The Best California Beaches

Wide, golden beaches with abundant sunshine and legendary surf breaks. Lonely stretches of sand framed by coast redwoods and jagged cliffs. Boardwalks crowded with kids, cotton candy, and roller coasters. California has any kind of beach you could possibly want.

Angel Island Beach with rocks dotting the sand and the San Francisco skyline visible across the water.

Looking across the water to the city of San Francisco from Angel Island Beach. Photo © klotz/123rf.

North Coast

These beaches showcase the wild rugged beauty that happens when the land meets the sea with little or no human intervention. On these beaches, there is frequently more wildlife than people. The coast up here is perfect for long contemplative walks, as long as you remember to bundle up. Opportunities for recreation include surfing, diving, kayaking, and stand up paddleboarding—without the crowds typical of beaches to the south.

Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse. Photo © Jbatt/Dreamstime.

View from Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse. Photo © Jbatt/Dreamstime.

    • Manchester State Park – Best for Beachcombing, Solitude

      The long, debris-strewn beach at Manchester State Park is ideal for beachcombers and offers views of the Point Arena Lighthouse in the distance.

    • Big River – Best for Kayaking, Stand Up Paddleboarding, Beginners’ Surfing

      Big River, just south of Mendocino Village, has a range of recreational opportunities. Surf the beach break, launch a kayak to explore the nearby headlands, or paddleboard the river before steering your board into the ocean.

    • Usal Beach – Best for Wildlife, Solitude

      Follow the mountainous dirt road to Usal Beach, where you may spot Roosevelt elk. Even if you don’t spot these giant animals, you can bask in the solitude.

    • Black Sand Beach – Best for Scenery

      An easier way to take in the rugged beauty of the Lost Coast is to marvel at Shelter Cove’s Black Sand Beach, framed by the towering King Range.

    • Eel River – Best for Swimming

      Not all great beaches are on the ocean; beaches line the Eel River as it winds beside the popular Avenue of the Giants, offering motorists a cool dip and a sit in the sun.

    • Trinidad State Beach – Best for Scenery, Picnics

      This scenic stretch of shore under the rounded knob of Trinidad Head is ideal for a family picnic—especially if you pick up some smoked salmon from nearby Katy’s Smokehouse.

    • Gold Bluffs Beach – Best for Wildlife, Solitude

      Back in 1850, prospectors found gold flakes on Gold Bluffs Beach, but now the treasures of this coastal area within Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park are its remote beauty and its wildlife.

    • South Beach – Best for Surfing

      Crescent City’s South Beach offers one of the state’s northernmost surf breaks, where surfers of all abilities can catch easy peeling waves.

San Francisco and the Bay Area

The Bay Area is one of California’s largest urban centers, but sand seekers can still find beaches within—or just outside of—city limits.

Two female elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Park. Photo © Jurvetson/flickr.

Two female elephant seals at Ano Nuevo State Park. Photo © Jurvetson/flickr.

    • Ocean Beach – Best for Sunsets, Strolls

      Ocean Beach runs for miles along the western edge of San Francisco, offering a break from busy streets and popular tourist attractions.

    • Baker Beach – Best for Scenery, Photo-Ops, Sunbathing

      On the northern tip of San Francisco, this mile-long swath of sand is your best bet for stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. Its northernmost end is known for its nude sunbathers.

    • Muir Beach – Best for Scenery, Wildlife, Sunbathing

      Wildlife enthusiasts flock to Muir Beach. It’s a great place to spot migrating whales during the winter, while fall brings monarch butterflies. The stream that runs into the ocean at Muir Beach provides a habitat for shorebirds, salmon, trout, and amphibians. Meanwhile, the relatively secluded north side provides a habitat for nude sunbathers.

    • Stinson Beach – Best for Families

      In the summers, Stinson has lifeguards, a snack bar, picnic areas, and restrooms that are ideal for a family day at the beach. Surfers, kayakers, and paddleboarders test their skills in the surf.

    • Año Nuevo State Reserve – Best for Wildlife

      At Año Nuevo, gigantic elephant seals turn the beach into a battleground. You can also catch a glimpse of eerie, abandoned light station buildings right offshore.

Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay, a National Marine Sanctuary known for its wildlife, has relatively pristine waters and a handful of worthy beaches.

Carmel River State Beach. Photo © Snovitsky/Dreamstime.

Carmel River State Beach. Photo © Snovitsky/Dreamstime.

    • Cowell’s Beach – Best for Surfing

      Santa Cruz’s Cowell’s Beach has slow rolling waves perfect for beginners. Even though it gets crowded, the surfers here are usually friendly.

    • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – Best for Families

      Just feet away from Cowell’s, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk makes families happy with its rides, games, and entertainment. The boardwalk’s Giant Dipper roller coaster has been thrilling riders since 1924.

    • Moss Landing – Best for Beachcombing, Solitude

      Usually uncrowded except for a handful of surfers and anglers, Moss Landing State Beach and Zmudowski State Beach offer long stretches of lonesome sand.

    • Carmel Beach – Best for Scenery, Sunsets, Dog Lovers

      With its pale sand and contrasting blue-green ocean water, Carmel Beach is a jewel of the Monterey Bay. It’s also one of the friendliest beaches for dogs in the state.

