The 22 best beaches in California
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Dreaming about a trip to California? You’re probably also thinking about beaches, beaches and more beaches. From wide, sunny stretches of sand dotted with colorful umbrellas and splashing children to craggy coastlines with big swells popular with surfers and photographers, California has it all. Just be mindful if you’re planning a trip in the near future, as all the beaches and amenities may still not be open or operating as normal. Many California beaches and state parks are in the process of a cautious, phased reopening, and travelers are still being asked to stay local and practice social distancing.
Related: When will we start traveling again?
If you want to swim, watch the sunset, pack a picnic or take a hike, these are our favorite California beaches for every type of trip, whether you want a change of scenery this summer or are planning a California vacation next year. Trust us: You won’t have any trouble finding the perfect spot to park your beach blanket.
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Best beaches for swimming
Bolsa Chica State Beach, Orange County
This 3-mile-long stretch of golden sand near Huntington Beach is popular with surfers, families, volleyball-players and sun-seekers of all types. Nature lovers will also want to explore the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, an estuary and wetlands across the road, where birdwatchers have spotted 300 species of birds there in the spring and summer.
Torrance County Beach and Redondo Beach
Swimming, fishing, surfing, biking, volleyball — this unbroken stretch of Southern California beach has it all. At the back of the beach park, the Marvin Braude Bike Path allows you to ride to Santa Monica. The town of Redondo Beach has all the seaside cafés, saltwater taffy stands and ice cream shops a beach vacation requires.
Zuma Beach, Malibu
This crescent-shaped beach north of Los Angeles is a magnet for breeze-seeking Angelenos, especially on hot days when rainbow-hued umbrellas line its length. The waves are smaller here than at other Malibu beaches due to its cove-like shape and seasonal lifeguards are on duty. Zuma Beach’s location right along the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as Highway 1, makes it easily accessible but also makes parking a challenge on sunny weekends. A small playground adds extra appeal.
Best Family Beaches
Coronado Beach, San Diego
Families love this classic Southern California beach, with soft sand and low-key waves perfect for splashing. Lifeguards are on hand for safety, and facilities include not just restrooms but also showers for getting the sand off after a long day of beach play. The pink stucco silhouette of Hotel Coronado gives the beach a retro feel, as does the proximity of cafes and hotels.
Balboa Beach, Newport Beach
Thanks to the Balboa Fun Zone with its landmark Ferris wheel, rides and arcade games, a harbor where you can rent electric boats, and Discovery Cube’s Ocean Quest sealife museum, Balboa Beach is a SoCal family favorite. But the 3-mile Balboa Peninsula Beach provides just as much fun, with soft sand for sunbathing and whales spouting offshore during their annual migrations. Kids also love driving onto the tiny Balboa island car ferries, which cross the 800-foot harbor to the peninsula, cutting off a 6-mile drive while providing thrills at the same time.
Santa Monica Beach and Pier, Santa Monica
The Santa Monica Pier is instantly recognizable as the setting for hundreds of movie and television scenes, and it’s just as much fun as it looks. In addition to the Ferris wheel, which towers 85 feet over the sea (and is solar-powered) the amusement park features a classic roller coaster, the West Coaster, and ocean-themed rides for younger children such as the Shark Frenzy and Sea Dragon. The Health the Bay Aquarium, while small, has fun, educational exhibits such as a starfish pool. Beaches extend south and north on both sides of the pier; the south side is best for families, with playgrounds, sports courts and more. On the north side, a winding path welcomes cyclists and skaters.
Mother’s Beach, Marina del Rey
The name says it all: Gentle waves make this beach a favorite of families with toddlers and small children. There’s even a shallow swimming area roped off, unusual for California beaches. A playground nearby completes the family-friendly picture. There’s a large parking lot, too, though a fee is required.
Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, Santa Cruz
The East Coast has Coney Island, Atlantic City, and many more, but the family-run Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is the West Coast’s last seaside boardwalk park. Both the 70-foot Giant Dipper, among the world’s best known wooden roller coasters, and the hand-carved 1911 Looff Carousel are designated national historic landmarks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t offer modern thrills to today’s kids. The beach in front of the park is wide, long and sheltered: perfect for resting up after all the excitement.
Related: Planning a family trip to San Diego
Big Sur, Central Coast
This 90-mile stretch of coastline offers numerous beaches, from pocket-sized coves to longer swathes of sand perfect for strolling and sandcastles. Most of Big Sur’s beaches can be found in or near one of the area’s four state parks, two of which are named for the area’s founding family: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, Limekiln State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where McWay Falls tumbles 80 feet into a brilliant blue cove. See the surf crash over dramatic rock arches at Pfeiffer Beach, check out the coves at Andrew Molera and stroll Sand Dollar beach, the longest in Big Sur.
Victoria Beach, Orange County
The Orange County town of Laguna Beach has so many spectacular stretches of sand to choose from it’s not easy to select highlights, but one of the favorites is Victoria Beach, thanks to its 60-foot Pirate Tower, originally built in 1926 as an enclosed staircase to a home, but now a popular photo opportunity for its resemblance to a fairy-tale castle.
