With more than 420 public beaches in California, it could take a lifetime to explore all that the Golden State has to offer when it’s time to relax or play in the sand. Southern California’s beaches are often bustling and well known for their surfer vibes. Northern California beaches tend to be less crowded, a bit chillier, but with some seriously spectacular scenery. In between is central California, hiding lesser known beaches that are definitely worth a visit.
I’ve lived in California for 40 years and I still enjoy exploring the beaches of this great state — it just never gets old. So here are my favorites, starting in the north and ending in the south.
Best Beaches In Northern California
I currently live in southern California and love the bustle of our beaches. But I’ll admit, they can get seriously crowded. I always appreciate the opportunity to visit the quieter beach scene to the north. These are the beaches for long walks with a loved one and stunning scenery.
1. Ten Mile Beach
As part of MacKerricher State Park, Ten Mile Beach is an expanse of protected land that retains its wild and unspoilt character. Take a long walk and explore tide pools, rock formations, and even caves.
Expect to see wildlife. If you enjoy birding, bring your binoculars. There are more than 90 species of birds that live, nest, or make annual migratory stopovers here. If it’s migratory season for whales, you may see them spouting just off shore. Seals are commonly seen on the rocky outcroppings while sea otters call the nearby estuary home.
Ten Mile Beach is pretty remote, so if you’re interested in visiting, plan to make it a day trip. If you’d like to extend your trip, there are campgrounds available.
2. Baker Beach
Baker Beach is a well known spot for locals looking for a break from the city. Located below the rugged cliffs of the Presidio, this is one of the best spots to photograph the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Try to come at sunset for a particularly magical experience.
This is also a good spot to see marine mammals including porpoises, dolphins, and the occasional migrating whale. There are both picnic tables and barbecues here, so it’s an ideal spot for a weekend get together with friends.
Keep in mind that the north end of the beach is clothing optional, so if this isn’t something you are looking for, stick to the southern part of the beach.
3. Santa Cruz Beach
When you think of surfing, odds are southern California comes to mind. But Santa Cruz is a much beloved beach for surfers. In fact, many champion surfers have come from this iconic town.
If you’re here with family, head to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk where you’ll find amusement park rides along with plenty of shopping and dining. Or just hang out on the sand and relax while enjoying all the activity going on around you.
But if you want to see some expert surfing, head to Steamer’s Lane. This isn’t for newbies, in fact, this is the spot for advanced surfers to challenge themselves.
4. Carmel Beach
I love Carmel Beach’s long swaths of white sand set against the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean and dotted with umbrella-shaped Cypress trees. There’s no mistaking this beach for anywhere else in California. Both the beach and the nearby town of Carmel-by-the-Sea are very distinctive.
If you’re a dog lover, you’ll especially love Carmel Beach because your pooch is welcomed here and is permitted to be off-leash. So come here for a long, leisurely walk along the Scenic Bluff Path.
Best Beaches In Central California
Central California is far less known than other regions of California, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t packed with vacation-worthy destinations. This part of the state is home to tiny beach towns, white sand beaches, and romantic boardwalks perfect for a sunset stroll.
5. Moonstone Beach
Cambria is a tiny town located along Highway One, a popular road trip in California. And one of Cambria’s best known attractions is Moonstone Beach, named for the smooth stones found here that appear to sparkle when the light is right.
While you can visit Moonstone Beach anytime of day, you don’t want to miss it at sunset. Take a stroll along the mile-long boardwalk and watch the Sun dip into the Pacific Ocean. You will not have the beach to yourself, but instead, you’ll enjoy the company of couples, families, and dogs, all coming together to enjoy a lovely evening outdoors.
6. Morro Rock Beach
You’ve likely seen a photo of Morro Rock, even if you didn’t know what it was. This 581-foot-tall rock is actually a volcanic plug and served as a navigational aid for sailors for centuries. It’s also the focal point of Morro Rock Beach. With 6 miles of sandy coastline, there’s much to do including beachcombing, walking, surfing, and birding.
If you enjoy photography, consider getting up before the Sun and head to the beach to shoot Morro Rock at sunrise. You’ll likely have the beach to yourself as the Sun paints the sky a range of colors.
When you get hungry — or just need a break from the beach — head to the small town of Morro Bay where you’ll find plenty of coffee shops, seafood restaurants, and boutiques selling souvenirs.
7. Avila Beach
Despite living in California for over 40 years, I only learned about the town of Avila Beach a year ago. As my husband and I were driving up the coast, we wanted to find a place for a short walk. Looking closely at the map, I discovered Avila Beach and decided to check it out. It’s a charming spot with everything a family would need for a summer vacation: a stretch of sandy beach, a boardwalk lined with ice cream vendors and souvenir shops, and a large and colorful playground.
Since Avila Beach is located in a protected bay, it’s also a good spot to watch for gray and humpback whales during their annual migrations. And if you want to learn more about local marine life, head to the Central Coast Aquarium, just steps off the sand.
Best Beaches In Southern California
It was no easy feat to pick my favorite beaches in southern California, so I’ve tried to showcase a range of options including one that’s been featured in many movies and others that are less known.
8. Santa Monica State Beach
You won’t be coming to Santa Monica State Beach for peace and quiet. As one of the best known beaches in the state — maybe the country — it’s always buzzing with activity. Prominently featured along this beach is Santa Monica Pier, home to amusement park rides, games, shops, and restaurants. If it looks familiar, it’s likely because both the beach and pier have been seen in dozens of movies and television shows including Iron Man, Forrest Gump, and Rocky III.
My favorite thing to do at this beach is rent bikes and ride along The Strand. Go a bit north to Will Rogers State Park in Malibu or south to Venice Beach. Don’t worry if you get hungry or thirsty, there are several small cafés and bars along the way.
9. Descanso Beach
Getting to Descanso Beach takes a while, but it will be worth it. Located on Catalina Island, you’ll start your day at San Pedro and hop aboard the Catalina Express to the town of Avalon. From there, it’s a short walk to Descanso Beach.
Thanks to the Descanso Beach Club, you have the option to reserve chaise lounges or private cabanas for the day. A restaurant is just a few steps away serving a variety of food and beverages including the Catalina classic, Buffalo Milk.
If you want to be more active, rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore the waters around the island, which are part of a Marine Protected Area.
10. Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove State Park is a popular destination for Orange County residents thanks to its challenging hiking trails, rugged beauty, and pristine beaches. All of the beaches are a part of a Marine Protected Area, so expect to see marine life. Thanks to all the ocean rocks, there are plenty of tidepools and — depending on the day and time — you may see sea anemones, sea cucumbers, starfish, mussels, mini-conch, and much more. Just be sure to leave everything as you found it.
Getting to the beach in Crystal Cove State Park takes a bit of work, but it’s worth it. All of the parking is on the cliffs above the beach which means a hike down to the sand. If you’re hauling a load of gear like chairs, umbrellas, and a cooler, consider bringing a wagon to make it easier.
11. Coronado Beach
One of my favorite beaches for a long walk is Coronado Beach, a 1.5-mile stretch of sand located in front of the iconic Hotel del Coronado. Start your walk directly in front of the hotel and then proceed north. When you arrive at the dog beach, you’ve reached the end. With the U.S. Naval base bookending this beach, you will not be able to extend your walk.
Before or after your walk, spend some time exploring the historic Hotel Del that’s hosted hundreds of celebrities and dignitaries throughout its 135-year history. There’s a café, ice cream shop, and outdoor restaurant with lovely ocean views. Or just grab a seat on the large lawn and watch the waves roll in.
Looking for a more localized list? Here are our picks from the northern, central, and southern coasts: