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Now’s the time to see sea creatures during low tide in San Francisco

At very low tides, huge rocks covered in mussels and anemones appear on China Beach in San Francisco. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

All the anemones are zhushing up their tentacles for their time in the sun. 

Starting this weekend, some of the lowest tides of the year happen during daylight hours, making it prime time for a meet-and-greet with San Francisco’s intertidal residents.

A giant green anemone flirts at low tide. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

One of the easiest places to dip a toe—or, perhaps, more accurately, two entire calves—into tide pooling is right on the walk between China and Baker beaches. The five-minute drive seems like a short walk on the sand when low tide reveals a path between the large rocks that jut out to separate the two city strands.

At very low tides, a path between large rocks appears on the sand between China and Baker beaches. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Just below the soon-to-be-refurbished China Beach bathhouse, the waves recede to uncover giant rocks covered in mussels, barnacles, limpets and, of course, lots and lots of blobs of sand-covered anemones closed tight in the open air. 

Low tide exposes mussels and anemones at China Beach. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

What the walk lacks in actual tide “pools,” it makes up for in novelty: Watching crabs skitter for a hiding spot between the mussel shells with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background is a testament to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s preservation of these urban coastlands.

Long-billed curlews enjoy bridge views during breakfast at low tide on China Beach. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Sea birds race to pick out all the delicacies uncovered by the receding mouth of the Golden Gate. Small sea caves dot the base of the neighborhood’s namesake Sea Cliff, which is topped by multimillion-dollar mansions. The work of fast-acting artists is exposed on the normally underwater sea walls.

Artists must have worked fast to make their marks below the tide line near China Beach. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

On low-tide days, you can walk all the way from China Beach to Baker Beach and even to Marshall Beach near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

There’s a lot to see, but always keep one eye on your watch and one eye on the ocean because before long, the entire area will be under the waves again.

During minus tides, walkers can stroll from Baker Beach to Marshall Beach near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

How To Walk from China Beach to Baker Beach

Check the SF tide tables for low tides of -0.5 feet or less. For example, on Sat. May 20, the tide drops to -1.1 feet at 6:45 a.m. Plan to start your walk at China Beach at about that time or earlier. 

Upcoming 2023 dates with very low tides that take place a bit later in the morning include May 21-23, when the peak low tide will hit between 7:30 and 9:00 a.m.  The same goes for June 5-9, June 20-21 and July 5-7.

Consider dropping a car with a dry set of shoes and pants at the Baker Beach parking lot. You’ll be glad you did.

Don’t be tempted to harvest the mussels or other edibles you might find. Mussels can harbor a poisonous biotoxin making the harvest of all shellfish illegal for most of the year in California.

It’s also possible to explore San Francisco’s intertidal zones at Crissy Field and Aquatic Park. More expansive, proper tide “pools” are found at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, about 30 minutes south of the city.  The San Mateo County Park provides a guide to tide-pooling creatures and etiquette in English, Spanish and Chinese.

Trails cross the dunes to the sand at Baker Beach. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard