very edge of the rocks. I found the best tidepooling in this area.

Tips

  1. Check the tide levels at NOAA’s San Francisco station before you go. When I went, the tide level was about 1.0-1.5 feet and I saw some pretty great stuff! At higher tides, it’s more slippery and difficult to reach the northern part of the beach because the bluff jutts out about halfway to it.

  2. Wear tall rubber or waterproof boots. The water’s freezing, and it’s nice to be able to get close to the tide and rocks to see sealife and stay warm and dry.

  3. The Langdon Court parking lot is a great base for more exploring—take the Coastal Trail south to Baker Beach or north to see more batteries and the Golden Gate Bridge. Steps from the parking lot is Battery Godfrey and the Golden Gate Overlook.

tidepooling in sf