Oh, California. When it comes to America’s third-largest state, it’s nearly impossible to pick its best beaches, as almost all of them — in addition to those on its surrounding channel islands — have worthy attributes. However, the job had to be done, and we knew narrowing it down wasn’t going to be an easy task. So, we intensely researched to round up the best beaches the Golden State has to offer.
When first-time visitors imagine California, one of the first things that come to mind is the beach. One might envision bathing suit-clad beachgoers sashaying down sunny California boardwalks in the south or hikers traversing cliffs along the coast in the north. Either way, California offers more than 420 public beaches to choose from. To help you decide which coast to travel to next, we have compiled a list of the 21 best beach hotspots and hidden gems in California, taking into consideration factors like aesthetics, atmosphere, and convenience to determine this list. Check it out below!
Number 1 - Laguna Beach
The artist colony of Laguna Beach is one of Orange County’s hidden gems, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Laguna Beach is filled to the brim with so many beautiful beaches known for their tide pools, superb surfing conditions, and more that it would be a disservice to visit just one during your stay. Laguna Beach also boasts the most beachfront lodging options in all of California, making it an ideal spot for a beach getaway.
Beyond the beach, the city is home to more than 20,000 beautiful acres of protected wilderness, making it an optimal location for adventurous exploration. From world-renowned mountain biking trails for all levels of expertise, hundreds of miles of hiking, dramatic vistas, verdant hills and marine sanctuaries, there’s no limit of new places to discover during a visit to Laguna Beach. Pack your flip flops and surfboard or hiking shoes and water bottles, either way, Laguna Beach and all its options are awaiting your arrival.
Number 2 - Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach in the Big Sur area is definitely off the beaten path, but well worth the drive. One of the few accessible beaches in Big Sur is also one of the most photogenic in all of California. Located about 10 miles southeast of Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Beach impresses with its stunning surrounding cliffs and collection of rock formations. The focal point on your walk to the shore is the massive rock (actually two rocks) in the crashing surf. One rock has a rock arch in it known as the Keyhole Arch. This amazing natural arch allows waves, and even the last rays of daylight, to pass through it. This spot is strikingly beautiful at sunset and is frequently professionally photographed. The north end of the beach is special too. In this area, you can find unique purple sand that comes from manganese garnet rocks in the cliffs. There are also tide pools at the north end during low tides.
Number 3 - Monterey Beaches
What Monterey lacks in swimmable shorelines it more than makes up for in its beautiful scenery. Fort Ord Dunes State Park is a gorgeous hidden gem, offering sky-high dunes with fantastic views of the peninsula, as well as 4 miles of quiet fine-sand beach, where you'll find relatively few beachgoers. For the best of Monterey, drive along Ocean View Boulevard or the legendary 17-Mile Drive. Both routes travel past pocket-size beaches that will blow you away with their beauty, including the romantic Lovers Point Park and Beach, a popular wedding destination.
Number 4 - Carmel Beach
At the foot of Ocean Avenue, Carmel Beach is one of the most iconic spots on California's Central Coast and is rated "One of America's Top Beach Towns." From morning to night Carmel Beach attracts visitors and locals alike to take in the majestic scenery and fun activities. The beach's nearly white sand, vibrant blue water, and unspoiled cypress trees make it perfect for a long, romantic stroll, while its dog- and drink-friendly policies keep the atmosphere laid-back and fun. When you need a break from surfing or sunbathing, head to the adjacent town of Carmel, which is awash with locally owned eateries and boutiques. Stick around the beach until sunset for a truly memorable evening that only California can provide.
Number 5 - Coronado Beach
Set against the backdrop of storied and iconic Hotel del Coronado, featured in Marilyn Monroe’s 1958 film “Some Like it Hot,” Coronado is the quintessential San Diego postcard experience and a great place for a romantic getaway or a fun-filled family beach vacation. The long sandy beaches here are special and literally sparkle, thanks to the mineral mica in its golden sand. The roughly 2-mile-long Coronado Beach proves popular with families and couples thanks to its calm ocean water, clean sand, and legendary sunsets. Plus, the beach sits close to the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, making it easy to reach the popular Gaslamp Quarter (with top hotels and restaurants) in downtown San Diego.
Number 6 - Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is probably one of California's most laid-back destinations, and its 29 miles of beaches are no different. Santa Cruz is a city on central California’s coast. Its long wharf, with eateries and shops, stretches into Monterey Bay. Do as the locals do and take things slow while hitting up top beaches like Pleasure Point Beach, Twin Lakes State Beach, and Main Beach. Nearby, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s vintage rides include the 1911 Looff Carousel and the Giant Dipper roller coaster. Downtown, Pacific Avenue has vintage clothing stores, cafes, and galleries. Along West Cliff Drive, Natural Bridges State Beach is known for its bridge-shaped rock formation.
Number 7 - Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove State Park is considered one of the largest remaining natural seashores in Orange County. It is a state park of California, encompassing 3.2 miles of Pacific coastline, inland chaparral canyons, and the Crystal Cove Historic District of beach houses. The park is made up of multiple beaches, including popular Moro Beach and Pelican Point, and features plenty of tide pools in between. In addition to offering scenic shorelines, Crystal Cove State Park is home to 18 miles of hiking trails spread across 2,400 acres of wilderness, allowing travelers to experience the best of Southern California's gorgeous geography in one destination.
Number 8 - Dana Point
Dana Point is seldom on California tourists' radars, making it the perfect place to explore if you want to avoid crowds. Situated about halfway between San Clemente and Laguna Beach in Orange County, this town is truly breathtaking, offering lots of lovely beaches to write home about. Dana Point Harbor, with its marinas and eclectic boutiques, is a jumping off point for dolphin and whale-watching cruises. There's also the famous Dana Strand Beach, which is known for its proximity to a bevy of waterfront mansions.
Number 9 - Newport Beach
Look one way, and you’ll see oceanfront mansions and a yacht-lined harbor. Look another, and you’ll find historic cottages, dive bars, and a friendly controversy about ice cream bars. With its mix of high-end living and world-class surfing waves, Newport Beach offers both luxury and beach-town delights. Newport Beach features a similar atmosphere to Laguna Beach, though it has a lot more going on. Welcoming millions of people annually, Newport Beach boasts 10 miles of coastline, as well as an array of amenities, including the Lido Marina Village shopping center and the Balboa Fun Zone amusement park.
Number 10 - Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is 2,000 acres of coastal state park located in the community of La Jolla, in San Diego, California, off North Torrey Pines Road. The reserve is famous for its rare Torrey pine trees but is more of a point of interest for its scenic trails and breathtaking beaches, which are backed by striking sky-high coastal cliffs. North Beach and South Beach divide the reserve's coastline. Both of these traveler-approved beaches offer separate parking lots but often get crowded due to their small sizes, so plan on arriving early.
Number 11 - El Matador State Beach
Tucked between the mansions and luxury hotels of Malibu, El Matador's low-key location and craggy, coastal terrain will make you feel as if you've happened upon someplace special. Undoubtedly one of Malibu’s most beautiful landscapes, El Matador State Beach boasts incredible ocean views from the rugged cliffs above, which you’ll have no choice but to perch upon, as the beach can only be accessed by a steep dirt trail leading down to the shore. Here, you’ll be able to witness one of the most mesmerizing sunsets in the world, and if you come during the off-season (anytime but summer), you may even find yourself with the beach all to yourself.
Number 12 - Santa Monica
Santa Monica is everything you'd imagine a Southern California beach destination to be. Just west of Los Angeles, this highly frequented destination draws in millions of tourists each year, thanks to its iconic pier, fantastic beach, and stunning sunsets. The city's namesake beach stretches 3 miles and covers 245 acres. The pier, as well as its famous roller coaster, is a must-do during sunset after a long day at the beach. It features the area's iconic Pacific Park amusement park pier, a paved path that connects Santa Monica to Venice Beach, and incredible views of the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. Plus, the beach sits just a few blocks away from the Third Street Promenade's various amenities.
Number 13 - Huntington Beach
Huntington Beach is like something out of a dream, Just look at the picture above! If you were looking for the quintessential California beach experience, head to Huntington Beach. Dubbed Surf City USA, Huntington Beach offers all of the charms you'd expect to find at a California beach. Warm weather and year-round sun offer the perfect setting for outdoor activities such as beach bonfires, volleyball by the Pier, biking along the Ocean Strand, stand-up paddleboarding in Huntington Harbour, hiking through the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, or strolling down Main Street.
Number 14 - Bolinas Beach
A quiet, dog-friendly beach with conditions well-suited to beginner surfers. The people in the small, unincorporated town of Bolinas would prefer their beach not make this list. In fact, they voted to not have any signs point to their community, so you’ll have to find it via unmarked roads. However, thanks to the beginner-friendly waves and laws that permit dogs to roam off-leash, this secluded spot is great for a laid-back afternoon.
Number 15 - Venice Beach
Known for its bohemian spirit, Venice is a buzzing beach town with upscale commercial and residential pockets. The free-spirited Venice Boardwalk is the site of funky shops, street performers, and colorful murals. This iconic Los Angeles shoreline is unique in that it isn't famous for its actual beach but rather the quirky inhabitants and bodybuilders that congregate there. A stroll along the boardwalk will open you up to the sights and sounds of Venice's eccentric personality. Venice Beach also offers a variety of eateries and a good selection of hotels. For a quieter setting, walk a couple of blocks east of the beach to the tranquil Venice Canals.
Number 16 - Cowell Beach
Situated in Santa Cruz, Cowell Beach, aka Cowell’s, is the name of the beach west of the Municipal Wharf pier in downtown Santa Cruz, CA. Thanks to 15 volleyball courts, beginner-friendly waves (with local surfers who aren’t overly possessive of them), and its proximity to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and despite the fact that it is sadly one of California’s most polluted beaches, “Cowells" is a popular spot for both newbie surfers and lazy beach-goers. So popular, in fact, that parking is impossible on sunny summer days. Really, it can be a nightmare. Still, if you’re looking to learn to surf, this is the place to bring your longboard.
Number 17 - Malibu
Malibu is one of Southern California's greatest treats. It’s known for its celebrity homes and beaches, including wide and sandy Zuma Beach. Here, you'll find beautiful beaches big and small that are perfect for exploring, lounging, or both. For lots of room on the sand, head to Zuma Beach or Point Dume State Beach. Inland, trails weave through canyons, waterfalls, and grasslands in the Santa Monica Mountains. There's so much to see between the beaches and nearby mountains that you should allow at least a few days to explore it all.
Number 18 - Half Moon Bay
If you're the kind of traveler who prefers big, beautiful beaches, check out Half Moon Bay. Half Moon Bay is a small city on the California coast, south of San Francisco. A string of beaches along the bay includes Half Moon Bay State Beach. This beach town about 30 miles south of San Francisco is famous for its stunning namesake beach, which is so big that there are beaches within the beach. Dunes Beach at the northern end and Francis Beach at the southern end are both great places to visit here. Other can't-miss shores include the beautiful Cowell Ranch, Martins, and Tunitas Creek beaches. For the best panoramas, hike the California Coastal Trail.
Number 19 - Oceanside, CA
Oceanside is a coastal city in California. It's known for palm-dotted Harbor Beach and nearby Oceanside Harbor, with its marina and shops. To the south, the long Oceanside Pier juts into the Pacific Ocean. The Oceanside Strand serves as the main artery for beachgoers, as it runs along the city's coastline. The pretty beaches complement Oceanside's small coastal town vibe, though the area sees an influx of tourists during the peak summer season. Start your visit at Oceanside Pier before walking either direction on The Strand. North takes you to the spacious Harbor Beach, while a stroll south leads to Tysons Street Beach, an excellent picnic spot.
Number 20 - Manhattan Beach
Beachgoers who don't want to deal with the hordes of tourists that congregate in Venice Beach and Santa Monica should hit up Manhattan Beach. Manhattan Beach is a laid-back South Bay community popular with families and outdoor enthusiasts. This town and beach are located about 20 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles, still, see visitors regularly but rarely feel crowded. At the beach, you'll discover a beautiful stretch of sand with superb waves for surfers, as well as amenities like a paved path flanked by impressive seaside homes, volleyball courts, and a pier with incredible views – especially at sunset – of the nearby Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Number 21 - Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach is the kind of place you go when you want to escape it all. Pismo Beach is a city on California's Central Coast. It's known for its wineries and many beaches. This small beach town less than 12 miles south of San Luis Obispo offers little to do other than beach activities, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. While visiting, rent a kayak to check out Dinosaur Caves Park or hire a dune buggy to zip down to the shore. Don't forget to see the flurry of butterflies at Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove if you're in town between late October and late February
Travel might be complicated right now, but use our extensive beach list to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure across the sunny state of California. Make sure you are prepared to visit all these beach hotspots by purchasing a stunning pair of our swim trunks today!