El Matador State Beach, Malibu
This Instagram favorite is also popular with wedding and fashion photographers for its backdrop of rock arches and blowholes, within which are tucked a series of tiny coves. Accessible via a trail from the Pacific Coast Highway, El Matador is one of three beaches that comprise the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, so head for El Pescador or La Piedra if it gets too crowded.
Best Beaches for Strolling
Dockweiler State Beach, El Segundo
Located in El Segundo, close to Los Angeles International (LAX), Dockweiler State Beach often gets overlooked because of its proximity to the airport, which means it can be noisy. But this also means it’s excellent for planespotting, and there’s even more room for beach combing, without having to pick your way around too many picnickers. Fire pits make Dockweiler a popular spot for sunset cookouts, too.
East and West Beach, Santa Barbara
With its swaying palm trees, wide bike and walking paths and a historic pier, the long beach park that fronts downtown Santa Barbara has everything you could want from a coastal escape. While the California coastline is normally defined by north and south, Santa Barbara sits in a tilted cove and defines its beaches as East Beach (to the right, facing the pier) and West Beach (to the left). In the middle, historic Stearns Wharf boasts several crab shacks and seafood restaurants, along with the surprise of a motel, the Castillo Inn. Grab one of the cruiser bikes available from several rental stands and explore the entire strand.
Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Part of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Ocean Beach is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s longest beaches at 3 miles, with plenty of room for sandcastle building and wave-riding. It’s also an excellent strolling beach, extending all the way from Sutro Heights in the north to Fort Funston in the south, where you might see hang gliders taking off from the bluff above. Unfortunately, the Pacific is cold here and all San Francisco beaches suffer from the area’s summer fog, making it often too cold to swim, but it’s the perfect escape from the city.
Drake’s Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore
The most sheltered beach in Point Reyes National Seashore, Drake’s Beach is tucked within the cove south of the Point Reyes Lighthouse and backed by dramatic white cliffs. With a Visitor’s Center and adjacent parking lot, it’s the national seashore’s most accessible beach and the only one with surf safe enough to splash around in.
Clam Beach and Little River Beach, North Coast
Between them, Little River State Beach and Clam Beach offer dunes for climbing, a wide swath for walking, and even camping at Clam Beach County Park. Located 7 miles north of the hip college town of Arcata, these two parks see so few people you’re likely to share the sand only with seagulls. Hiking trails are also available inland from the dunes.
Best Beaches for Surfing and paddling
Huntington Beach, Orange County
Well-deserving of its nickname, Surf City, USA, Huntington Beach won surfers over with its consistent break, but is also known for its classic beach boardwalk, pier and the wide, flat beach that stretches out from it on either side. Don’t miss the chance to walk out on the pier, one of the longest on the West Coast, where anglers pull in croaker, mackerel, perch and plenty more.
Cowell Beach, Santa Cruz
A classic longboard beach with long, rolling waves, this beach — which locals refer to as Cowell’s — is where most Santa Cruz surfers build their skills. This is where Santa Cruz’s numerous surf schools take their students and you’ll see them lining up in groups in the mornings. Those with serious prowess head north, to the famous Steamer Lane off West Cliff, accessible only by paddling around the point and considered among the most exciting (and most dangerous) waves on the west coast. The nearby Santa Cruz Surfing Museum enhances the status, with exhibits including a tribute to Jack O’Neill, credited with developing the modern wetsuit.
Surfrider Beach, Malibu
They don’t call it Surfrider for nothing: The boards can be so thick here they look like they might bump into each other. Part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, it’s located next to the fishing pier, which offers great views from its many benches. Swimming and surfing areas are separated with lifeguards on hand, and the lagoon is beloved by families for its warm, shallow water.
Best Beaches for Sea Life
La Jolla Cove, San Diego
Seals loll on the sand at La Jolla Cove just north of San Diego and bark from offshore Seal Rock. The area known as Children’s Cove is closed until May 15 every year for pupping season, but you can take a kayak tour and watch their antics up close. Next door, Scripps Park offers a shaded picnic area with expansive green lawns.
Año Nuevo State Park, Pescadero, San Francisco Bay Area
The second-largest breeding colony of elephant seals makes its home at Año Nuevo, luring crowds of visitors to marvel at the enormous pinnipeds with their characteristic bulbous noses. California sea lions, otters and harbor seals also frequent the area, and are easiest to spot from the train along Año Nuevo bluff. The park also features a Marine Education Center and bookstore.
Goat Rock Beach, Jenner, Sonoma County
Goat Rock Beach takes its name from the rocky outcropping the juts into the sea at the mouth of the Russian River. It’s best known, however, for the seal pupping nursery that takes over the north end of the beach where it curves around the river mouth. While the surf is too rough to swim here, that’s not the case in the river mouth, which is also popular with kayakers.
Featured photo by Jinna van Ringen Photography/Getty Images.
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