With 840 miles of coastline, California is bursting with beaches—in SoCal, on the Central Coast, in Big Sur, in the Bay Area, on the North Coast—each with its own appeal. To make picking a beach—whether it’s for a day, a week, or a lifetime—a little easier for locals and out-of-towners alike, we’ve followed the California coast north, picking out the best beaches along the way.
Coronado Beach’s mile and a half of silvered beach—from its high concentration of mica, a pearly, silver mineral—literally shines in the bright Southern California sun.
Set on a peninsula in the San Diego Bay just 10 miles from the Mexican border, Coronado Beach has a brigade of famously watchful lifeguards, soft waves perfect for boogie boarding, and a flat walking surface, all of which makes it ideal for families. Learn to surf from the highly rated Coronado Surfing Academy, or stroll along Ocean Boulevard, with seaside mansions on one side—including the stately Hotel del Coronado—and the Pacific surf on the other.
In a hilly neighborhood on the northwest edge of San Diego, La Jolla Shores’s mile-long strip of soft, sandy beach sits between ocean-carved sandstone cliffs to the north and south.
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography—one of the oldest and largest centers of its kind—lies just north of La Jolla Shores and is open to visitors; the cliffs, as well, are within easy walking distance and are perfect for beachgoers with alpinist aspirations. The warm SoCal water attracts surfers and scuba divers, and, for would-be sailors, the shores boast the only beachfront boat launch within San Diego’s city limits.
Glittering Pacific views, towering cliffs that provide a sense of complete seclusion, and a secret cove make Treasure Island Beach one of California’s most romantic beaches.
Just over two and a half miles south of Laguna Beach—a 2012 Happiest Seaside Town—on the scenic Highway 1, this strip of pristine sand separates the luxe Montage Laguna Beach resort and the ocean. On the bluffs above Treasure Island Beach, couples can wind along the cliffs in Treasure Island Park and stop at a park bench to watch the sun set over the Pacific.
Newport Beach Municipal Beach is a five-mile expanse of tawny sand on the city’s Balboa Peninsula, at the midpoint of Orange County’s iconic coastline and just south of Huntington Beach on Highway 1.
Newport Beach’s harbor—which holds the title of largest recreational boat harbor on the West Coast—is just on the opposite side of the peninsula from Newport Beach Municipal Beach, about a quarter-mile walk. To get the most out of Newport Beach’s miles of sand and waterfront restaurants and shops, take a spin along the beachfront Newport Balboa Bike Trail—1.75 miles from Newport Pier to Balboa Pier—and be ready to stop at any coffee shops, cafes, or restaurants that strike your fancy.
Just one of five storied beaches along the 10-mile “Surf City USA” coastline—a 2016 Best Beach in the USA—Huntington State Beach is nestled between Highway 1 and the Pacific, southeast of Los Angeles.
Huntington State Beach’s stretch of coast boasts 121 acres, with 3.5 miles of waterline and 200 fire rings, perfect for nighttime s’mores and cookouts—and the beach doesn’t close until 10 p.m., so there’s plenty of time to cook out after sunset. During the day, surfers will love the prime waves and the surfing history, while landlubbers can make the most of the scenic Huntington Beach Bike Trail, which runs the length of Huntington Beach’s 10-mile waterline and connects to other paths to the north and south.
Manhattan Beach is the northernmost of the Manhattan/Hermosa/Redondo Beach trifecta, on the southwest coast of Los Angeles County. Quieter than its two neighbors, Manhattan Beach’s 2.1-mile stretch of sand is bordered by a paved bike trail known as The Strand, which runs all the way south past Redondo Beach and north through Santa Monica, totaling about 22 miles of stunning Pacific vistas.
The beach plays host to the AVP Manhattan Beach Open volleyball tournament each year, but amateurs can still play a match or two on one of the many public beach volleyball courts that dot the sand.
