12 best beaches in California

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 6.12.2022

Few regions of the world have been idealized and mythologized as much as California – yet it seldom fails to live up to the hype. Among the finest jewels in the state's crown are its magnificent beaches. There's no better place to soak up the near-endless sun than along the coast — whether you're there for surfing, nature or just pure relaxation. Here's our pick of the best beaches in California from north to south. If you’re looking for sun, sea, sand and scenery, read on.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to California, your essential guide for visiting California.

1. Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Best for: beach and redwoods

Seven miles south of Crescent City, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park is worth visiting less for its redwood forests than its fantastic beach area and hiking trails, most of which are an easy two miles or so along the coastal ridge where the redwoods meet the sea. From May to July, wild rhododendrons and azaleas shoot up everywhere, laying a floral blanket across the park’s floor.

Del Norte is the least visited of the Redwood national and state parks – pure bliss for anyone looking to get off the beaten track, though the seas can be rough so if you're after the best beaches to swim in California, carry on.

    Where to stay in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park:

  • Anchor Beach Inn is within 2 minutes' drive of Ocean World, which is a marine theme park and steps from the beach. It offers a 24-hour front desk, and rooms with free WiFi.
  • View Crest Lodge. Less than 5 minutes’ drive from Agate Beach, this Trinidad, California hotel offers cottages with free Wi-Fi, microwave and compact fridge.

California has more national parks than any other state. Don't miss our guide to the best national parks in California.

What else to do in the area: While you're in redwood country, stop to baulk at some of the tallest trees on Earth. Hike among them in neighbouring Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek state parks.

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Del Norte © Zack Frank/Shutterstock

2. Manchester Beach, Mendocino County

Best for: surfing

The coast of Mendocino County, 150 miles north of San Francisco, is a dramatic extension of the Sonoma coastline – the headlands a bit sharper, the surf a bit rougher. Sea stacks form a dotted line off the coast and there’s an abundance of tide pools, making the area a prime spot for exploring the secrets of the ocean, either on foot or in diving gear.

This is one of the best beaches in California for surfing, and there are delightful sandy beaches to be found between Gualala and Albion, such as the largely deserted strand of Manchester Beach State Park.

    Where to stay near the Manchester Beach:

  • Point Arena Lighthouse has been transformed into a classy and atmospheric hotel, and a booking comes with free tours of the lighthouse and its museum.
  • Oceanfront Irish Beach Sea Haven Home. Oceanfront Irish Beach Sea Haven Home with Hot Tub is situated in Manchester, 42 km from Highlight Gallery, and features a balcony, garden, and free WiFi. The property is 48 km from Point Cabrillo Light Station and 9.3 km from White Rock.

What else to do in the area: March brings out droves of people to watch migrating whales. Or – if you're a keen birdwatcher – head north up the coast to take a ride on the historic "skunk train" along Pudding Creek Estuary to spot ospreys, blue herons and egrets.

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Manchester Beach © pikappa51/Shutterstock

3. Mavericks Beach

Best beach of The Peninsula

San Francisco sits at the tip of a five-mile-wide neck of land commonly referred to as The Peninsula, home to old money, new technology, and some excellent beaches. Mavericks Beach is among the most splendid and boasts the largest waves in North America.

It attracts some of the world’s best (and craziest) surfers when conditions are right; just watching them can be an exhilarating way to spend an hour or so and hundreds of people do just that every day.

    Where to stay near the Mavericks Beach:

  • InterContinental. Overlooking San Francisco's SoMa area and moments from top city centre sites, InterContinental San Francisco provides guests with modern in-room amenities. Shopping and dining opportunities in Union Square are 10 minutes’ walk away.
  • Hyatt Regency. Situated within 5 minutes’ walk of Ferry Building shops and ferries to Alcatraz, this luxury San Francisco hotel features guest rooms with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay and the Financial District.
  • Sonder – Hayes Valley. Sonder Hayes Valley has well-equipped accommodation featuring free WiFi in San Francisco, less than 1 km from San Francisco City Hall and 3 km from Moscone Center.

For a comprehensive selection of San Fran accommodation, broken down by area, read our guide to where to stay in San Francisco. Explore the local gems of San Francisco and other major cities of the US with our tailor-made cross country USA tour.

What else to do in the area: There's so much to see and do in San Francisco. Take a cruise around Golden Gate Bay, explore the city on an electric-bike tour, discover the streets of Chinatown, or – for those with deep pockets – see the Napa Valley from a whole new angle by taking to the skies in a hot-air balloon.

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Mavericks Beach © bteimages/Shutterstock

4. Natural Bridges State Beach

Best beach of Santa Cruz

Seventy-five miles south of San Francisco, the edgy – and maddening – city of Santa Cruz is a difficult place to pin down. A classic California seaside promenade where carnival food, amusement arcades and a rickety old wooden rollercoaster all make for irresistible fun, but if you venture further west you'll be rewarded by Natural Bridges State Beach.

It's famous among beaches in California not just for the four delicate wave-cut arches that once stood here but the annual gathering of monarch butterflies which arrive each winter. Kids will love the tidepools here; that, coupled with the attractions in Santa Cruz, make this one of the best beaches in California for families.

    Where to stay: near the Natural Bridges State Beach:

  • Hotel Paradox. Featuring an outdoor pool with cabanas available, Hotel Paradox, Autograph Collection offers fire-pits for guest use. A restaurant and bar is on site. The modern rooms feature free WiFi.
  • Dream Inn. This beachfront hotel is located next to Santa Cruz’s famous boardwalk and steps from the city centre, making it an ideal destination for a weekend escape, corporate event, family holiday or romantic getaway.

What else to do in the area: There's no better way to entertain the entire family than learning to surf. A two-day beginners course in Santa Cruz will have you standing in no time.

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Natural Bridges State Beach © Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

5. Carmel Beach

Best for: a rocky untouched shore

Set on gently rising headlands above a sculpted and largely untouched rocky shore, the village of Carmel fans out from a few neat rows of just-so shops along Ocean Avenue to reveal assorted posh mansions; think of it as the West Coast’s middle-aged answer to New York’s Hamptons.

Inarguably its best feature is its largely untouched coastline, among the most beautiful in California. City-managed Carmel Beach, in particular, is a tranquil cove of emerald-blue water bordered by soft, blindingly white sand and cypress-covered cliffs.

    Where to stay around Carmel Beach:

  • Carmel Mission Inn. Surrounded by attractions such as Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Fisherman's Wharf, this hotel offers relaxing activities and sophisticated dining options in the centre of Carmel, California.
  • Hofsas House Hotel. Just 5-minutes’ walk from restaurants and shops in Carmel city centre, Hofsas House Hotel features a heated outdoor pool and a continental breakfast with fresh pastries. Free WiFi is included in all rooms.

What else to do in the area: Combine a trip to Carmel with a visit to Monterrey: you can see both on a tour from San Francisco or take in the stunning strip of coast on a bike ride along 17-Mile Drive.

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Carmel Beach © Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

6. Pfeiffer Beach

Best beach of Big Sur

Boasting a strikingly rugged coastline and some of the state’s most stunning waterfalls, the sparsely populated region of Big Sur continues to retain its wild character.

Its finest strand is Pfeiffer Beach, a sometimes windy stretch that’s part of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, is known for its purple sand and is dominated by a charismatic hump of rock whose colour varies from brown to red to orange in the changing light. The area makes for the perfect California beach vacation if you want to get off the beaten path.

    Where to stay near Pfeiffer Beach:

  • Big Sur River Inn. Located adjacent to the Big Sur River, this California hotel features an on-site restaurant and bar. Pfeiffer Day Use Beach is 10 minutes’ drive away. Free Wi-Fi is provided in all rooms.
  • Big Sur Lodge. Featuring a restaurant, a seasonal outdoor swimming pool as well as a bar, Big Sur Lodge is located in Big Sur, within 38 km of Point Lobos State Reserve and 50 km of Presidio of Monterey Museum.

What else to do in the area: The pleasures around Pfeiffer are simple: strolling the beach, breathing in the scenery and discovering coves and charming rock formations. But it pays to explore by car, too. Big Sur is big in the popular imagination, home to one of the most dramatic coastal roads on Earth. Book onto a Big Sur Private Tour to spend a leisurely day on the open road, exploring all its highlights.

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Pfeiffer Beach © Jennifer Hubbard/Shutterstock

7. Refugio State Beach

Best tropical beach

If you drive west of Santa Barbara along US-101 before it veers north, several prime beaches beckon. Along this part of the Central Coast, the beaches face due south, making the surf lively and causing the sun to both rise and set over the Pacific in winter.

Among the best is Refugio State Beach, one of the prettiest in California. Palm trees dot the sands next to a small creek, lending the beach a tropical feel. Life guard towers are staffed during the summer months, making this a safe swimming option for families.

    Where to stay near Refugio State Beach:

  • Ritz-Carlton Bacara. Adjacent to the Sandpiper golf course, this Santa Barbara resort boasts beautiful ocean views, an outdoor pool and on-site dining. All guest rooms include a private patio with a view.
  • Circle Bar B Guest Ranch offers cottages and cabins with mountain views and plenty of facilities to keep children entertained, from table tennis to an outdoor pool.

What else to do in the area: If you're staying in Santa Barbara, what better way to reach Refugio State Beach than by kayak, taking in all the glorious coastal scenery en-route – and children will love the ride, too. There's excellent fishing in the coastal waters at Refugio, and if you love your food and drink, you'll want to explore the area's wineries, too. Book onto a wine-tasting tour and let it go to your head.

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Refugio State Beach © Gerry Matthews/Shutterstock

8. Malibu Lagoon State Beach

Best for: a classic surf spot

Modern surf culture really went mainstream in Malibu in the late 1950s, and the beaches have been immortalized in surfing movies ever since. Malibu Lagoon State Beach is the major surfing nexus and includes the celebrated Surfrider Beach, one of the first to be mastered by Southern Californian pioneers.

The waves are best in late summer, when storms off Mexico cause them to reach upwards of eight feet – not huge for serious pros, but big enough for amateurs.

    Where to stay in Malibu Lagoon State Beach:

  • The Surfrider Malibu. Decked out in trendy whites and wood, this sublime hotel offers complimentary surf boards and SUPs, as well as a free morning coffee to get your head in gear. This being Malibu, there's no shortage of luxury beachfront apartments and villas, either.
  • Calamigos Guest Ranch and Beach Club. Located on the California coast, Calamigos Guest Ranch and Beach Club offers pet-friendly accommodation in Malibu. It encompasses a 200-acre ranch in the Malibu Wine Country as well as an exclusive beachfront Beach Club for its guests.

What else to do in the area: There's plenty to do in the Malibu area beyond hitting the surf: soak up celebrity culture with a Homes of the Stars tour or book a vintage VW tour with wine-tasting included.

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Malibu Lagoon State Beach © Andrew Zarivny/Shutterstock

9. Venice Beach

Best ultimate beach of Los Angeles

No list of the best beaches in California would be complete without mentioning Venice Beach. Nowhere else does LA parade itself quite so openly, colourfully and aggressively. Trawling the promenade between Santa Monica and Venice is an LA tradition, taking in the surfers, sand, muscle-men, skaters and assorted eccentrics. Everyone should visit Venice Beach at least once.

    Where to stay near Venice Beach:

  • Venice Breeze Suites has an excellent location right on the boardwalk, with a sensational roof deck and loft-like services apartments equipped with full kitchens (some with ocean views) and free Wi-Fi.
  • Venice Beach House. Located in Los Angeles, near Venice Beach, Marina Del Rey Beach and Venice Beach Boardwalk, Venice Beach House features a terrace. Free WiFi is provided throughout the property and private parking is available on site.

If you want to stay in another part of the city, check out our guide on where to stay in LA.

What else to do in the area: You could spend weeks in LA and still have places to explore. From world-class galleries to ethnic enclaves with tantalizing street food, Art Deco gems and Disneyland, there's something for everyone in the city of the stars. Children will go mad for Universal Studios Hollywood, which brings Harry Potter to life; alternatively, spot whales from Newport Beach or take a flight over Hollywood.

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Venice Beach © one.degree.photography/Shutterstock

10. Mission Beach

Best free spirited beach in San Diego

The most free-spirited of San Diego’s surfing beaches, Mission Beach scenery extends to acres of bronzed flesh and bikini babes, chaotic bars and even carnival rides. It’s one of the most popular and entertaining of San Diego’s city beaches, with throngs of sun-seekers enjoying surfing, cycling and rollerblading down Ocean Front Walk, the concrete boardwalk running the length of the beach. For thrill seekers, there's plenty in the way of watersports, too.

