A yellow beach crossings sign depicting people carrying surfboards.

Beach crossings sign in Malibu. Photo © klotz/123rf.

If you’re in SoCal for the first time, it’s almost a given that one of your destinations is a genuine California beach. You’ve got plenty to choose from in the L.A. area. From north of Malibu down to Manhattan and Hermosa Beach, you’ll find a seemingly endless stretch of public beaches. Most of these have lots of visitor amenities (unlike their Northern California brethren), such as snack bars, boardwalks, showers, beach toy rental shacks, surf schools, and permanent sports courts.

Expect to cool off significantly when you dive into the surf, and if you plan to be out in the water for an extended period, get yourself a wetsuit to prevent chills that can turn into hypothermia.Believe it or not, those listed here are just a drop in the bucket; if none of these beaches do it for you, you can choose from dozens of others that stretch in a nearly unbroken line from one end of the county to the other.

Not all L.A. beaches are created equal. With a very few exceptions, you won’t find clean, clear water to swim in, since pollution is a major issue on the L.A. coast. Also keep in mind that Los Angeles County is not a tropical zone. The water does warm up in the summer, but not into the 80s like you find in Hawaii. (Happily, it’s also not in the icy 50s and 60s, as in the northern reaches of the state.) Expect to cool off significantly when you dive into the surf, and if you plan to be out in the water for an extended period, get yourself a wetsuit to prevent chills that can turn into hypothermia.

Zuma Beach

If you’ve ever seen the cult classic film Earth Girls Are Easy, you’ve heard of legendary Zuma Beach (Pacific Coast Highway, 19 miles north of Malibu). This popular surf and boogieboarding break, complete with a nice, big stretch of clean, white sand, fills up fast on summer weekends but isn’t as crowded on weekdays. Grab a spot on the west side of the Pacific Coast Highway for free parking, or pay a little for one of the more than 2,000 spots in the beach parking lot. Zuma has all the amenities you need for a full day out at the beach, from restrooms and showers to a kid-friendly snack bar and a beachside boardwalk.

Water lovers can ride the waves or just take a swim in the cool and (unusual for the L.A. area) crystal-clear Pacific waters. Zuma has lifeguards during daylight hours, and for landlubbers, it’s got beach volleyball courts set up and a playground for the kids. Perhaps best of all, this beach doesn’t fill up with litter-happy tourists. It’s actually a locals’ favorite for weekend R&R.

map of Greater Los Angeles

Greater Los Angeles

Malibu Lagoon State Beach

In a sea of private beaches fronting mansions, Malibu Lagoon State Beach (23200 Pacific Coast Hwy., 818/880-0363, daily 8 a.m.–sunset) and its ancillary Malibu Surfriders Beach offer public access to a great northern L.A. location. Running alongside the Malibu Pier, this pretty stretch of sugar-like sand offers a wealth of activities as well as pure California relaxation. This beach offers a number of unusual attractions, including both the Adamson House (310/456-8432) and the Malibu Lagoon Museum. You can take a guided tour that goes through the museum and out to the wetlands, butterfly trees, tidepools, and flower gardens. Malibu Creek runs into the ocean here, creating a unique wetlands ecosystem that’s well worth exploring. If a beach party is more your style, you can rent beach toys at the pier and stake your spot on the sand. Surfers man the break here year-round; please be careful of your fellow riders.

At the intersection that leads to the museum, you can also drive down to the main parking lot. It’s likely to fill up fast in the summer, so get there early for a spot.

Will Rogers State Beach

If you’re a film buff and a beach bum, you must take a day out of your travel schedule to hang out on the Will Rogers State Beach (17700 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisades). Yet another fabulous full-service L.A. beach, a number of movies have been filmed at Will Rogers. Even if you don’t care about that, you’ll love the nearly two miles of sandy beach, easy to get to from the parking lot, studded with volleyball courts, playground equipment, restrooms, and picnic tables. The bike path running along the land side of the sand runs for 19 miles all the way down to Redondo State Beach. Out in the water, you can swim, skin dive, and surf. A mild right point break offers a good learning ground for beginners. Lifeguards protect the shores during the day in summer, and the locals think their guards are some of the best-looking in the county. Just be sure to pay attention to the flags and signs, since pollution can be a big problem at Will Rogers due to storm drains emptying out into the ocean.

Bring cash to pay for parking, but be happy that with more than 1,750 spots, you’ll probably find one that’s legal and reasonably secure.

map of Santa Monica

Santa Monica

Santa Monica State Beach

If you’re looking for “The Beach” in Santa Monica, well.it’s hard to miss. The waterside edge of town is encompassed by Santa Monica State Beach (Pacific Coast Hwy.). For 3.5 miles, the fine sand gets raked daily beneath the sun that shines over the beach more than 300 days each year. Flop down in the sand to enjoy the warm sunshine, take a dip in the endless waves of the Pacific, stroll along the boardwalk, or stand at the edge of the of the water and peer out to see if you can catch sight of a pod of dolphins frolicking in the surf. If you don’t mind crowds, hang out on the sand right near the pier. The best people-watching runs south of the pier area and on towards Venice Beach. For a bit more elbow room, head north of the pier to the less populated end of the beach.

Due to its location right “in” town and adjacent to and beneath the Santa Monica Pier, you’ll find a near-endless array of services at the beach. On the pier and just across from the beach, you can get snacks and meals, rent surf and boogie boards, hit the arcade, and go shopping. Parking varies, depending on which part of the beach you head for. The north end has spotty parking, the pier area can get really crowded but has more options, and the south probably has the best bet for a good spot.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon California.