Venice Beach is a lively and eclectic beachfront neighborhood in west Los Angeles, and while its three-mile-long beach is smaller than others in the area, Venice Beach’s vibrant population sets it apart. The 1.5-mile Ocean Front Walk is home to some of the best people-watching in California; street entertainers flood the boardwalk, and locals preserve the neighborhood’s legacy of housing vibrant artists and writers.
The shops along the boardwalk are also prime spots for making an eclectic beach-find. Don’t forget to visit the historic Venice Muscle Beach gym; bodybuilders train there, providing excellent beach performance art in the process.
Santa Monica State Beach boasts more than three miles of powder-soft beach and popular surfing spots nestled between the bluffs of the Pacific Palisades and the smooth sands of Venice Beach, northwest of Los Angeles.
In the heart of the strand, the world-famous 1,600-foot Santa Monica Pier is home to the Pacific Park amusement park, the Looff Hippodrome Carousel, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, and several restaurants. Be sure to visit Muscle Beach, the original outdoor gym that’s more focused on gymnastics than its buff cousin in Venice.
Almost 30 miles northwest of Santa Monica along Highway 1 and just outside Malibu’s city limits, Leo Carrillo State Park is the rocky nonconformist to Malibu’s assortment of famously picturesque soft sand beaches. Come here to clamber over rocks and explore sea caves; save the sunbathing for another beach.
Named for the actor and conservationist, the park has 1.5 miles of craggy coastline with overnight campgrounds—rare among California’s beaches—full tide pools, coastal caves, reefs, and seven miles of hiking trails. Snag a perch at the top of the surrounding bluffs at sunset for stunning views.
Rincon Beach Park’s role as host of the annual Rincon Classic surf competition, its “Queen of the Coast” nickname, and its regular crowd of wetsuit-clad surfers have—rightfully—earned it the designation of a surfing mecca.
On the border between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, just off Highway 101, Rincon Beach Park includes Rincon Park County Beach and Rincon Point State Beach. The former has a sandy beach bordered by bluffs, while the latter is rockier and narrow but with world-class surf. Visitors can picnic on the bluffs above the beach or stroll down to the water to watch the surfers, possibly even some pros.
In the southern part of California’s Central Coast—the stretch of varied landscape that runs roughly from Los Angeles County to San Francisco County—West Beach, in the center of Santa Barbara, sits adjacent to Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wood wharf in California. Shops, restaurants, a museum, and a fish market sit atop the 2,300-foot wharf, which was built in 1872 and resembles a spindly-legged extension of the city.
West Beach’s protected water area bans motorized boats, so visitors can take out outriggers, sailboats, kayaks, paddleboards, and other small watercraft without fear of crossing paths with any large vessels. If your pleasures run to the land, a paved bike path connects West Beach to other beaches to the east and to the city itself.
The small community of Avila Beach—and the eponymous Downtown Avila Beach in its center—has something for everyone. Set almost midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the beach itself boasts a half-mile stretch of sand with family-friendly amenities like BBQ pits and volleyball courts, but the town beyond is full of wine shops, tasting rooms, and art galleries where adults can frolic after the kids have gone to bed.
For golf enthusiasts, the Avila Beach Golf Resort lies to the northwest; adventurers big and small will be captivated by the otherworldly sea caves along the coast to the east, where stone structures seem to sprout from the sea.
Pfeiffer Beach’s famed purple sand—caused by run-off from the surrounding rock cliffs after rain—towering rock formations, and crashing waves make it a photographer’s paradise.
Pfeiffer Beach, in the thick of Big Sur’s long-heralded, rugged coastline, isn’t for swimming or sunbathing; instead, visitors can take in the views, climb over the terrain, explore the famous arch rock, and revel in the feeling of being lost in the wilderness, even as cars rush by on Highway 1 only two miles away.
Tucked alongside the sparkling Carmel Bay on the south side of the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel Beach is a mile-and-a-quarter–long expanse of sand that matches the beauty of the sun-soaked beaches of SoCal, but with sparser crowds.
