California is known for its beautiful sunny weather, the laid back attitudes of its residents, and a bit of a party atmosphere. So it’s high time I put together a list of the best beaches in California for you, so that you can use this beach bucket list to your advantage.
These gorgeous beaches span the California coastline from north to south, and are recommended to you by locals and travelers who have sacrificed their time to lay on beaches and swim in the ocean, just so you can find out which are the best.
Best beaches in California
Did you know that California boasts 420 public beaches along its 1,000 kilometre (655 mile) coastline? That’s a lot of Pacific Ocean to choose from!
The state protects these beaches with the California Coastal National Monument – which runs the entire length of the state’s coast and ensures the protection of its reefs, rocky outcrops, and islets within 22 kilometres (12 miles) of the shore.
RELATED: California coast road trip itinerary
This best beaches in California post is in geographic order, from south to north, to make it a little easier to find the beaches closest to where you are, or where you will be.
Coronado Beach, in San Diego, is consistently named one of the beast beaches in the state, and the US as a whole. Coronado Beach is dog friendly, so bring your pooch for a paddle!
Not only is it a beautiful beach, but the homes that sit behind it on Ocean Boulevard are the kind of mansions you’d dream of living in if you won the lottery.
Coronado is famous for the Hotel del Coronado, which was featured in the 1958 movie Some Like it Hot and the town is one of those quintessential “Californian” places that you’d picture in your mind’s eye.
Coronado Beach has enough lifeguards to go around, and even though it is popular, it never feels too crowded. If you’re visiting with young children, set up by the Hotel del Coronado to explore the tide pools and swim in calmer waters provided by a rocky sea break.
Written by Kelli Hogan from Compass and Coastline.
Want to spend a day at the coast? One of the most underrated and non-touristy options in San Diego is Windansea Beach.
Located in the beautiful seaside community of La Jolla, Windansea Beach is known as a local hangout and surfing hotspot. You’ll find stretches of sand for sunbathing, a rocky shoreline with big surf breaks, and even a palm-covered “surf shack” that’s a historical landmark.
One thing you won’t find at Windansea Beach is large crowds. Part of the charm of this local spot is that many tourists flock to other nearby beaches, leaving Windansea relatively quiet for most of the year.
The beach itself is rather small, and stretches for about half a mile in length. It’s located alongside a residential neighborhood and has a small parking lot and lots of available street parking. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer and most weekends.
There isn’t much in the way of public facilities like restrooms, showers, or water fountains, so you’ll want to plan ahead before you visit Windansea. There are, however, a handful of restaurants, a convenience store, and a small grocery market on nearby La Jolla Boulevard that are all within easy walking distance.
If you want to sunbathe, head to the northernmost part of Windansea for the biggest sandy area. Just be sure to find out what time the tide comes in! High tide happens twice a day, and since Windansea is a smaller beach, it will definitely affect how long you can stay. Luckily, a sidewalk runs the length of the beach, so if you don’t want to venture onto the sand you can still enjoy the views and breathe in the salty ocean air.
The stunning coastline means it’s next to impossible to take a bad photo at Windansea Beach! It’s not uncommon to see photographers, wedding parties, and even artists painting or sketching this tranquil spot. So be sure to bring your camera to capture the moment. Sunsets are also gorgeous, and there are several park benches where you can stop and enjoy the view.
Your pets are welcome too, and posted signs will let you know what time dogs are allowed on the beach.
There’s a reason Windansea Beach is beloved by locals and has been a popular spot for decades. If you’re looking for the best things to do in San Diego and want to soak up the sun, come and see for yourself what Windansea is all about.
La Jolla Shores Beach
In comparison to some other California beaches, La Jolla Shores is one long beach, stretching over a mile in length.
This means it’s pretty popular, and it’s not the beach to visit if you want to escape the crowds. However, it is a great place for kayakers, who tend to start at the beach’s south end and make their way out to see La Jolla Cave.
There are lifeguards here to watch over the swimmers and surfers, and La Jolla Shores is a popular spot for picnics (there are two grassed areas), and sunbathing.
If you’re here for the seals and sea lions, you’ll have the best chance of spotting them at the sea caves and at the children’s pool.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Written by Taylor Deer from Brown Eyed Flower Child.
