California's Big Sur. Ireland. Southern Oregon. Victoria, Australia. Iceland.
All of these locations are regarded as some of the most photogenic coastlines in the world. Their towering cliffs and stormy seas bring life into a photo like few other locales can, and photographers flock to them in response. The imagery produced can be stunning. However, more and more you start to see the same photo. The same rock. The same subjects across thousands of artists, drowning out the creative nuances of each image.
But what if you didn't need to go to Iceland, Australia, Ireland, or even Oregon? What if I told you that world-class coastline was just an hour away from San Francisco? And better yet, that it isn't flooded with photographers. You'd ask for proof, and that's just what I'm about to show you.
Welcome to Davenport, California.
- Easy access, just 200ft from the road.
- Plenty of rock structure
- Towering cliff-sides
- Sea caves
- Can get crowded on weekends
- Crumbly cliffs, watch out.
- Subject to rogue waves
Davenport beach is probably the best beach on our list when it comes to bang for your buck. It's big, has beautiful sand, and a variety of rock structure to aid your compositions. The beach can get busy during warm weekends, so I'd highly recommend visit on a weekday.
To access this beauty, park in the large dirt lots along Highway 1, just as you pull into Davenport. You really can't miss them. Gather your gear, make sure no valuables are left out in your car (general rule), and follow the path across railroad tracks and down to the beach. Easy as that.
Once you've got your feet sandy, you have two options. You can head South, to the rocky end of the beach, or you can head North, towards the caves and cliffs. If you choose the former, you'll be greeted with some wonderfully sculptured rocks, worn into scoops and bowls by the sea. You will also be in a great position to shoot the local sea-stack, a large tower of rock rising up about 50 feet into the surf. Even farther South, and you've got a fantastic rocky channel. Just be careful, the rocks are slippery, and rogue waves will some along to fill the channel with 4-6ft of surge on occasion. It could be a deadly mistake, or at the very least, a costly one.
Here's just a sampling of what you'll find to the South:
Now let's head North. As I mentioned, on this end of the beach you've got fantastic cliffs, but you've also got a variety of small caves. The only thing is, these caves periodically fill up with sand. At the far tip of the cliffs you'll find the largest of the bunch, extending some 40 ft or so back into the cliffside. If it's filled with sand, that just gives you another reason to visit again! Even so, a wide-angle lens can make a half-filled cave appear like a massive cathedral of stone. Don't hesitate to give it a try, I sure did on a recent engagement shoot!
And don't forget about those fantastic cliffs! Winter sunsets are best. I'd recommend using a graduated neutral density filter to help even out the exposure between sky and cliffs.
Davenport Gulch (My made-up name for it)
- Great rock structure
- Access to large rocky plateaus
- Very private
- Wonderful, green algae
- Steep access trail, littered with broken glass, sometimes poison oak
- Strong incoming waves. Great for photos, just don't get washed away
Our next location is directly North of Davenport Beach. Literally, don't even get in your car. This one is walking distance. Just head North along the railroad tracks, and stop about 50ft or so before you reach the trees ahead on your left. If you look directly to your left, you'll see two paths heading into a small cove. If you've got good footwear on, give it a try!
What you'll find below is a small cove of mostly bare rock, with a little bit of sand here and there. Much of the rock towards the mouth is covered in lush, green algae. Shoot in the cove, or clamber up the short wall to the left and you've got access to an entire plateau of wave-crashing, vertigo-inducing rock. Just watch out for the occasional big wave, for your sake and your gear's.
Cement Factory Beach (Davenport Bluffs)
- Fantastic cliffs
- Very private
- Unique abandoned pier pylons
- Great for sunsets
- Steep access trail, bring proper shoes
- Waves can be high during storm surges
What we've got here is a classic scenario of great photos coming at the cost of taking some risks. I'll say it right now, I don't encourage you to try this beach, but if you do, the rewards are many.
To access this small, private beach, drive just a quarter mile up the road past our Davenport Beach parking lot. Maybe not even that far. On the left of Highway 1, you'll see another dirt parking lot, albeit in somewhat better shape than the one we just used for Davenport Beach. Park your car, and head across the railroad tracks up onto the Davenport Bluffs. Feel free to check out the cliff-sides, but be careful, people have fatally fallen in nearby coastline of similar structure.
When you're done tempting fate, walk North along the cliffside path. Soon, you will see a medium-sized beach come into view far below. Keep walking and you should come across the beginnings of a trailhead down along the cliff. I'm using the term "trail" loosely here. The path is steep, the rocks are loose, and you will definitely want hiking shoes of some sort. Keep three points of contact at all times, and take it slow. At the bottom of the trail there's a large concrete drain housing. Hop off it down to the sand, or climb down the metal beam which is usually propped up against its side. Can you say tetanus? Just be careful.
Once you get down the beach, you've got cliffs extending on both sides to the waters edge. Your options are limited, but they are great options. Starting on the beach and extending some 200 feet into the sea are a fantastic series of pylons, once used by the now-defunct cement factory in Davenport. Broken pipes still wash up on shore, and cormorants sometimes nest atop the pylons. It's truly a unique scene, and fantastic for sunsets on a cloudy day.