Carmel Beach’s chilly water (wetsuits highly recommended) keeps most visitors on land, which is no punishment at all when one considers the romantic scenery—greenery-covered cliffs fronted by cream-colored beach. The cliffs lining the beach are home to the Scenic Bluff Path, which winds past Monterey cypress and landscaped gardens, offering an ideal perch for sunset-watching.
Capitola City Beach, across the bay from Monterey and a little more than five miles out of the heart of Santa Cruz, is bookended by ocean bluffs but level with Capitola’s colorful (literally—many storefronts are painted tropical hues) downtown; visitors and residents alike hop from beach to town throughout the day.
In fact, you can step straight from the sand to artists’ shops and local restaurants of California’s oldest seaside resort town and a 2016 Happiest Seaside Town. A 855-foot long wooden fishing wharf on the west side of the beach holds even more restaurants and offers sweeping views of Monterey Bay.
Natural Bridges State Beach’s eponymous rock arch rises out of the Pacific Ocean on the western edge of Santa Cruz’s urban center, a short drive from the city. Its base obscured by water, the bridge stands alone in the water like the last remnant of some rock metropolis that faded into the ocean—and memory—centuries ago; it’s a curious structure that, like Chimney Rock in Nebraska or Devils Tower in Wyoming, sparks the imagination and instills a sense of awe.
As if that were not enough of an attraction, thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate to Natural Bridges every year; visit in the late fall or winter to see them, or come any time to see shore birds, whales, seals, otters, and other animals from Natural Bridges State Beach’s sand-and-rock strewn shores.
Open beachfront, towering cliffs, teeming tide pools, and hidden sandy coves may seem like too many geographical gifts for one beach, but the mile-long shoreline of Pescadero State Beach takes it all in stride. Pescadero State Beach is on the edge of the Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve and overlooks the Pacific from its spot almost halfway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco on Highway 1.
- Learn more about Pescadero State Beach, or check out the town of Pescadero, a 2013 Happiest Seaside Town!
Keep to the shoreline of Pescadero State Beach to explore the tide pools and the water-sprayed coves, or venture inland in a kayak and drift through the preserve’s creeks in hope of sighting the animals housed there. Regardless of where you spend your daylight hours, be sure to return to the beach for a phenomenal sunset.
Twenty-some miles north of San Francisco and only two and a half miles from the famously secluded and private Bolinas, the Bolinas Bay townlet of Stinson Beach—a 2012 Happiest Seaside Town—has been a popular resort area and tourist destination since the late 1800s.
Touted as one of the best swimming beaches in northern California, Stinson Beach is a popular spot for many watersports, including surfing, wind surfing, and kayaking; hiking trails from the beach lead into Mount Tamalpais State Park. Visit in June to watch—or compete in!—America’s oldest trail race: the annual 7.4-mile Dipsea Race.
The pebbly sand of Glass Beach—on the edge of Fort Bragg and inside MacKerricher State Park, almost 200 miles north of San Francisco—is covered with layers of rounded pieces of sea glass, residue from years of the nearby city using the coastal bluffs as a dumpsite. (Though legend has it that the rounded, smooth pieces of glass are mermaid tears, shed each time a sailor is lost at sea.) In an act of benign forgiveness, the rough ocean waters here have smoothed the glass and covered the coves with it, and the waves drop more off every day.
Look for rare red pieces from automobile taillights or sapphire pieces from apothecary bottles—but be prepared to take only photographs here, as the state park has banned the removal of sea glass.
Reaching Enderts Beach requires a mile-long stroll along a redwood-shaded path—it’s in a northwest corner of Redwood National and State Parks—but those who make the trip are rewarded with stunning views of the jagged coast, rough waves, and even the occasional sea lion, whale, or elk. For more animal sightings, tag along on a ranger-led tour of the many well-populated tide pools, where sea stars, urchins, and anemones sway in the water.
The crescent-shaped and secluded beach is five miles outside Crescent City and 20 miles south of the Oregon border; its shores are strewn with driftwood and rocks for collecting, examining, and clambering over.