Just a mention of California beaches is usually enough to conjure images of wave-bashed sands and beautiful shorelines fringed with palms. And it’s true: From the white-sand beaches of SoCal to the feral bays of the northern California beaches, this is a state blessed with a coastline that promise to take your breath away.
Over the last century, the fabled West Coast has gone from gold rush destination to a beach lover’s dream. It’s come of age as towns like Venice and Encinitas and Laguna Beach transformed into surf havens.
In the south, the great weather and cool waters keep sun-seekers flocking back. Meanwhile, the rugged California coastline past San Francisco is for the whale watchers, the hikers, the sunset lovers – the list goes on.
This guide to the 10 best California beaches has a little of everything. It pits surf coves in Santa Cruz against buzzing beach towns in LA. It mingles untamed inlets in Point Reyes with the best beaches in San Diego. You’re sure to find something that tickles the wanderlust…
Zuma Beach, Malibu
No list of the cream of California beaches could possibly be complete without a mention of Zuma. Made famous by the filming of Baywatch, it’s the stuff of American myth and pop-culture legend. You’ll find it fringing the shoreline of chic Malibu, just a stone’s throw from the buzzing heart of LA.
In total, the stretch at Zuma clocks up a length of more than two miles. It starts in the north, beneath the chaparral-topped Santa Monica Mountains. At its other end, the gold-flecked sand runs straight into Point Dume. There, the coves are known as Westward Beach. They have strong rip currents (only for the strongest of swimmers) and give way to stunning cliff walks that end at jaw-dropping lookouts above the Pacific Ocean.
Like so many of the Los Angeles beaches before it, Zuma is a haven for a surf. The waves roll in off sandbanks and offshore canyons. They stack up and can get fast and hollow on big swells. However, there’s almost always a place for novices to get a lesson on the go, too. The best part, there are plenty of things to do in Malibu too.
Baker Beach, San Francisco
If you’re looking to take in one of the most stunning manmade sights on the California coastline, Baker Beach should be on the itinerary. It fringes Lincoln Blvd on the Presidio of San Francisco. Spilling into the Pacific Ocean, it rolls out in hues of beige sand and white-capping waves.
But unlike at other California beaches, the highlights here aren’t in the swimming or the surf. (In fact, strong rips mean Baker is not the best place to dive into the water). Instead, the main draw is the view. That’s a gorgeous angled shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a wonder to behold at any time of the year. Come the summer, when the evening light shimmers across the opening to the San Francisco Bay, it oozes romance. In winter, mists swirl on the tops of the bridge’s towers, creating an eerie and moody spectacle.
Carmel Beach, Carmel
Carmel is one of the jewels in the crown of the California coastline. Set on a bluff between Point Lobos and the Del Monte Forest, the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea is enchanting enough on its own. As you move through that to find the urban beach, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for charming Comstock cottages. With gabled roofs and high chimney stacks, they add a fairy-tale element to proceedings.
Carmel Beach sits beyond them. It’s an iconic length of white-sand beach that finishes with the prestigious PGA course of Pebble Beach Golf Links in the north. Entering the beach means hopping through pockets of scented stone pines and cypresses. Then, it’s onto the shoreline, which is often plumed in mysterious ocean mists.
Canines are also likely to consider this one of the very best California beaches. In a town that prides itself on having a passion for our four-legged pals, the whole crescent bay here is open to pups as well as people. So, feel free to let Fido off the leash, and throw driftwood and tennis balls to your heart’s content!
Coronado Beach, San Diego
Framed by the high rock walls of Point Loma and divided from the downtown by a wide bay, Coronado is surely up there with the best beaches in San Diego. In fact, it’s been a hotspot for R&R on the SoCal shoreline ever since the turn of the 20th-century. It all started way back in 1888 when the Hotel del Coronado (which you can still see today) was raised just meters from the waves. Its prestigious previous guests include the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Gerald Ford, and Brad Pitt.
Of course, you don’t have to follow in their footsteps to enjoy the sands. There are plenty of sleek home rentals and villas dotting long Silver Strand Blvd and Ocean Blvd. Bag one of those and you can wake to visions of a white-sand beach with a silver glimmer. There are waves for surfing, sunbathing spots, and watersports outfitters to boot. At the north end of the beach is a dog park and some fire pits for those evening BBQs.
La Jolla Shores Beach, San Diego
Under a wall of high bluffs and palm-fringed walkways, you can discover one of the best beaches in San Diego lurking in the vibrant community of La Jolla. It’s known, simply, as La Jolla Shores Beach. It goes for a whole mile, boasting a buzzing promenade and clean sands that are interrupted at their center by the vintage walks of Scripps Pier.
In a break from the normal character of California beaches, La Jolla Shores has light waves and often calm ocean waters. That’s made it a favorite stomping ground of the kayaking and SUP boarding crew. But it’s also great for swimming, especially as lifeguards patrol the middle sections throughout the summer months.
