At St. Robert Bellarmine grade school, the original church had been converted into a gym and the girl’s locker room was the old sacristy. Whether it was the horror of revealing our flesh to each other or to a room that once held the body of Christ, we all did our best to conceal ourselves. By high school, I could whip my gym clothes on through my school uniform with aplomb.
Then I went to a hippie college and got over my body issues. During visits to woodland saunas and dips into frigid Lake Superior, clothing wasn’t just optional, it was frowned upon.
I recently realized that it’s been more than a decade since I’ve dropped trou in public. Sure, I’ve visited bathhouses and spas, and there’s been some skinny-dips in secluded spots, but those don’t count. So I headed to SF’s waterfront to get exposed to nude beach culture.
Before unbuttoning anything, I did what any half-witted San Franciscan would do. I consulted the SF Bay Guardian ’s annual best nude beaches guide. Over the past 35 years (!) the publication has become the local bible on the subject. I also roped my husband Steve into accompanying me in all my coastal cruising. I wasn’t about to do this on my own.
I learned from the Guardian that there are four nude-friendly beaches in SF. We ruled out one, a northern stretch of Fort Funston, because it was rated poorly. Instead, we started with Mile Rock Beach, aka Lands End, an itsy-bitsy boulder-spotted spit of sand, the path toward which veers off from the main artery of joggers and bikers that traverses Lands End. A long, twisty stairway took us to the beach on a blustery Saturday afternoon. We found that this is one popular spot—but not in the way we expected.
On weekends, it attracts families and couples who like to keep their clothes on. We’d prepared for a maiden voyage into nudie-town, but after checking out the vibe, we backed off. It was so packed and the beach so small, getting naked at Lands End would have felt no different than doing so on the 30 Stockton bus during rush hour.
“Lands End is not the best place for weekend trips,” Gary Hanauer, the Guardian’ s nude beaches expert, would later tell me. “It’s more of a midweek lunch crowd.” Duly noted.
So timing your trip is important. But overall, Gary says there has been a sharp increase in the numbers of both nude-friendly beaches and nude beachgoers since he started the guide. In fact, he now crowdsources many of the yearly updates and additions to the guide, which covers the entire Bay Area, because there are far too many beaches for him to personally visit.
If you’ve been to Baker Beach you likely already know that North Baker Beach is clothing optional. So after our defeat at Lands End we decided to hoof it up the coast and try our luck there.
Tramping through the provincial, manicured streets of Sea Cliff isn’t really the best way to psyche oneself up for public nudity. By the time we arrived at Baker I was wound tighter than a knot. Once we hit the steep staircase, which demarcates the beginning of the clothing-optional area, and spotted an older gentleman doing squats and stretches in the buff, I knew I had to just take the plunge.
So we scoped out a nice spot inside a wind-protected alcove between the volleyball court and a garish sculpture made of flotsam. Closer to the sculpture was a small group of mostly men and a few women. And around the edges there were a few men on their own, some clothed, some not.
We spread out a blanket, undressed rather speedily, and then quickly sat down trying to act like it was no big deal that we were naked. “I know this sounds totally weird and you’re going to laugh,” I told Steve. “But I feel exhilarated!”
It suddenly felt like we were part of a little community. I had a really strong urge to know what all these people around us did for a living. I overheard one guy mention that he was on his way to Outside Lands. How many times have I been to a concert, or on BART, sitting next to someone who just came from a nude beach? They walk among us.
With the exception of one nude guy who kept walking up and down the beach, as if on patrol, everyone was laid out, either sunbathing or reading. Aside from the surf rolling in, it was very quiet. The conversations were all rather subdued and Steve and I spoke in very low tones.
“Uh, how do I make sure I get sunblock on my, ya know, without looking like a perv?” Steve asked, as if I would know. In the end, he spent a fair amount of time lying on his stomach to avoid the whole situation.
Once I was past the initial “exhilaration,” I settled in and chilled out. The sun was hot and because the wind is blocked from both the south and the north, there was only a hint of breeze. People walking near the water, just 30 feet in front of us, were decked out in jackets, with hoods up and zippers zipped. It was surreal.
During San Francisco’s late August hot spell, I picked Steve up at work a bit early one afternoon and we headed to our third and final destination. It’s known both as Marshall's Beach and as Golden Gate Bridge Beach. The second moniker is the most apt. The bridge looms over the long, skinny beach like a living postcard.
Marshall's Beach, Gary mentioned, is popular among gay men. And, oh yes, it is. Especially on a hot day.
Steve and I pulled into a lot on Langdon Street, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We walked down the long, windy, and very well maintained section of the Coastal Trail to the beach.
As soon as we hit the sand, we could already see lots of exposed flesh. There were a few nude women, including one who was wading out to sea, and another one posing topless for her boyfriend. But as we walked toward the bridge, there were zero women and lots of men. Some guys were alone or in couples but there were a few big groups, too. Among the throngs wearing their birthday suits, the clothed ones really stood out.
The vibe was totally different from our visit to Baker, where people seemed mostly interested in reading, napping, and sunbathing (though on crowded days they play a good deal of volleyball). Marshall's Beach was boisterous. People walked around more, and given the extraordinary warm weather, many swam. There was eating and drinking and tomfoolery. It was like being in a gay club, minus the bar, music, and pants. According to the Guardian guide, however, more heterosexuals are starting to enjoy Marshall's au naturel these days.
We set up camp in gay town, lay out (we smartly slathered ourselves in sunblock before arriving), and enjoyed some peaches and beverages. It was warm, but not as hot as the rest of the city, and it felt like the weekend. This time, instead of sticking to our blanket, we got out into the water and swam around a bit. It was awesome.
I’m not about to book my next vacation at a clothing-optional resort, but it was fun to wade into this subculture. I learned a few things, such as the difference between naturists and nudists. Naturism has roots in late-nineteenth-century Germany and was born of a philosophy that urbanization had removed us too far from our natural state. It promotes spending time in natural settings to get closer to Momma Earth. Nudists, on the other hand, are more into “social nudity.”
A naturist will go for a naked hike, whereas you’ll likely find a nudist poolside, at a nude resort, smoking a cigarette, explains Rich Pasco, an active member of the Bay Area Naturists.
Uh, I think I’ll pass on both of those options. Being nude at the beach, I liked. It sounds cliché, but it really was liberating. Beaches are also quasi-private environments. It was easy for us to exist apart from the crowds, even within Marshall's active social scene.
And my favorite part of nude beachcombing? Not having to constantly check my bathing suit for random nip-slips or hinder-binders.
San Francisco’s nude beaches are in close proximity to each other along the western shore. But check out the Guardian ’s annual guide for specific directions and best times to go.
Legalese: You won’t be breaking the law by disrobing, but keep it clean. Lewd behavior will earn you a ticket…or worse.
Don’t forget to apply sunblock everywhere and preferably before you arrive.
In a secluded spot on an uncrowded day? Toss a bathing suit on a nearby rock, so passersby get a little heads-up.