This congested California county is the best place for beachcombing

April 28, 2022

For me, beachcombing has always been this:

A typical Fort Bragg haul.

My mom would give us empty milk cartons and send us out on the beaches of Fort Bragg, and we’d find a bunch of broken shells. Occasional whole mussels (yawn), broken sand dollars, and top shells without their tops. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun. When you’re a kid, every broken shell is a treasure.

Just for fun, here is a picture of me and my sister on the beach in Fort Bragg. I’m sharing this photo with you at great personal expense because ew, look at me. I’m the one in the red jacket.

Actually, just keep on scrolling past, please.

Anyway, then I turned 50 and found out that all the best beachcombing is in Monterey County, like five hours to the south. Who knew.

I love Fort Bragg. It’s what I think of when I think of Northern California beaches — lonely, foggy, and cold. The buildings are all weathered, it’s windy most of the time, and at night you can hear the foghorns. There’s hardly anything left on the beaches, though, because the tourists took it all. Even Glass Beach doesn’t have any glass on it anymore.

Monterey, on the other hand, is in the Bay Area. It’s the opposite of lonely. There’s traffic, the bagels cost like eight bucks, and the beaches have tons of shells. Whole top shells, limpets, welks, scallops, oysters, cockles, olive shells, and an abalone shell some guy waved in our faces while proclaiming “these are really hard to find!” If you want beachcombing, Monterey is the place. 

Sunset in Monterey Bay.

Take care, though, not every beach in Monterey county allows beachcombing. Asilomar State Beach, for example, has a strict “no collecting” rule. It’s still totally worth a visit, though, because you’ve never seen so many shells in one place. On some parts of the beach, you’re walking over mussel shells like gravel. I mean, they’re just mussel shells but it still somehow feels wrong to hear them crunching under your feet.

Mussels underfoot. Let’s also pretend like I do not need a new pair of shoes.

Anyway, Fort Bragg … go for the windswept vibe, but don’t expect to find much on the beaches. For beachcombing, travel south to Monterey County. The aquarium is pretty cool, too.