Located in Northern San Diego is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Not to be confused with a park, Torrey Pines preserves 3,000 of the United States’ most rare pine trees, salt marshes and it includes unspoiled beaches. It is important to note that no food or drinks are allowed at Torrey Pines, except water; dogs are not permitted; there are no trash cans available; smoking is prohibited and drones are forbidden.
Torrey Pines should not be missed during a trip to San Diego, California, because it is absolutely breathtaking and offers miles of scenic trails for all different types of hikers.
Whether you are a beach or mountain lover, you will definitely be in heaven at Torrey Pines. Each trail offers ocean views that will take your breath away. You could also admire the beauty of picturesque cliffs overlooking desert landscapes, stunning flora and fauna such as cacti and colorful flowers, fascinating wildlife and a lagoon habitat for migrating seabirds.
There are eight hiking trails at Torrey Pines: The Guy Fleming Trail is considered the easiest trail and it is a smooth hike where you could see the Peñasquitos Marsh, that is perfect for bird watching, and you may also catch dolphins and gray whales at the overlook! The Razor Point Trail is the second easiest trail at Torrey Pines and it’s where you can enjoy spectacular views of the coast, sandstone gorge and unique pine trees. Another easy trail is the Yucca Point Trail that is a garden loop that connects to the Beach Trail.
A moderate trail, that is personally my favorite, is the Beach Trail. The views of the coast are the best along this specific trail and it also offers a few challenges such as steep paths and stairs that lead down to the beach. Once you actually get to the beach, I recommend walking along the Pacific Ocean and admire all of the cliffs and cool rock formations!
The Patty Grove Trail is a quiet and moderate hike that includes paths through woodland trails and starts and ends with stone steps. This short trail is also where you could enjoy views of stunning California wildflowers. Another moderate hike, and also the longest at Torrey Pines, is the Broken Hill Trail. This 2.5-mile hike leads to an overlook and what is great about it is that the trail is also wheelchair-accessible! (The Discovery Trail is also wheelchair-accessible and one of the shortest trails at Torrey Pines.)
The most difficult trail at Torrey Pines is the High Point Trail that ascends all the way to the top, where you can enjoy views of the entire state reserve. You can also take in the views of neighboring La Jolla and the Greater San Diego area along with the nearby mountains.
You can visit Torrey Pines every single day through sunset. If you have never been to the west coast before, you will be in for a real treat when you come here!
Newport Municipal Beach
Newport Municipal beach is in the record books for being the largest recreational boat harbor on the US west coast.
As you can imagine, it’s also a long beach, and spans eight kilometres (five miles) of coastline in Newport Beach. The Orange County beach allows everything from swimming, skating, bike riding, and surfing.
This is a popular beach, so you’ll have trouble finding a parking spot. If you can grab one of the nearby beach houses to rent for the duration of your stay, you’ll be glad that you can walk to the beach.
If you want to stray from the water’s edge, there is plenty to do and you’ll find lots of great restaurants to choose from.
Huntington State Beach
When you’re talking about the best beaches in California, you really can’t go past Huntington State Beach. In Orange County, this beach stretches for 5.6 kilometres (3.5 miles) and is one of five beaches that make up “Surf City USA”.
The state beach area itself is sprawled over 121 acres, and it is a popular spot for swimming, fishing, playing volleyball, or basketball. But surfing really took off here when Hawaiian-born surfer George Freeth visited to demonstrate the sport.
It is such a popular surfing spot because of the swells that create prime waves that crash onto the beach. But the types of waves and the shape of the sandbars make this a dangerous place for surfers who have little experience.
The other Huntington State Beach draw card is the fire rings that are dotted across the beach, that are available for bonfires.
Written by Lauren Wilson from Ready, Set, PTO.
Looking for a beautiful beach in the Los Angeles area that’s not overcrowded? Hermosa Beach, located about six miles south of LAX, is the perfect spot. From beach volleyball to cruising along The Strand, you’ll never run out of fun things to do here.
You can find metered street parking on Hermosa Ave – one of the main roads in town – or park in the parking garage near the pier. Looking for some grab-and-go food to take with you to the beach? Check out Paradise Bowls for amazing Acai bowls and smoothies, Burrito Brothers for an awesome breakfast burrito, or hit The Green Store for a variety of great drink and snack options.
Hermosa Beach is known for their beach volleyball scene – it’s always a fun idea to get a game going with your friends on one of the public volleyball nets next to the pier. If you’re visiting in the summer months, there are often big beach volleyball tournaments happening that are free and fun to watch!
