The best beaches in California for surf, sand and sun

Whether you’re a surfer, a swimmer or just looking for a shoreline to stroll, the best beaches in California have it all

California does a lot of things really well. Great tacos. Fabulous hikes. Unreal national parks. But one thing it does seriously well is beaches. From San Diego all the way to SF, California’s beaches are something to shout about.

And the best part? There’s quite literally something for everyone, from beaches to get your surf on to hidden coves for exploring. So whether you’re looking to beach-hop, spot wildlife or laze around in the sun all day, California has you covered. Here are its best beaches.

Best beaches in California

Coronado Beach

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Tristan Loper

1. Coronado Beach

Found in San Diego, fans of classic cinema and Marilyn Monroe films will recognize the half-mile strip of silvery sand at Coronado Beach—literally sparkling thanks to the mineral mica—from its cameo in the 1959 romantic comedy Some Like It Hot. Running parallel to lengthy Ocean Boulevard, the beach is lined with oceanfront mansions including the iconic Victorian landmark Hotel del Coronado. This strip of shoreline is not just beautiful, it’s also one of California’s best spots for frolicking in the ocean: lifeguards are famously watchful, water is slightly warmer than it is farther north and the gentle waves are ideal for swimming, boogie boarding or learning to surf.

Discover the best things to do in San Diego

Crescent Bay Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Crescent Bay Beach

This broad, crescent-shaped beach sports tropical vibes and isn’t as popular as other local beaches at Laguna Beach. Given its turquoise waters and palm-tree-lined backdrop, this sandy stunner could easily be mistaken for the Caribbean. During summer months, warm, mellow waters teem with swimmers and snorkelers, the latter exploring the craggy shoreline to the north. Its neighborhood setting off Pacific Coast Highway can make parking a challenge, but also limits the crowds. Laguna’s coastline is crammed full of gorgeous beaches—it’s hard to go wrong—but Crescent Bay is a good place to start.

Zuma Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

3. Zuma Beach

This four-mile expanse of sand in Malibu is one of the most popular in Los Angeles County. Unlike other beaches in Malibu, there are no private homes sitting between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean, so the vibe is more laid-back and less exclusive than neighboring sands. Warm-weather weekends here are the best, as the area is swarmed by sunbathers, body surfers and volleyball players. While that sounds like it could make for parking hell—the bane of many an Angeleno’s existence—the beach is bounded by eight lots with nearly 2,000 spaces that make reaching the shore a heck of a lot easier than dodging traffic to cross PCH.

Discover the best things to do in Malibu

The Wedge at Newport Beach

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Minh Phan

4. The Wedge at Newport Beach

While Huntington Beach (a.k.a. Surf City) may be the most storied surf beach in the state, its shoreline is often blanketed with tourists. The Wedge, home to the biggest swell in SoCal, is where the OG O.C. surfers of Newport Beach turn up to play. While the three-mile stretch of Balboa Beach offers plenty of fun diversions—laid-back eateries, an old-timey Fun Zone with midway games and rides—the Wedge is a premier spot to surf, boogie board, or simply marvel at epic waves. Situated at the tip of Balboa Peninsula, the powerful break can reach 30-feet tall, offering beachgoers a chance to watch Orange County’s best drop-in while avoiding hordes of sightseers.

Discover the best things to do in Newport Beach

Carmel Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Carmel Beach

Carmel’s beach is a stunning, white sand beach that’s a perfect introduction to the natural splendor of the Monterey Peninsula. While the quaint village of Carmel might feel like the setting for the Hansel & Gretel tale, Carmel Beach is 100 percent California. Situated at the edge of town and ringed by sculpted cypress trees, the exceptionally scenic beach lures locals and visitors who stroll down from Carmel’s many shops and eateries. The beach slopes down from the small parking lot, forming a de facto seaside amphitheater to admire translucent aqua waves, a handful of brave surfers, and a multitude of giddy dogs frolicking along the shore. Pack a blanket as a handful of fire pits offers a reason to linger after sunset.

Shark Fin Cove

Photograph: Shutterstock

6. Shark Fin Cove

This is a hidden beach off Highway 1 in Davenport, Santa Cruz County that packs a ton of atmosphere into a snug, scenic cove. The beach’s namesake, shark-fin–shaped outcrop looms large over this cozy patch of sand bounded by towering sandstone cliffs. A short but steep rocky path down to the beach limits the crowds, lending ample space to spread out or explore the beach’s natural wonders including a tunnel-like sea cave carved by waves. Just note that there are no facilities, so remember to pack your trash!

Santa Monica Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Santa Monica Beach

Arguably one of the most iconic shorelines on the West Coast, this three-mile stretch of powder-soft sand is basically Santa Monica’s seaside version of Central Park: hard-bodied locals and curious tourists convene to cycle the bike path, run and play volleyball in the sand. It’s a prime hangout for L.A.’s most beautiful, athleisure set. Plus, Santa Monica Beach is home to a famous amusement park on the pier including a recognizable, historic carousel that you’ll want to capture for the ’gram.

Discover the best things to do in Santa Monica

Limantour Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Limantour Beach

This remote expanse of sand that lies between Drakes Bay and a wildlife-filled estuary is set near the small, rural town of Point Reyes Station (population is just under 900) in Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, yet feels worlds away. The park is a magnet for hikers, campers and local equestrians, who trek dog- and equine-friendly trails to this seemingly never-ending beach. People on horseback riding along the gently rolling surf add to the stunning scenery.

East Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

9. East Beach

Santa Barbara’s East and West Beaches are separated by Stearns Wharf, an 1872 pier that juts out into the Pacific and recently earned the distinction of being California’s oldest working wharf. While both palm-lined strips of sand are gorgeous, East Beach is the bigger, better section. For those seeking a sense of seclusion, the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge lies 1.6 miles east of the dock. Closer to town, one can regularly find events like the weekly Reef and Run swimming competitions and volleyball tournaments on the sand-covered courts. Keep an eye out for strolling vendors hawking succulent mangoes on a stick.

Discover the best things to do in Santa Barbara

Oceano Dunes

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Shiny Things

10. Oceano Dunes

Oceano Dunes is the only California State Park where non-street-legal vehicles can be driven on the beach, so dune buggies and ATVs are frequent sights on this Central Coast stretch of coastline. There’s more to this soft-sand beach than driving. Most evenings, you’ll see Pismo Beach locals kicking back with a glass of wine and roasting marshmallows over a bonfire while watching the sunset behind the rolling hills that converge upon the sea.

Discover the best things to do in Pismo Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/SK

11. Natural Bridges State Beach

This Santa Cruz wildlife destination gets its name from the iconic, natural bridge that sits just offshore. Often covered with resting pelicans and cormorants, it’s a beautiful sight, especially at sunset. Visitors to this park can often spot seals, tide pool critters and migrating whales, but the most impressive creatures found here are the butterflies. From October through February, more than 100,000 Monarch butterflies flock to the fragrant eucalyptus grove that’s just a short walk away from the sand.

Discover the best things to do in Santa Cruz

Pfeiffer Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

12. Pfeiffer Beach

With purple sand and a famous ‘keyhole’ arch, Pfeiffer Beach represents one of a few accessible beaches along Big Sur’s stunning coastline. In a state that boasts nine national parks, a national seashore and lots of national forests, Big Sur still holds the title of the most beautiful place in California. Once you’ve whipped past the winding, rugged coastline of coastal redwoods, dramatic bluffs, and vibrant blue ocean hues, make your way down to Pfeiffer Beach’s purple-tinted sands—a byproduct of an eroding, garnet-rich hillside—and watch for the sun to illuminate the iconic arch carved out of the massive outcrop just offshore.

La Jolla Shores

Photograph: Shutterstock

13. La Jolla Shores

Joined by sandstone cliffs to the north and south, this mile-long stretch of shoreline boasts classic California ocean views with access to numerous maritime activities. It draws surfers, scuba divers and boaters with the only beachfront boat launch in the city. In the summer months, the waves at La Jolla are the gentlest in San Diego, so it’s a prime spot for those who want to cool off with a relaxing dip in the sea between roasting in the relentless SoCal sun.

Baker Beach

Photograph: Julian Bialowas

14. Baker Beach

San Francisco isn’t known for its balmy beach days, but this sandy coastline is well worth a visit even if you have to bundle up in fleece to enjoy it. Stretched out beneath the Presidio’s jagged cliffs, this mile-long strip boasts Insta-worthy views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the craggy Marin Headlands across the bay. On those rare occasions when the sun is actually out, don’t be surprised if you see a few exposed buns on the northern section of the beach, where clothing is optional.

Discover the best things to do in San Francisco

Moonstone Beach

Photograph: Shutterstock

15. Moonstone Beach

Slightly more rugged than many of the Central Coast’s soft sandy strips, Cambria’s Moonstone Beach is ideal for beachcombers, wildlife admirers and fans of picturesque panoramas. The dramatic, brown shoreline punctuated by multicolored sea glass and moonstones—hence the beach’s name—is cradled by a rocky bluff topped with a one-mile wooden boardwalk from which one can spot sea otters as well as whales and dolphins during migration season. On clear evenings, watch for the elusive green flash during sunset.

About The Author

Scroll to Top