California’s Pacific Coast is full of stunning beaches and we bet everyone can name a few famous ones like San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Santa Monica Beach, Venice Beach, or San Diego’s Coronado Beach. But some of the best beaches in California are not really known and therefore less busy.
California Beaches are nature’s unspoiled treasures and they offer great opportunities for solitude, wildlife watching, or romantic walks. We’ve lived in California for a year, so we had enough time to discover not only the famous touristy places but some hidden gems, too.
Best California Beaches
Here is a round-up of the best California Beaches that you may already know and some lesser-known gems around the state.
1. Venice Beach
Venice Beach is located in Los Angeles County and is one of those places that is known more for its bohemian feel than for the beach itself. Most people who visit stroll along the Venice Beach Boardwalk, taking in the street performers watching the bodybuilders lift weights and witness the many artists plying their trade along this famous stretch.
The beach itself is gorgeous so it is no wonder it is a favorite among the locals in the area. A few of the things that make it one of our favorite California beaches are the cool little shops, great cafes, and some of the hippest coffee places in L.A.
2. Manhattan Beach
There is a reason that Manhattan Beach is one of the most expensive places to live in Los Angeles. Situated perfectly on the Pacific Ocean, the wide sandy beach is soft and is dotted with beautiful houses, upscale restaurants, trendy boutiques, and some very expensive hotels. Weekends bring out crowds of people including some pretty good beach volleyball players.
Being located so close to downtown LA it is a great add-on to your day of visiting Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, or the Sunset Strip. Manhattan Beach is definitely one of our favorite southern California beaches. Read more: 25 Best Things to Do in Los Angeles – Hollywood, Hikes, And More
Malibu has some of the most beautiful beaches in California. Most people will be familiar with Zuma Beach, with its wide sandy beach that stretches for 2 miles. Dotted with beach volleyball nets, lifeguard stands, and lots of facilities it is no wonder this beach is so popular.
Other beaches in the area like Paradise Beach, Point Dume State Beach, and Puerco Beach are smaller and offer a more family atmosphere than Zuma Beach. If you are up for something unique, make sure to check out the Malibu Beach Inn which gives you the chance to spend an evening on the “Billionaires Beach” stretch of the coast. It may not be cheap but it gives you a glimpse into how the other half lives.
4. Huntington Beach
Huntington State Beach has become quite the destination lately and for good reason. Located in the city of Huntington Beach (nicknamed Surf City) it boasts a beautiful 2-mile long sandy beach that stretches from Beach Boulevard to the Santa Ana River Channel. This beach has some great breaks for surfers. The Huntington Beach Pier is a great place for leisurely stroll as well as to try your hand at fishing. Make sure to get to the end and check out Ruby’s Surf City Diner for some great views and good food.
Make sure to visit downtown which has a great selection of bars, fabulous restaurants, ice cream shops, and boutiques. Huntington Beach is one of those places that was made for a vacation.
5. Newport Beach
With a whopping 10 miles of coastline, Newport Beach is located in the famous playground of the rich and beautiful, Orange Country. This southern California beach community boasts five miles of golden sand reaching out from the Newport Pier. Not only do you have the long sandy stretch of Newport Beach, but there are also plenty of attractions for the whole family including Balboa Fun Zone amusement park, Lido Marina Village shopping center, and great surfing.
6. Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica Beach is the place for fun in the sun. With the famous Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Park amusement park and its ferris wheel, and historic carousel, this is one of those beaches in California that is fun for the whole family. This California beach community is home to the rich and famous. Head out to Santa Monica Beach to enjoy the sand and sun, but also to explore the Santa Monica State Beach Park, hiking trails, shopping along the Third Beach Preomenad, or cycling along Marvin Braude Beach Trail. Santa Monica Beach is also home to excellent surfing just like so many beaches in California.
7. Santa barbara
I never thought I’d have the opportunity to visit Santa Barbara but while working with California tourism on their advisory board, we had the chance to spend a couple of days exploring the area. Located on the Pacific Coast, there are plenty of beaches to explore but it is East Beach located right in town that makes it special. However, Santa Barbara has many beaches. Known as The American Riviera, you’ll feel like a millionaire walking along its sandy shores as palm trees sway in the Pacific wind. Visit Summerland Beach for horseback riding, take a sailing trip, enjoy some kayaking along its shores or take in the beautiful sunset at Hendry’s Beach.
