“West Coast, best coast” didn’t become a popular California souvenir T-shirt slogan for nothing. From the moody driftwood-filled, rocky coves of Northern California to the sunny swathes of sand to the south where surfers, snorkelers, and beach volleyballers happily play, the diverse array of beaches that dot its 840 miles of beautiful coastline—the third-longest of all the states—certainly play a huge part in that boast.
Some are great for hanging 10, while others are perfect for family fun in the sun. Some promise animal sightings; others wildflowers or waterfalls. Many are crowded year-round, while a few allow for mostly solitary strolls along the sand. This guide to the 17 best beaches the Golden State has to offer should help visitors narrow down where they should put their toes in the sand.
Found on the island across from San Diego’s downtown, this beach regularly appears on “best of” lists. Perhaps because it literally glistens thanks to the mineral mica specks woven into it. There’s also the added sparkle that comes from a backdrop of opulent mansions and one of California’s finest resorts, the Hotel Del Coronado, which hosts al fresco fitness classes. A paved promenade is perfect for sunset strolling. West-facing waves are gentle enough for novices to try boogie boarding. To get there, drive across the 200-foot-tall bridge or take the ferry or a water taxi.
Choppy waves, undertow, and strong rip currents mean swimming is off the table at the mile-long beach found within the Presidio of San Francisco national park. But one glimpse of that iconic red Golden Gate Bridge from this unique vantage point, and you likely won’t care. The panorama also includes Lands End and the Marin Headlands. People come to jog, hike, fly kites, and throw Frisbees. A picnic area with grills and tables is nestled in a cypress grove. Vestiges of the Presidio’s military past, like the battery, are tourable.
Goat Rock Beach
This rugged bit of scenic shoreline near the mouth of the Russian River a few miles north of Jenner is tucked inside Sonoma Coast State Park. There’s an easily accessible beach, picnic tables, restrooms, and plenty of seabirds putting on a show. But the real draw here is the colony of harbor seals that call it home. Seal-watching is particularly good from March through August, aka pupping season. Babies are even more adorable than their adult counterparts. Mamas can be extra protective, which in the animal kingdom equals extra aggressive, so stay at least 50 yards from them.
There is no shortage of breathtaking sights along the state’s most iconic road, the Pacific Coast Highway, especially in the vicinity of Big Sur. One must-stop is this day use-only cove known for the arch in Keyhole Rock, sunset viewing (light comes through the arch!), tidepools, and purple-ish sand. Despite requiring a short hike to get to the sand, it’s one of Central California’s most popular beaches, especially on rare full-sun days, so go early and stake your claim. While in town, be sure to hike the Overlook Trail at nearby Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. There’s no beach access here, but there’s a remarkable 80-foot waterfall that cascades off granite cliffs into the ocean.
Refugio State Beach
Waves lap the stony beach of this peaceful crescent 22 miles west of Santa Barbara. Butting up to the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Chumash who once resided here called it Kasil or “pretty place.” The former rancho is memorable for the row of palm trees that line it, planted long ago by a set of brothers who ran it as a “tropical” tourist paradise. Although the 66-site campground is far more rustic than that resort, it’s close to the water, hiking trails, and a bike path that crosses the craggy cliffs that look out at the Channel Islands on a clear day.
The Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation estimates some 28,000 people from around the world flock here daily. The people-watching alone is worth the overpriced parking lots. But there’s so much more to its unique appeal than that. There’s an oceanfront skate park, sports courts of various types, including handball and basketball, a bike/running path, a gym on the sand (Muscle Beach) made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger, playgrounds, restaurants, bars with sunny patios, dispensaries, tattoo shops, street performers, palm trees, fishing pier, and a vast beach.
Point Dume State Beach
The first time you visit, you’re likely to experience a bit of déjà vu as its dramatic headlands, rocky coves, blufftop preserve, and curved patch of khaki sand regularly plays the part of quintessential California beach on TV and in movies. It has been seen in dozens of projects, including “I Dream Of Jeannie,” “Iron Man,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Princess Diaries,” “Modern Family,” and “Planet Of The Apes.” The screen time is easily earned by its good looks, but it’s also a functional beach with good swimming, surfing, and scuba diving. Wildlife including sea lions, legless lizards, rabbits, crabs, and birds frequents the point as well.
The central coast hamlet of Cambria oozes charm, and this beach with its pervasive colorful ground cover, twisty escarpments, moody fog, and playful marine life only adds to the vacation vibes. Mere steps from numerous lodging options, the perfect day here always involves a mug of to-go coffee and a ramble along the mile-long plank boardwalk to feel the breeze in your hair and the mist on your skin. If you have more time, explore the tidepools or take a frigid swim. You just might have to share a wave with an otter.
