Plein Air Painting Sites in Northern California

Plein Air Painting Sites - Northern California

California is such a huge and diverse State that we are dividing it up into at least two sections to begin with. Plein Air Painting Sites in Northern and Southern California. Additional divisions may be needed as this section grows.

California is the perfect plein air painting state for so many reasons.

A mild climate that is perfect for getting out there and enjoying Mother Nature's visual feast almost any time of year.

An almost unbelievable bounty of scenically magnificent painting sites, from Burney Falls in the North Eastern part of the State, the Napa and

Sonoma Wine Country,San Francisco Bay Area, Monterey Bay Area, Big Sur, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe...the list goes on and on.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live here, give thanks every time we go out painting.

If you are visiting our wonderful State and look forward to painting here, Welcome!

Enjoy the following list of possible places as a starting point.
Plein Air Painting Sites in Marin County, California (Just North of San Francisco)
Sonoma Wine Country Sites

Lake Tahoe and Sierras - Painting Locations

Golden Gate Bridge View - Lands End Park - San Francisco

California's visual icon, The Golden Gate Bridge may be viewed and painted from wonderful Lands End National Park which is south of the bridge.  To get there: Map and directions

Lots of free Parking - Bathrooms open until 5.30pm each day.  A small Cafe is also on site.  Hike the trail for 10 minutes to the headlands where you will find lots of shade plus this killer view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is  The best place to paint it.

California Classic Landscape - Mt. Hamilton Range near San Jose

Fabulous classic California golden hills studded with black oak trees. We highly recommend this painting spot - no people, clean bathrooms and fresh drinking water nearby. When you enter the park, the painting site we used is on the left near the entry station. There are a number of shade trees where you can paint with this fantastic view of rolling hills. Peace and quiet, no traffic. Just bird song and the wind.

Plein air heaven! To get there: Exit Freeway 101 or 280 on Alum Rock Av. in south San Jose. Head for the mountains on Mt. Hamilton Road. Joseph Grant park is half way up the mountain.

In addition to the site mentioned above (near the entrance) there are many other spots further into the park that are good plein air spots. If you go all the way to the top of Mt. Hamilton (4000 ft.) you will find the Lick Observatory and amazing views. It's worth the drive.

Moss Landing Harbor and Salinas River State Beach - Plein Air Painting Sites

Moss Landing Harbor - Take the turnoff from Highway 1 right next to the restaurant "The Whole Enchilada" - on the right you will find the Harbor Master's Parking Area and Office. Park here (you need to pay a small parking fee) - paint right next to the harbor - lots of boats - mostly working fishing vessels, cranes and sometimes, sea lions and sea otters.

There is a public toilet and a soft drink machine.

Salinas River State Beach - Past the Harbor Master's parking area - cross over the narrow bridge over the Salinas River going towards the ocean - immediately on the Left you will see the Salinas River State Beach parking area. Go as far as you can and park - there is a trail that goes along the river bank and out to the beach. Great spot for lots of different paintings. See photo above... Don't use the portable toilets at this spot - they are totally gross. Use the Harbor Master toilets just down the road instead.

Monterey - Old Fishermens' Wharf - Plein Air Painting Site

Plein air painting on Monterey Bay - Old Fishermens' Wharf area of the city of Monterey is wonderful. Boats of all kinds including fishing boats, yachts and old rowing boats; ocean, rocks and beach; wharf buildings and pelicans; people of every kind including musicians playing for change; subject matter for painting is endless.

Observation Deck at the end of Old Fishermens' Wharf is open to the public and provides a fabulous view of all of the above subject matter, plus a slightly more private place to paint from. Lots of restaurants and coffee nearby, plus a restroom.

Park in the paid parking lot for Old Fishermens' Wharf (it's well sign posted from the exit on Route 1 - Just follow the Old Fishermens' Wharf signs. We were at this spot very recently and the cost to park is $2.00 per hour.

Big Sur Coast

ROCKY POINT - CARMEL This is THE best place for painting the Big Sur Coast without being run over by traffic on Highway 1.

To Get There: Take Highway 1 10 miles South from Carmel - and the wonderful parking lot is located on the Right(Ocean) side of the road on a bend in the road. It is well sign posted. Park in the Lower lot.

Recent Update July 2013 - While at Big Sur I stopped at Rocky Point Restaurant to see if we can paint in their parking lot - the place has new owners. They are fine with people painting there but don't want our cars parked there - so if you go, don't park for more than 2 hours - they will tow your car! You will need to drop off your painting gear, then park your car up on Route 1 and hike back in - bah humbug! - however, it is private property, and I can understand their reasoning. it always pays to ask permission before assuming it is OK to paint on private property:)

Check out the above link to their home page so you can see the views. What a treat

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur To Get There: 37 miles South of Carmel on Highway 1 - Turn Left (inland) to park. Bathrooms available.

Take the trail on the oceanside to access amazing views of the beach waterfall and Big Sur coast. Early afternoon is a good painting time at this site. Early morning isn't so good due to everything being in shadow. No food available. Take water and your picnic. Hike in is about a 10 minute walk.

Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel, CA. To Get There: Drive South on Highway 1 thru Carmel - Point Lobos Reserve is about 2 miles South of town on the Right. Pay the entry fee ($10) and proceed into the Preserve Once inside the preserve, there are many different painting sites - We will list 3 favorite spots here to get started.

These three Plein Air Painting sites alone could occupy an artist for years - such is the diversity of terrain and beautiful things to paint. FYI Point Lobos Preserve does not allow pets of any kind to enter. They are also very strict about enforcing "rules" about staying on the marked trails, not eating food outside of the picnic areas. This is due to the overwhelming number of visitors that come to Point Lobos every day. Parking is usually difficult to find so better get there as early as possible if you plan to paint in this area. If you are a painter who likes peace and quiet, this isn't the spot for you as you will get a lot of people walking by your easel or engaging you in conversation.

Whalers Cove at Point Lobos Picnic tables right by the ocean and rocky coast line - quite protected from the wind. Either paint close to the parking lot or venture up the steep rock steps onto the headland. Paint from this area with great views all around or keep going - take the left hand fork in the trail - walk around the headland and explore magical views with great reflections of a sheltered cove on the other side. The painting shown above was done from this spot in the trail. This is a bit of a climb.

Full Bathrooms at the parking area. Lots of scuba divers come to this area for diving. During Feb/March & April Gray Whales visit this area and come right into the Cove. Also pods of dolphins. Watch out for thieving seagulls who will take your picnic lunch, bag and all!

Cypress Point/Loop Trail at Point Lobos This Loop Trail has at least 4 or 5 amazing painting sites - the only down side is that some of them offer very little room to set up and allow for visitors to pass by. One of the best spots also has the most space to breath and set up - Take the right hand side of the Loop trail (do not take the North Shore trail by mistake) - within a few 100 yards you will find a spur trail to the right that takes you to a truly magic spot - good for morning or later afternoon painting - it also offers shade.

Full bathrooms available at the parking area at Cypress Point, also a docent center for ranger tours about the geology and wildlife at Point Lobos.

China Beach at Point Lobos Right at the end of the road - follow the signs to get there. Picnic tables and bathrooms near the parking area. You can paint near the parking area with minimal walking.

One of the challenges about painting at this spot and at Point Lobos in general, is that there are a lot of visitors crowding the trails. If you are a relatively new plein air painter and are bothered by hords trooping by your easel, then this may not be the place for you. If it doesn't bother you and you enjoy chatting with new people, then this will be perfect!

To get to an amazingly gorgeous spot and for a view of China Beach itself requires a bit of a climb up the steep stone staircase - keep walking and you will find a view over looking China Beach and the Big Sur Coastline going south. Mother seals can be spotted with their babies hauled up on China Beach's sparkling white sand beach. The turquoise/emerald water is so clear you can see everything underwater.

17 Mile Drive and Pebble Beach

17 Mile Drive is world famous for its' fabulous coast line and exquisite golf courses. Plein air painting there is one of life's great delights as well. Be prepared to pay $10 per vehicle to enter this private enclave. Exit Route 1 just before Carmel at the exit marked "17 Mile Drive" - pay the entrance fee at the gate. They will provide you with a map.

The only public restrooms along 17 Mile Drive are located at Bird Rock which is between Spanish Bay and Fan Shell Beach just before Cypress Point Golf Club.

Last week we painted at a spot just south of Bird Rock area - magnificent views in all directions so a good spot to set up for a day of painting. Bring your lunch and water. One could always to to Spanish Bay Resort for a delux lunch out if you are feeling wealthy.

San Mateo Coastline - Between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, California

Bean Hollow State Beach

Just South of Pescadero on Route 1, Beach Hollow Beach is one of those gems that doesn't reveal itself fully until you are out of your car. Most of the beautiful cove and beach is hidden from the road. Take the turnoff and park in the small lot - there are bathrooms and trails. This is one of my personal favorite beach painting spots.

Great painting sites include right where you park - picnic tables available - or you can take the trail North and find many wonderful painting locations overlooking the dramatic rocky coast.

Pescadero State Beach

Pescadero State Beach is approx. 33.6 miles north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1 or 14 miles south of Half Moon Bay - the drive is spectacular as you are right on the ocean most of the way. During the months of January and February it is common to spot gray whales in the ocean right from the road. Watch out for cars pulling over!

This Plein Air Painting Site is a wonderful spot if you want to paint exiting wave and rock paintings - big waves breaking on shoals of rocks - views up and down the coast - picnic tables, bathrooms. No running water, so bring your own. For food you can take the road into the little town of Pescadero which is less than a mile from the beach area. Delis for sandwiches or Duartes Tavern and Restaurant for seafood.

Pigeon Point Light Station

This site contributed by: James Kowlczyk - United States

"Pigeon Point Light Station" is a terrific spot to paint. It is situated on a cliff approximately 20 miles south of Half Moon Bay. The lighthouse is 150 high and views of it off of CA-1 are terrific. I pulled off CA-1 just south of the lighthouse onto some dirt roads that were rough but drivable. Nice view of a very rocky shore/beach,surf and lighthouse. There are no restroom or eating facilities. Plenty of places to set up an easel and no crowds to deal with.

North-Eastern California - Burney Falls/Mount Shasta

Burney Falls at McArthur Burney State Park The State park is N.E. of Redding and six miles North of Highway 299 on Highway 89 near Burney.

Morning light is the best time to paint Burney Falls - take the paved trail and paint on that trail. The morning sunlight hits the white foam of the 129 ft. high waterfall - the sparkling droplets create a rainbow which arches over the gorge. Take a jacket for this painting excursion. The snow melt water temperature causes a big drop in temperature between the top and of the Gorge and the base of the waterfall.

This is truly a most spectacular plein air painting site.

Stay at the Campground which is within easy walking distance of the Falls. The Campground is excellent with nice hot showers - it is a California State Park.

The Pacific Crest Trail passes right next to the Burney Falls Trail.

Lots of other painting opportunities exist right in this area.


At over 14,000 ft. in elevation, Mount Shasta is an inactive volcano in the Southern Cascade range of mountains. If you visit in June, or July, you can paint the majestic, snow capped sister mountain to Mt. Fuji in Japan in it's winter glory without having to freeze to do it.

Take Route 97 exit off Freeway 5 in the town of Weed - go East on 97 and within a half mile you will encounter Lincoln Avenue. Go Right on Lincoln Avenue (towards the Mountain) - take another left almost immediately - there is an open space where you can park and paint. The view is killer - a 180 degree view looking at the sacred mountain. Truly a special plein air painting experience. Many more Plein Air Painting sites coming - building in progress
Marin County Sites - Just North of San Francisco
Sonoma Wine Country Sites
Lake Tahoe Plein Air Painting Sites
Southern California Painting Sites
Back to Painting Sites

Return to Home Page