Pier Ave (the street adjacent to the pier) is lined with palm trees and filled with fun bars and restaurants with outdoor patios. It’s a perfect place to kick back with friends and have lunch or happy hour after your beach day. Check out The Deck – a dive bar on The Strand that’s popular among locals – for a beer with a view!
Another great thing to do in the area is to rent a bike and cruise on The Strand (the boardwalk adjacent to the beach). You’ll see people rollerblading, biking and walking their dogs up and down The Strand all day. Ride about 1.5 miles up to Manhattan Beach and check out the roundhouse aquarium on the pier, or park your bike and walk up to all the shops located on Manhattan Ave.
If you’re just looking for a chill beach day with no activities, that’s fine too! The beach is super wide here so there’s plenty of space to find a secluded spot and relax. On a clear day, enjoy the view of the mountains in Malibu to your right, and Palos Verdes to your left. You can also spot Catalina Island off in the distance!
Manhattan County Beach
Visiting Manhattan Beach in the summer is not for the faint-hearted. This is a seriously popular beach, partly because of the 100 sand volleyball courts that are available to play on. It also hosts the AVP Manhattan Beach Open volleyball tournament.
Cyclists who ride the paved bike trail, called The Strand, are treated to beautiful views of the Pacific coast, south to Redondo Beach and north to Santa Monica.
You can visit the Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium, at the end of the beach’s pier, which is free to the public. Otherwise enjoy surfing, swimming, windsurfing, skating, or fishing.
It’s almost impossible to have never heard of Venice Beach. It’s one of California’s most quintessential stretches of beach, and one that’s prime for people watching.
At just 4.8 kilometres (3 miles) long, Venice Beach packs a punch because of the interesting neighbourhood it borders. Venice Beach is a the spot for artists, writers, and street performers, and its residents are proud of its bohemian style.
Stroll down the Venice Beach Boardwalk for a peek into some eclectic stores, or just while the time away at one of the coffee bars.
The fitness enthusiasts should head to the famous Muscle Beach outdoor gym to get some exercise in with their tribe.
Santa Monica State Beach
If you’re planning to visit Los Angeles, make sure that Santa Monica State Beach is on your bucket list. For starters the sand is soft as powder, and it’s in one of the trendiest parts of California.
But the real draw card here is the Santa Monica Pier, which is always busy, and boasts the quintessential ferris wheel and roller coaster.
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The Santa Monica Pier has been around since 1909, and is now home to an amusement park, games, food, and rides. It also has it’s own trapeze school if you like the idea of soaring through the air, and its own aquarium.
El Matador Beach
Written by Alana Koritzke from Periodic Adventures.
One of the most beautiful beaches in Los Angeles is El Matador State Beach. At the base of rocky cliffs, you’ll find this serene hideaway that is usually pretty empty! It makes for a great photography spot because lining the beach are beautiful rock arches and caverns that have been created by the crashing waves.
If you want to get to the final cavern, once you travel down the path from the parking lot to the beach, take a right and keep going right for as long as you can along the beach. You’ll have to pass under archways and dodge some incoming waves! Once you make it to the end, you’ll arrive at a beautiful cavern that looks out to the sea. It’s definitely worth the effort!
You might even catch some photographers setting up a picture perfect silhouette. I’ve seen a proposal and movie filming at this beach, so trust me when I say it’s beautiful. It isn’t the best for swimming as there are rocks along the shore, but I have seen people lounging around and tanning.
You can also bring a picnic down to the beach! Whatever your pleasure, as a Los Angeles local, this is the beach I always recommend going to!
Some things to note:
Parking: There is a free parking lot at the top of the cliff and free street parking along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
Address: 32350 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu CA. It won’t look like much from the road because the cliffs block the view.
To get to the beach, you’ll need to take quite a few steps down and walk along an unpaved path. Unfortunately, this beach is not handicap accessible.
There are lots of amazing seafood restaurants along Pacific Coast Highway including Duke’s Malibu, Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market & Patio Café, and Neptune’s Net! I highly recommend trying some seafood if you’re visiting El Matador State Beach.
Rincon Beach Park
To say that Rincon Beach, in Santa Barbara, is a popular surfing spot is an understatement.
Rincon is known as the “Queen of the Coast” and is one of the most famous surfing spots in the state. Making it a shoe-in on the best of the best beaches in California. It’s world-renowned for its waves that offer a long ride in.
Obviously, if you’re visiting, expect to come face to fave with a lot of people in wetsuits, with a board under one arm. It’s the home of the annual Rincon Classic Surf Competition.
The “beach park” is the home of a rockier beach than you might enjoy on the more southern beaches. However, it’s also flanked by beautiful bluffs that are covered in wildflowers in the spring, so bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the bluffs!
West Beach, Santa Barbara
If Stearns Wharf Pier, the oldest working wooden wharf in California, is not enough reason for you to head to West Beach in Santa Barbara, here are a few more.
There’s a bike path that goes from the beach to the UC Santa Barbara campus, and on to Butterfly Beach. Once you’ve seen the shops and stopped for a bite to eat at one of the restaurants on the pier, head to the Sea Center of Santa Barbara for a bit of interactive education on sea life.
As for the water itself, you can’t take motorized boats out onto the water. But if you’re into sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding, or any other non-motorized watercraft activity, this is your beach!
Onwards and upwards to San Luis Obispo, where you’ll find Avila Beach and (of course) its very own pier. I don’t think I’d seen as many piers in my life travelling the world, as I have in California.
Avila Beach is a small town in San Luis Obispo, and it’s a small beach, about 1 kilometre (half a mile) long. But it is a great place to bring the family and take advantage of the barbecue pits and volleyball courts.
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If you’re visiting with friends or your significant other though, take advantage of the wine tasting rooms, and art galleries in the area. The views from the beach are great, with the Pacific Ocean in front of you, and the rolling hills behind you.
Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
Pfeiffer Beach is accessed through a different entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and visitors are charged a separate entrance fee.
It’s a little difficult to find if you haven’t got the GPS fired up, so you’ll need to turn off Highway 1 onto Sycamore Canyon Road. This isn’t the best road for camper vans or trailers because of its windy nature, but if you stick with the road for two miles, you’ll get to Pfeiffer Beach.
Here you’ll experience Sycamore Canyon Creek flowing into the Pacific Ocean at the cove, which is not usually calm.
Explore the tide pools at low tide, visit Keyhole Rock, and head to the north end of the beach for the purple sand that is created by the manganese garnet rock cliffs. Don’t be surprised if you find some naturists frolicking in the purple sand though.
This isn’t the beach to come to if you want to swim or sunbath. Pfeiffer Beach is about the views, and taking in the atmosphere.
Carmel-by-the-Sea has long been a favourite weekend getaway for San Francisans, so it stands to reason that it has two of the best beaches in California.
The first one, is Carmel Beach, and is easy to find since it’s close to the Carmel town center. It’s has a beautiful, wide expanse of sand to frolic or sunbathe on, and it is flanked by some of the nicest houses you’ll see anywhere.
We’ve visited Carmel-by-the-Sea, and Carmel Beach quite a few times, although it’s always been on overcast days (hence the less than sun-soaked image).
Be warned that as we get closer to San Francisco and further north up the coast of California, the Pacific Ocean becomes decidedly chilly. You’re not likely to see anyone swimming at Carmel Beach, except for those in wetsuits and the die-hard ocean swimmers.
I did enjoy a run on the Scenic Bluff Path, and there is plenty of space on the beach for a picnic. If you get bored, head for a stroll into town for some shopping and wie tasting.
Spanish Bay Pebble Beach
Spanish Bay’s Pebble Beach is the second gorgeous beach you need to experience in Carmel-by-the-Sea, but this one is behind a paywall (for want of a less techy term).
It’s part of the 17 Mile Drive, which is a cordoned off scenic community that you need to pay to get into. Being a bit of a cheapskate myself, I wasn’t keen on forking our money to drive around this section of coast, but I’m glad I did.
Visitors take advantage of the smooth, large pebbles by creating rock stacks along the beach. If you’re more into enjoying the atmosphere, there’s a long boardwalk that you can take a stroll on without getting sand in your shoes or having to jump over rocks.
Capitola City Beach close to the northern end of Monterey Bay and it is a popular one. During the summer months and on sunny days you’ll find lots of people catching some rays here.
You’ll also find surfers and people fishing off the large pier, Capitola Wharf. Those brightly coloured buildings at the beaches back are mostly stores, that make the whole place a little bit happier.
Lifeguards are on duty during the busier times, and you can catch a twilight movie on the beach, live music, or an art show if you’re there at the right time.
Santa Cruz Beach
Written by Em, from That Travelista.
As one of the premier surf destinations in the world, Santa Cruz has no shortage of great beaches in its vicinity. But the most famous of its beaches, and the largest one, is Santa Cruz Main Beach. A visit to Santa Cruz Main Beach makes the perfect day trip while visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, or it can be a great destination for a couple nights itself.
With the Pacific Ocean in front of it, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk behind it, and the Santa Cruz Wharf to its right, there is absolutely no shortage of things to do while here. You can stick to the beach itself, spending the day playing some volleyball, taking a surf lesson, and dipping in and out of the water.
If you’d prefer some more adrenaline, split a day at the beach with a day at the boardwalk*, where you can alternate riding the roller coasters with stuffing your face in amusement-park favourites like deep-fried Oreos, funnel cakes, and corndogs on a stick. If you prefer a real meal, don’t worry. You can enjoy some proper food seaside at one of the eateries on the wharf, or head into downtown Santa Cruz for a meal with less of a beach vibe.
While the beach is open and free to visit all year long, it attracts intense crowds from the nearby Bay Area in the summer. If you are visiting Santa Cruz in summer, be sure to drive in either early enough in the morning to beat the traffic or later in the afternoon when the traffic subsides.
Once in Santa Cruz, you can park at one of the lots directly in front of the boardwalk, for between $5 – 15 for the day, depending on whether the boardwalk is open or not. Parking here fills up early in the summer, but other parking options include metered parking all around the city or cheaper parking lots a bit further from the beach.
* The boardwalk is open daily in the summer and shoulder months, but less frequently the rest of the year. Be sure to check the hours if planning a visit in the winter.
Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach is not a place you soon forget, as you can tell from the photo.
The rock arch is a favourite of local sea and bird life, as sea water laps at its foundations below. It’s also a great view point to catch whales migrating, and seals and sea otters playing offshore.
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Visit at low tide to wander amongst the tidepools, or climb the rocky cliffs that surround this beach. But the very best part about Natural Bridges State Beach is that it sprawls into grasslands and forest that attract thousands of butterflies in the colder months.
Pescadero State Beach
We’re big on state parks in California, so it’s not surprising that some of our best beaches are part of state parks.
Pescadero State Beach is one kilometre (one mile) long and is a stretch of sandy coves, rocky cliffs, places to go fishing, and tide pools to view. On the other side of the highway to the beach, you’ll find the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve, which is home to blue herons, kites, deer, raccoons, and foxes.
Dogs are not allowed on the beach or in the preserve, and the state also prohibits the collection and removal of anything from the beach including shells and driftwood. This isn’t a bonfire beach either, since it is such a wildlife friendly area.
Baker Beach is the very definition of a “city beach”, and is a favourite of tourists and photographers alike.
You’ve probably seen lots of photos of Baker Beach without even realising it, since it offers a great vantage point to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and is an escape from the city itself.
You might catch a glimpse of porpoises dipping in and out of the waves in the harbor while you’re visiting. Be prepared to be greeted by crowds and full parking lots at Baker Beach, but there won’t be many swimmers because of the gold water.
If you make it to the north side of the beach, you’ll probably be confronted by some nude sunbathers. But it’s San Francisco, so you’re probably already used to that.
We’ve hopped over San Francisco and we’re into the North Bay for a visit to Stinson Beach.
If you’ve ever visited Muir Woods National Monument before, you’ve probably heard of Stinson Beach, since there is a hike from the national monument straight to the beach itself.
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Tourists have been flocking to Stinson beach since the late 1800s and it’s no wonder, since it’s known as one of the best swimming beaches in the state. It’s also the place to be for water sports like wind surfing and kayaking.
Glass Beach, Fort Bragg
It might surprise you to find out that Glass Beach, in Fort Bragg’s MacKerricher State Park, used to be a garbage dump.
Now that the area has been reclaimed by nature, you’ll still see remnants of the dump in the form of tiny pieces of colourful glass, polished smooth by the weather and waves. It’s illegal to collect and take glass away from the beach though.
This is not a beach for swimming. As you can see from the picture, the coastline is rocky, and the waves and swell crashing against them make it a dangerous place to be in the water.
But it is a beautiful spot to hike the bluff trails, and enjoy the expanse of wild grass that sway in the breeze.
**Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links you don’t pay a cent more, but I receive a small commission, that is put towards the running of this blog.