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.
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.
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.
California has more national parks than any other state. Don't miss our guide to the best national parks in California.
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.
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.
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.
For a comprehensive selection of San Fran accommodation, broken down by area, read our guide to where to stay in San Francisco.
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.
Explore the local gems of San Francisco and other major cities of the US with our tailor-made cross country USA tour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Top image: Carmel beach © Zhiqin Zhu/Shutterstock