Doran Regional Park
It’s a 2-mile stretch of sandy shore and generally gentle waters on Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, offering optimal conditions for flying kites, playing in the sand, and long romantic walks or picnics. Fishermen take advantage of the rock jetty on the west end while kite surfers, kayakers, and paddleboarders seek out the newly renovated boat launch. There’s a campground for longer stays with accessible sites and even a few all-terrain wheelchairs to borrow. Birders should walk through the grassy dunes to connect with the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail.
Trinidad State Beach
This Humboldt County gem 19 miles north of Eureka is the textbook example of a Northern California beach. The forest practically meets the water. The sand is the color of an old pair of Dockers. The serpentine coast is decorated with tall rocks—some of which are even topped by trees—eroded into sculptures and strewn with driftwood that visitors often assemble into temporary structures. There are far fewer people to fight for blanket space and even fewer that brave the frigid water for a swim. Mornings are misty; wildlife thrives; kayaking is recommended; and seemingly everyone has a dog. It is stunning, romantic, secluded, and inspires contemplation and long walks.
Carmel-By-The-Sea is a posh and picturesque seaside hamlet full of art galleries, wine tasting rooms, and cozy hotels. It follows that they’d also have a grade-A beach with white sand, cypress trees, views of Pebble Beach and Point Lobos, decent surfing, and a gravel path atop a bluff for jogs. It allows dogs off-leash (rare), and it’s sheer joy to watch them living their best lives in the shallows. It’s a nice (albeit steep) walk from any corner in town as the entire village is only one square mile.
This Mendocino Coast treasure at the north end of Fort Bragg is a hopeful example of nature’s resiliency. Between 1906 and 1967, residents dumped waste into the water at three sites. After it was outlawed in the late ‘60s, clean-up programs were instituted. Another round of them occurred in the late ‘90s. But it was the natural motion of the ocean over decades that turned trash into treasure as the pounding waves beat soda bottles, windows, and other glass debris into submission and spit out shiny, smooth sea glass in a variety of colors to join the pebbles. The ultimate find is the rare ruby-colored glass made out of early car taillights. But partake in eyes-only enjoyment as scavenging and collection over the years have severely depleted the site. Removal is illegal anyway.
Located just down the street from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the airport, this is an all-day kind of hangout for large groups. Bike there using the paved trail system. Grill up good times on barbecues. Let the kids loose on the playground. Picnic in the grass. Soak up the sun in the soft sand. Play horseshoes or spy on the numerous snowy egrets. There’s a boat launch available on holidays and weekends, watercraft rentals and lessons, and a fishing pier. You can walk for what seems like miles in both directions and will likely encounter blooming blankets of ice plants or lounging seals.
Crystal Cove State Park
With 3.2 miles of beach spread across seven distinct coves, 2,400 acres of undeveloped backcountry, 18 miles of trails, and a preserved underwater area offshore, this park between Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach is one of Orange County’s largest remaining wild green (and blue) spaces. Park staff hold hikes, tidepool walks, and geology talks year-round. The paved trail on the blufftop, the only trail that allows leashed dogs, is perfect for biking and jogging. The Moro Campground is also up on the cliff and thus provides killer views of the Pacific.
Natural Bridges State Park
Only one of the three namesake mudstone arches is still standing, but it packs enough visual punch to nab this pocket beach in Santa Cruz a spot on the list. Low tide makes for perfect social posts as you can walk under the bridge. Tidepool fans and birders should make haste because it’s a stop on the Pacific Flyway and multiple habitats like freshwater wetlands and salt marsh coexist in a small footprint. Another draw is the eucalyptus grove in the canyon above the beach, as it’s a winter home for migrating Monarchs.
Bolsa Chica State Beach
Once called Tin Can Beach, this Huntington Beach-adjacent hot spot is popular for surfing, volleyball, and bodyboarding. Located just south of the Orange County community of Sunset Beach, the surf breaks in shallow-ish water and forms an advantageous curled crest. Visitors with current California licenses can try their hand (literally!) at another unique activity here during the summer on full or new moon nights—nabbing California grunions, which only spawn on sandy SoCal beaches, with only their bare paws. If you prefer more traditional methods, wade out and fish the surf white caps for corbina, shovelnose guitarfish, and sand sharks. There’s also a visitor center with exhibits on the local ecosystems and a campground with 50 sites and RV hookups.
Moonlight State Beach
The coastal enclave of Encinitas has several pitstops perfect for a day at the beach, including D Street and Stone Steps, followed by lots of great places to refuel or shop along the main drag through town. But Moonlight, so named because residents used to meet for midnight picnic in the early 1900s, meets the most needs with its large sandy area, playground, bonfires after dark, beach volleyball courts, free large parking lot, and a bathroom/rentals/snack bar complex, Encinitas is surfer central. Still, families can exhale knowing there is a designated swimmers-only zone here.