Big Sur and the Central Coast

The Big Sur coastline is rugged, but there are several places to access the beach and it’s almost always worth the effort. As the mountains of Big Sur level out to the south, Cayucos, Morro Bay, and Pismo Beach have some of the finest swaths of sand north of the Los Angeles County line.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Photo © luckyphotographer/

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Photo © luckyphotographer/

    • Pfeiffer Beach – Best for Photo-Ops, Sunsets

      Make sure that your camera has fully charged batteries for a trip to Big Sur’s windswept Pfeiffer Beach, with picture-perfect rock formations offshore.

    • Sand Dollar Beach – Best for Picnics

      Protected by cliffs on windy days, crescent-shaped Sand Dollar Beach is a great spot for a picnic.

    • Moonstone Beach – Best for Beachcombing

      Hunt for the eponymous moonstones on this Cambria beach. Its impressive driftwood structures are also worthy discoveries.

    • Morro Rock Beach – Best for Photo-Ops, Surfing

      Take a photo in front of 576-foot-high Morro Rock. The beach to its south is popular with surfers of all skill levels.

    • Spooner’s Cove – Best for Scenery, Picnics

      Soak up the natural beauty of Spooner’s Cove, in Montana de Oro State Park. A scenic arch decorates the bluffs on the south end of the cove.

    • Pismo Beach – Best for Families

      Studded with volleyball courts and lifeguard stands, Pismo Beach feels like a Southern California beach without the massive development. It’s ideal for a day with the family.

Santa Barbara and Ventura

The last strand of relatively undeveloped coastline before Southern California is north of Santa Barbara. Ventura draws surfers from throughout the Southland.

Jalama Beach in Santa Barbara. Photo © Ken Wolter/123rf.

Jalama Beach in Santa Barbara. Photo © Ken Wolter/123rf.

    • Jalama Beach County Park – Best for Camping, Solitude

      This beach park in the middle of nowhere is a refuge for surfers, anglers, beachcombers, and families who want to unplug from modern life.

    • Refugio State Beach – Best for Swimming, Families

      The best beach on the Gaviota Coast is on this protected cove lined with palm trees. Its ocean waters are calm enough for wading children and beginning kayakers.

    • Arroyo Burro Beach – Best for Dog Lovers

      If you have a dog in tow, head to Santa Barbara’s Arroyo Burro Beach. Past the slough, dogs are allowed off leash.

    • Rincon – Best for Surfing

      Ranked 49th in Surfer Magazine’s list of the 100 best waves in the world, Rincon can produce a long peeling right with the right swell.

    • California Street Beach – Best for Surfing, Sightseeing

      To catch some hot surfing action, head to Ventura’s California Street Beach, known locally as “C Street.”

Los Angeles and Orange County

Los Angeles and neighboring Orange County share a wealth of superb beaches, known to the world from decades of movies and television shows: broad, sandy, and packed with people during the summer months. The best of the best have a little something that sets them apart.

Craggy rocks rise up along a smooth sandy beach as waves wash up on shore.

Leo Carillo State Park in northern L.A. County is full of tidepools to explore. Photo © Ken Wolter/123rf.

    • Leo Carrillo State Park – Best for Scenery, Camping, Dog Lovers

      At the northern end of L.A. County, Leo Carrillo feels a world away from bustling Los Angeles. This 1.5-mile-long beach has tide pools, caves, and reefs. The northern section is also a perfect place to take your leashed pooch.

    • Malibu Surfriders Beach – Best for Surfing

      Surfers flock to Malibu Surfriders Beach to catch one of California’s greatest peeling waves or to soak up the vibe of the surf culture that was born here in the early 1960s.

    • Santa Monica State Beach – Best for Families, Sunbathing

      Take in the plentiful Southern California sunshine and the amusements available at the Santa Monica Pier.

    • Venice Beach – Best for People-Watching

      Venice Beach is a people-watcher’s paradise, with a boardwalk filled with weightlifters, skateboarders, musicians, dancers, and vendors hawking their wares.

    • Hermosa Beach – Best for Volleyball, Families

      Hermosa Beach has the feel and attitude of a small beach town, even though it’s surrounded by metropolitan Los Angeles. Volleyball nets are available for pickup games and “The Strand” is ideal for a jog or bike ride.

    • Huntington City Beach – Best for Surfing, Sunbathing

      Orange County’s Huntington City Beach offers multiple recreation options, including surfing the waves that break on either side of the pier.

San Diego

With warmer ocean temperatures and yearround sunshine, San Diego’s beaches are the most welcoming in the state.

Coronado Beach starts at historic Hotel del Coronado and runs north to a dog-friendly beach.

Coronado Beach starts at historic Hotel del Coronado and runs north to a dog-friendly beach. Photo © Kira Volkov/123rf.

    • Coronado Main Beach – Best for Families, Sunsets

      Spread out, catch some sun, and take in views of the nearby Hotel del Coronado.

    • Ocean Beach – Best for People-Watching, Dog Lovers

      Lying at the end of an eclectic hippie community, this beach is popular with dogs (and their people).

    • La Jolla Cove – Best for Sunbathing, Snorkeling, Kayaking

      La Jolla Cove is a pocket beach between two cliffs. Sunbathers take up most of the real estate on crowded weekends. An underwater park with sea caves right offshore is perfect for snorkelers and kayakers.

    • Black’s Beach – Best for Advanced Surfing, Sunbathing

      Black’s Beach is a legendary surf spot and also a nudist beach. Getting here involves an adventurous hiking path down 300-foot-high cliffs.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Coastal California.

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