Shark Fin Cove
- Great perspective from above and below
- Relatively easy to access
- Large rock structure
- Small cove, crowds easily
- Hit or miss during algae die-offs
Shark Fin Cove is a unique place. It can be the best of the local spots, or the worst. Sometimes it sports beautiful, fine sand. Other times, the entire length of its small beach of covered with piles of rotting seaweed. On weekdays, this small cove is a perfect retreat from the wind. On weekends, it starts to feel crowded with just eight or so people to share it with. The bottom line? Drop by Shark Fin each time you pass it, you never know when you'll get a good day at this fantastic cove.
Head South on Highway 1 from Davenport. You'll likely see a car or two also stopped adjacent to a metal gate. Park there, and take the short trail down into the cove. It's doable in sandals, if you're careful.
Facing the sea, Shark Fin is laid out as follows: To the left, you'll find a small cave. Just big enough to shoot a model in, or perhaps a happy couple. To the right, you have a small beach, maybe a 100ft or so in length until it dead ends into the surrounding cliffs. Both offer great compositions, but the money shot lies right between the two. Head straight out, and wrap around to the left. You'll see a large rocky plateau, covered in vibrant green algae and shallow pools of seawater. You'll also have a front-row seat to the massive sea-stack for which this cove gets its name, and the waves which crash against its base. I've yet to make use of the shimmering pools, but Shark Fin is a favorite of mine for its sheet versatility. You can do a long and short exposures without needing to hardly move, yet the rock structure complements both.
Bonny Doon Beach
- Wide beach, great for telephoto work
- Friendly hobos
- Interesting rock channels to the right
- Nearby to secret spots! (See below)
- Sometimes: Naked old men
- Can get busy on weekends
Ah, Bonny Doon. Land of naked old men, wide sandy shores, and inspiring rock structure. Now those are two things I never thought would appear in the same sentence.
Sure, Bonny Doon is one of the regions well known nude beaches, but in all honesty the number of times I've actually come across freebirding old men is minimal. The number of awesome compositions to be had, on the other hand, are many. So next time you're in town, head South of Davenport on Highway 1. Check out Shark Fin if you like, and then keep on heading South. Soon enough, you'll see a large, elongate parking lot on the right hand side. Snag a parking spot, put on those sandals, and head up the trail. A short walk across the old railroad tracks, and you're standing on one of the most visually appealing beaches around.
If you're looking for rocks, head North. Towards the end of the beach you'll find a rock ledge, and a somewhat secluded cove beyond. Two large rock platforms make up the substrate at water's edge, and between them a channel stretches out into the open sea. Give it a shot! A 10 Stop Neutral Density filter like a Lee Big Stopper will really do wonders here.
And on top of it all, if you're around at the right time of year you might just get to see a whale or two! I've personally seen large Grey Whales come right up to the surf.
Coast Dairies Beach
- Great rock structure at both ends
- Pristine sand, plenty of bird life
- Whales! (May - June)
- Very little parking
- A bit of a walk (800 ft or so)
This beach is new to me, and I was happy to have found it. I plan on returning quite a bit. The volume of rock structure is fantastic, and the privacy is well appreciated on a busy day. My very first trip out I had the entire beach to myself. Except of course for the 10 or so Grey Whales passing by. How many times can you say that has happened?
To get to the beach, park in the small dirt lot on the right side of Highway 1 (heading North), right at the Laguna Rd exit. The parking area is tiny, and fills up with maybe 10 cars. Once you wrangle for a spot, walk across the street to the small trail opening. Follow the path into Coast Dairies State Park, and you'll be at the beach in no time.
If there is one thing that stands out for me about Coast Dairies, it's the privacy. On a weekday virtually no one goes to this beach, and even on the busiest of days there simply isn't enough parking to accommodate crowds.
At the beach you'll have two options. Head left and enjoy crisp, crunchy sand followed by fantastic rocks, or turn right, and check out the algae coated cliffside. Also to the right are some great flat planes of rock, similarly painted green with algae. I've yet to nail a composition for this right side, but the far left side offers a fantastic channel.
To find that channel, head left. All the way down. Past the flocks of birds sunning themselves, and into the rocky substrate. Keep going, and eventually you'll have to clamber over a small rise in the structure. You should now be able to see the channel now, formed between a long peninsula on the right, and cliffs on the left. I'd caution against walking out on the peninsula itself at anything other than the lowest of tides as it is occasionally washed over by rogue waves. Also, watch out for slippery rocks. The channel's depth is roughly 15 feet. Between that and the 10ft walls surrounding it, you'd be in for quite the swim if you fell in.
But as I mentioned earlier, appropriate risks can produce excellent imagery! I plan on returning to the location in winter for sunset, and I'd recommend you do the same as well.
These are just a few of the locations I've been fortunate enough to frequent. The number of small coves and beaches lining Davenport is incredible, each with its own unique rock structure. Don't take this guide as a full accounting of what the region has to offer, it's really more of a introductory course.
I've even left a few spots off the list, just to encourage you to get out and explore on your own. For example, the shot below was taken near Bonny Doon Beach, see if you can find the location! No worries if you can't, I'll probably add it to the next write-up.