    Where to stay near Mission Beach:

  • Kings Inn. Centrally located in San Diego’s Mission Valley, Kings Inn features a spacious outdoor swimming pool and rooms with free WiFi. San Diego International Airport is 15 minutes’ drive away.
  • Blue Sea Beach Hotel. This San Diego hotel is located along the ocean and is 1.6 km from Mission Bay Park. This beachfront hotel features an oceanfront pool, bike rentals and rooms with balconies.

What else to do in the area: Make the most of San Diego by taking to the water. Boats come in all shapes and sizes here, and you can ride in them all: jet boat, speed boat or kayak. Alternatively, take a relaxing harbour cruise. Nature lovers will relish the opportunity to spot whales from December to April.

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Mission Beach © Dmitri Kotchetov/Shutterstock

11. Huntington Beach

Best for: bird lovers and beach lovers alike

You may have to slow down in busy Huntington Beach to avoid surfers carrying their boards across the road to white-sand beaches fronting great waves. North and south of the Huntington Pier is the three-mile (5km) Huntington City Beach. Both this and the Huntington State Beach to the south have lifeguards, changing rooms, concessions, and parking.

To the north, the Bolsa Chica State Beach is less crowded. Opposite that, the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a hotspot for bird-lovers, a salt marsh where hundreds of species including great blue herons have been spotted.

    Where to stay near Huntington Beach:

  • Huntington Surf Inn. Huntington Surf Inn offers accommodation in Huntington Beach. The rooms are fitted with a private bathroom. Downtown Huntington Beach is 400 m from Huntington Surf Inn, while Huntington Beach Pier is 400 m from the property.
  • Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort. Steps from the Pacific Ocean, entertainment and the vibrant beach-side nightlife of Huntington Beach, this updated boutique full-service hotel offers state-of-the-art amenities, including a modern fitness centre and an on-site bar and restaurant.

What else to do in the area: Embark on a trip by van to Orange County's world-famous beaches and discover some of the area's top destinations, such as Dana Point Harbor, Laguna Beach, and Hiesler Park. Enjoy free time to explore.

Row of lifeguard towers on Huntington beach in southern California © Shutterstock

Row of lifeguard towers on Huntington beach in southern California © Shutterstock

12. Laguna Beach

Best for: snorkeling and more

Ten miles south of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach is another one of the best beaches in California. Visitors can snorkel, surf, dive, and spot marine life in tide pools at Laguna Beach, whose coast has been designated a Marine Protected Area. This oceanside paradise also has a creative streak. In the early 1900s, the California Plein Air art movement began here, emphasizing paintings created outside rather than in a studio.

It’s now celebrated in the Laguna Art Museum which displays American art, fine art galleries and jewelry shops fill the streets, while the annual Pageant of the Masters – first held in 1932 – presents tableaux of famous paintings with costumed participants each summer.

    Where to stay near Laguna Beach:

  • Montage Laguna Beach. Located on the beach, this luxurious Laguna Beach resort features an ocean facing pool and a sun terrace. All rooms feature a deep marble soaking tub. Three restaurants are featured.
  • Hotel Joaquin. Set within 700 m of Heisler Park, Hotel Joaquin in Laguna Beach features an outdoor swimming pool and a garden. The property features a bar, as well as a restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine. Laguna Art Museum is 900 m from the hotel and Top of the World Laguna Beach is 3.6 km away. A daily full complimentary breakfast is included for all guests.

What else to do in the area: Enjoy a scavenger hunt adventure on this virtual phone tour in Laguna Beach. Work with your team to solve clues and complete challenges while learning local history.

Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, California © Shutterstock

Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, California © Shutterstock

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to the California without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

Ready for a trip to the California? Check out the snapshot of The Rough Guide to California or The Rough Guide to The USA. If you travel further in USA, read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit and best things to do in USA. For inspiration use the USA itineraries from The Rough Guide to USA and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

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Top image: Carmel beach © Zhiqin Zhu/Shutterstock

Rough Guides Editors

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 6.12.2022

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