If you keep pushing northwards from La Jolla Shores, you’ll eventually come to arguably the most popular California beach for topless bathing. That’s Black’s Beach, which is hidden below sheer-cut cliffs and comes blessed with strong surf swells on its southern end.
McClures Beach, Inverness
McClures Beach has an enviable location at the remote end of the jaw-dropping Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s enveloped by two dusty headlands that are patched with coastal scrub and gorse. They drop dramatically into the ocean from a few walking trails that wiggle in from the nearest carpark. The result is one of the wildest northern California beaches going; a cove that promises awesome views and a front-row seat overlooking the Pacific.
Of course, there are bonuses to having to travel for more than 1.5 hours up the California coastline to get here from San Fran. It’s common to find McClure’s Beach totally empty. You can be the only one standing as the waves crash in. You can be the only person hopping the sandhills of Tomales Point Trail towards the shoreline.
If you’ve got the time, hanging around for sunset at McClures Beach is a great idea. The strand here faces directly west. As the sun dips, the ocean glows yellow and orange. You can keep your eyes peeled for sightings of gray whales or sealions as you watch the twilight set in, too.
Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica
The anchor point for all Los Angeles beaches beyond it, Santa Monica Beach froths and fizzes with life every day of the year. It’s not only a stunning stretch of beige-tinted sand that’s speckled with lanky palms. It’s also a gathering point for the great and good of the City of Angels. Yep, no matter if you come with the surfboard in tow or the credit card in hand for some retail therapy, there’s sure to be something to keep you going!
The whole area of Santa Monica is hinged on the famous Santa Monica Pier. Home to the wave-splattered rides and slides of Pacific Park, that’s a mainstay attraction of LA. Take the kids in and you’ll be whizzing around on Ferris wheels and bumping the go-karts in no time. Right next to it is the promenade, which melds chic seafood eateries and cool cafés in the same strip.
On the beach itself, you can join in local volleyball showdowns or embark on surfing lessons. There is oodles of room to simply lay the towel and top up the tan. And you’ve got gorgeous vistas of the surrounding California coastline ranges to keep you entertained.
San Gregorio Beach, San Gregorio
If you’re the sort of traveler who likes your California beaches empty, remote and untamed, San Gregorio might be just what’s needed. It occupies a wide, wind-buffeted bay just off the famous Pacific Coast Highway. There, it’s slammed by strong waves and sprayed by mists of ocean water, which froth off the sea and onto the green headlands that rise like fortress walls behind.
The centerpiece of the San Gregorio State Beach reserve, the beach is often strewn with driftwood and speckled with seabirds. Whenever you’re here, be sure to find the stone marker that memorializes the travels of Spanish conquistador Gaspar de Portola. He passed this way up the California coastline way back in 1769 and is thought to have used the bay of San Gregorio as a makeshift hospital.
Cowell Beach, Santa Cruz
A half white-sand beach with flecks of brown and patchworks of sea kelp, Cowell Beach is one of the highlights of Santa Cruz, CA. Like a load of central and northern California beaches, it’s rimmed by walls of dusty sand and grass, which rise to host the lively and vibrant boardwalk and all its surf shacks and skate shops.
Talking of surf, there’s a single wave break that rolls into the bay at Cowell’s (the local name for Cowell Beach). It’s one of the best spots for beginner surfers trying their hand at the old Californian pastime. Lots of schools, rental places, and instructors await on the promenade right by the sand.
However, if you’re in need of extra square meterage, consider hopping south past the pier. There, another favorite California beach comes in the form of Santa Cruz Main Beach. From Beach Street to the boardwalk, that one is a hubbub of chowder stands and seafood eateries. During the summer, it packs out with sunbathers and families searching for good-time amusement rides.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
A California beach that really needs no introduction is Venice. Famed for its rock and roll subculture and off-beat vibes, this is the original home of LA’s hipster scene. Back in the 50s and 60s, it was a hub for the Beatniks of the Kerouac generation. Then came The Doors with their Psychedelic prog rock. And then it was the turn of the Dogtown skaters.
In all, that adds up to one seriously characterful spot among the Los Angeles beaches. It’s the sort of place you’ll spot biker gangs next to mimes; Harley Davidsons purring alongside rollerbladers. Its reputation as a quirky and curious neighborhood continues on along the Venice Beach boardwalk. That’s a mass of street entertainers, circus acts, and muscle-pumping bodybuilders using the same machines that Arnie himself once used.
The beach itself is wide, powdery and full of life. It pulses with fashionistas and volleyball players from morning till night. Clusters of basketball courts, sizzling Tex-Mex food trucks, and burger stand that all add to the energy. Meanwhile, overtones of SoCal surf culture comes with the roaring waves of the Venice Breakwater.
So you’re planning a trip to California or searching for a relaxing getaway to these beaches in California? These 10 California beaches make sure you’ll find something that suits your preferences. Whether it’s for a family holiday or just a weekend getaway, we promise you’ll have a blast here.
Let us know your thought… If you’ve been to any of these beaches, share with us your experiences. We love to hear from you.