8. Pfeiffer Beach
Located along the Pacific Coast Highway, Pfeiffer Beach is one of the most beautiful settings in California. Famous for its keyhole arch located offshore in the Pacific Ocean, Pfeiffer State Beach is a beautiful long sandy beach known for its purple sand. It’s a little off the beaten path making it one of the most secluded beaches in California. There are tide pools to be explored at low tide, high lookouts to view the endless ocean, and rocks and bluffs. Read more about the Pacific Coast Highway at Big Sur Road Trip – The Best Viewpoints
9. Coronado Beach
Coronado Beach houses the Silver Strand with seven miles of sparkling sandy beach. It is located just across the bay from downtown San Diego and makes the list as one of the top beaches in California. The iconic Hotel Del Coronado on the beachfront of San Diego Coronado Island was the setting for the movie Some Like it Hot. Swing by Del’s beachside café for fish tacos or head up to the swank outdoor bar for sunset cocktails with a view. For more on San Diego read: A Local’s Guide to the Best Things to Do in San Diego
10. La Jolla Shores
La Jolla Shores is located in a beautiful San Diego that is excellent for exploring tide pools and basking in the sun. It is also one of the wildest stretches of the Southern California coast housing the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. If you love beaches, you are going to also love La Jolla Cove where sea lions bask in the sun. La Jolla Cove is also an excellent place for kayaking to La Jolla Sea Caves to explore the coastal formations.
11. Main Beach – Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Main Beach
Hit up Main Beach of Santa Cruz to enjoy this California beach that is just one hour from San Francisco. Take a stroll along the mile-long boardwalk or visit the historic amusement park. The Santa Cruz park is the oldest surviving amusement park in California. There are plenty of beach activities including beach volleyball courts, surfing, and kayaking. You’ll see sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, and even whales offshore.
12. Natural Bridges State Beach
Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz is another must-visit beach in California. The stone formation is something you would expect to see off the coast of Portugal. Natural Bridges State Beach is named for exactly what you think it is, the natural bridge that is located offshore. There are hiking trails, and tide pools to explore at low tide. Plus there is a boardwalk and it is an important sanctuary for Monarch Butterflies migrating through the area from October to January.
13. Pismo Beach
I’ll never forget watching Clueless in the 1990s and wondering where Pismo Beach was. Cher donated her ski equipment to the Pismo Beach Disaster. I had always wanted to go there ever since. We had our chance when explore the wine region of Santa Maria. There are plenty of things to do around this small beach town and while it is one of the best beaches for surfing, we hit the sand dunes for a serious dune buggy adventure. If you are not up for an adventure, take a stroll along the boardwalk and pier, explore the nearby wineries or take a selfie in front of the Pismo Beach sign.
14. El Matador State Beach, Malibu
El Matador Beach is definitely one of the best beaches in California and it is just a couple of minutes drive from Malibu. This narrow beach is in the shade of huge cliffs and stairs led us down there from the parking lot.
We were amazed by interesting rock formations on the shore and in the water, and also by the perfect ocean sunset this beach offers. It’s not really a beach for swimming or surfing, but it’s a photographer’s and couples’ favorite because of its wild and romantic atmosphere.
15. Beach at Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore
A beach with a waterfall – how does that sound? No, we aren’t talking of Big Sur’s popular and magical McWay Falls this time, it’s another one: Alamere Falls at Point Reyes National Seashore.
We are not sure if this beach has a name, actually, it even ceases to exist at high tide, and then Alamere Falls flow directly into the ocean. But it definitely exists at low tide and there’s a steep trail leading down to it near the top of the falls.
However, this unique beach requires some hiking, because it can only be accessed via Coast Trail from Palomarin Trailhead. This means an 8 miles moderate roundtrip which has easily become a day hike for us as we spent so much time chilling out on the beach.
If you love these check out more Unique Beaches from Around the world.
16. Rodeo Beach, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area is just north of San Francisco and it offers several nice coastal hikes, some with a stunning panorama of Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay.
Rodeo Beach is a great beach for hikers as it is the starting point of several shorter and longer hikes and also a nice beach itself bounded by a lagoon. It’s dark, pebbly sand is unique in California. It’s a popular surfing beach, but swimming is dangerous because of the strong currents. We enjoyed walking on the beach, doing some of the coastal hikes, and getting amazed by the wild ocean.
17. Laguna Beach, Orange County
Laguna Beach is a local’s favorite in Orange County. And our favorite, too! With its clean and calm water is said to be one of the best swimming beaches and there is also scuba diving in the area. But we warn you the water is far from warm even in the summer – just as anywhere else along the coast.
It was a nice refreshment though in South California’s hot summer. There are plenty of beach activities here at Laguna Beach well including beach volleyball courts, a bike path, and basketball courts. It’s one of the few California beaches where we went into the water for a short swim. Located between Los Angeles and San Diego, it is a great stop when on a southern California road trip.
18. Pescadero State Beach
Pescadero is a long, quiet, wild beach in Central California with great wildlife watching opportunities. We’ve seen tons of harbor seals resting on the cliffs near the shore and Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve is right behind the beach. There are several shorter trails in the marsh and they are excellent for bird-watching. Pescadero State Beach also has beautiful (though usually windy and chilly) sunsets. Read more: Things to do in San Mateo, California
19. Half Moon Bay State Beach
Located about a half-hour from San Francisco is the community of Half Moon and is a popular California beach escape from the city. It houses Half Moon Bay State Beach, Dunes Beach, and Francis Beach. Take a hike along the California Coastal Trail for panoramic views of the coastline. Dreaming of an island getaway? Check out our list of The Most Beautiful Tropical Islands in the World
20. Andrew Molera State Beach, Big Sur
Again, an adventurous beach! It’s located in Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur along the Pacific Coast Highway. Accessing Andrew Molera State Beach requires a short walk from the parking lot. This scenic stretch of highway is 2 hours and thirty minutes south of San Francisco and makes for one of the great California Road Trips. The walk includes a river crossing as well if the seasonal bridge is removed.
The crystal clear river was not deep at all when we were there, we could pleasantly walk through it. Uhm… we could have done it pleasantly if it wouldn’t have been so damn cold. But it was still fun. 🙂 Andrew Molera Beach is at the mouth of Big Sur River, it’s a long undeveloped beach and we also loved hiking on the nice bluff hiking trails above it.
21. Gold Bluffs Beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
Gold Bluffs Beach is part of Northern California’s Redwood National and State Parks and the foggy redwoods in the background give a mystic atmosphere to it. This puts it right up there as one of the best beaches in California. Usually, there are not many people on the beach which will only strengthen this atmosphere.
One of the most special hikes in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is Fern Canyon Trail which took us back to Jurassic times – actually, some scenes of the Jurassic Park movie were filmed there. It starts from Gold Bluffs Beach – or ends at the beach if you start at James Irvine Trail as we did. The beach itself is also accessible by car and there’s a small campground at the parking lot. Read: 7 Epic Places to Visit in Northern California
22. Limantour Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore
This long and perfect sandy beach on a sand spit between Drakes Bay and the Limantour Estero estuary is another gem of Point Reyes National Seashore. Thanks to the nearby wetlands there’s a high chance to spot seabirds. Harbor seals also like the shallow water of Drakes Bay and they are often seen lying on the shore.
Limantour Beach is accessible by car and it has a nice large parking lot. But if you ask us it’s much nicer to park earlier along the road and hike there through pine forests and wetlands. We’ve done the Laguna Trail – Limantour Beach – Muddy Hollow Trail – Bayview Trail loop which was a beautiful diverse day hike.
23. Carmel Beach City Park, Carmel-By-The-Sea
The community of beautiful Carmel by the Sea also has one of the best California beaches. Located right on Central California’s Monterey Peninsula Carmel is a great base for exploring the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s one of those typical Central California beaches with a lovely walking street, tons of restaurants with or without ocean panorama, and of course, a long, sandy beach (that is also dog friendly.)
Where to stay in Carmel by the Sea
We loved walking on Carmel Beach and also on the scenic road above the beach. The beach was full of families having a picnic, kids swimming or playing in the water and dogs running around and of course, the beach volleyball that California is so famous for. Carmel Beach is one of the few places left on the California coast where people can still gather around a fire to toast marshmallows and enjoy the atmosphere of a beach bonfire. Read more: Things to do in Carmel by the Sea, California
24. Cowell Ranch Beach, Half Moon Bay
The most hidden beach and one of the best beaches in California is Cowell Ranch Beach. While driving south of Half Moon Bay State Beach on California 1 we were looking for a small parking lot by a yellow gate which indicated the trailhead for Cowell Ranch Beach. It’s easy to miss it, but it’s worth looking for, it rewarded us with a beautiful, barely known beach. The beach is accessible by a short bluff trail with wooden stairs at the end and it took us about 15 minutes to get there.
There’s another beach south of the trail which is not accessible because it’s a seal preserve. Binoculars are always a good idea on the California Central coast, but here you have an especially good chance to observe seals. On the other hand, Cowell Ranch Beach is facing perfectly west, so it’s a peaceful getaway for sunset lovers.
From Ocean Beach in San Fransico with the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Southernmost Beach in California – Imperial Beach near San Diego, there are countless beaches in California. We barely scratched the surface of all the sandy destinations in California. One thing is for sure, California is one of our favourite places to visit in the United States.
Read More About California
Did we miss anything? What do you think are the best beaches in California?
About the authors:
This post was originally written by Csaba & Bea of Our Wanders. We have updated it for 2022.
About Our Wanders: Csaba and Bea are passionate travelers, hikers, and hobby photographers. They left their small home country, Hungary almost 2 years ago and moved to a much bigger one, the US where they have quickly become addicted to national parks, hiking, and road trips and started to believe that they can live their dreams. Read about their adventures on their blog Our Wanders. Follow them also on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook!