There's perhaps no other state that captures the essence of a carefree, sun-kissed lifestyle than California, and its beaches are a big part of the appeal. The Golden State has over 800 miles of coastline, so there are plenty of top strands to choose from. Whether it's a crescent-shaped beauty or a secluded cliffside stretch, here are the best beaches in California (keep in mind, SoCal beaches are a lot warmer and sunnier than the ones up north!).
Best for Families
Located on Coronado Island, just over the bridge from San Diego, family-friendly Coronado Beach is a wide stretch with calm waters, making it one of the best beaches in California for kids. Be sure to stop into the famous red-roofed, Victorian-style Hotel del Coronado, affectionately known as the Del, for fish tacos at the Sun Deck Bar & Grill.
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Best for Sunsets
It makes sense that this postcard-perfect seaside village has one of the best beaches in California. Just off Ocean Avenue, this gorgeous crescent-shaped stretch is known for its soft, pure-white sand and views of the Pebble Beach golf course. Dogs are allowed off-leash, there's beach volleyball, and there are even wood-burning fire pits where you can have cheese and wine as you settle in to watch the sunset.
Best for Bridge Views
Baker Beach has take-your-breath-away views of San Francisco'sGolden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Due to strong riptides, swimming isn't recommended, but this mile-long stretch is perfect for an afternoon picnic and meandering stroll (watch for the occasional dolphin in the surf). Keep in mind that the beach's northern end is clothing-optional!
Best for Nostalgia
This beach has good swimming and a lively boardwalk scene, making it one of SoCal's best beaches, but one of Mission Beach's best aspects is historic Belmont Park, an historic amusement park. A ride on the Giant Dipper — a wooden roller coaster operating since 1925 — is a must, and there are also arcade games, mini golf, and classic eats like cotton candy and waffle cones.
Best for Surfing
With a nickname like "Surf City USA," Huntington Beach is a no-brainer when it comes to hanging 10 (though Santa Cruz's Steamer Lane Beach and Malibu's Surfrider Beach are sweet surfing spots, too). If you just like to watch, there's no better vantage point then from on the 1,850-foot pier, with the famous '50s-style Ruby's Diner at the very tip.
Best for Cliff Views
Sandstone cliffs more than 300-feet high provide a dramatic backdrop as you take a dip in the Pacific Ocean or a walk along the golden-colored sand while visiting Torrey Pines State Beach, north of the community of La Jolla in San Diego. There's also great birding along the shoreline — keep an eye out for osprey, brown pelicans, and royal terns.
Best for People-Watching
If you're visiting Los Angeles, it's well worth heading out to Venice Beach for the day to take in the sea of humanity on this world-famous California beach known for its over-the-top — and some say plain old weird — boardwalk scene. Whether it's street performers, joggers, artists, skateboarders, or bronzed gods lifting weights, Venice Beach has it all.
Best for Insta-Worthy Photos
Pfeiffer Beach, reached via unpaved road off Highway 1, is famous not only for its purple-hued sand (due to manganese garnet deposits), but also for its many rocky outcroppings — including the famous Pfeiffer keyhole rock, where the sun's rays filter through a natural archway, creating a tunnel of light that's absolutely mesmerizing.
Best Island Getaway
If you really want to get away from it all, hop aboard a ferry from Long Beach (and other locations) to idyllic Catalina Island. Avalon, the island's largest town, has a postcard-perfect harbor dotted with sailboats, and the main strand is Crescent Beach, which is comprised of three small beaches. While you won't find wide sandy stretches, the view of the harbor and surrounding cliffs more than makes up for it.
Best for Celebrity Spotting
You never know who you might spot while catching some rays on Zuma Beach in Malibu, the exclusive enclave that many celebrities call home. This gorgeous strand is approximately 2 miles long, so there's plenty of space for everyone to find their own patch of sand. There are also lifeguard stations, beach volleyball courts, and picnic areas.
Santa Monica Beach is one of LA County's most beautiful strands, and its iconic pier is known throughout the state. Kids will love the amusement park, with its famous Ferris wheel, and other rides and arcade games. You'll also find the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, a trapeze school, a historic carousel, and eateries for everything from funnel cake to Dungeness crab.
Best Luxury Resort Beach
Salt Creek Beach, one of Orange County's most beautiful beaches, is a wide, sandy stretch fronting rocky cliffs, particularly on its southern end, where the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel resort is located. If you're staying at the resort, shuttles can drop you off at the beach. Otherwise, you might want to stop into the hotel for a sunset cocktail.
Best Beach for Dogs
Located in Mission Bay, Fiesta Island is just 15 minutes from downtown San Diego. The entirety of the island is a park, and much of it is leash-free for dogs. Your four-legged friends will love this large crescent-shaped beach, where they can run on the sand and small dunes, and cool off with a dip in the shallow bay waters.
Best for Tidepooling
The California coast is known for its fabulous tide pools, and the beach at James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, 40 minutes south of San Francisco, is known to have some of the best. At low tide, some of the sea critters you might spot include mussels, snails, urchins, and sea stars (collecting isn't permitted).
Best Beach Campground
California has quite a few beaches with campgrounds — sites where you can park your RV and within a few minutes' walk be right on the sand. One of the largest campsites is San Clemente State Park, a mile-long stretch approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Be sure to make a reservation, as the campsites go quickly, especially in summer.
Where to Stay: San Clemente State Beach Campground
Best for Caves
The Laguna Beach area is filled with numerous stunning strands, but one of the most unique is Thousand Steps, which is home to a sea cave. The beach itself is hard to find, and it does have more than 200 (though not a thousand!) steps to get down to the sand, but it's worth the effort. The cave is on the beach's southern end, and during low tide, you can walk into it and explore.
Best for Horseback Rides
Not only is Summerland Beach one of Santa Barbara's most beautiful stretches, but it's also very friendly to your four-legged friends — and we're not just talking about dogs, but horses as well! For a magical experience, especially at sunset, book a 90-minute ride with Santa Barbara Beach Horseback Rides, which takes you right along the edge of the water.
Best for Hiking
Stinson, a crescent-shaped, wide beach located within the Golden Gate Recreation Area, has a little something for everyone. It's a popular spot for picnicking and barbecuing, water sports, such as boogie boarding and surfing, and, as an added bonus, there are numerous hiking trails nearby, many of which that lead into Mount Tamalpais State Park.
Where to Stay: Sandpiper Lodging
Best Boardwalk Scene
There's always something going on at Main Beach, the prime stretch of sand in Santa Cruz. Often called Boardwalk Beach, this is where you can take a spin on the rollercoaster in the amusement park, play some arcade games, or simply sit on a boardwalk bench and take in the ocean views while enjoying a soft serve ice cream.
Best for Beach Volleyball
This super wide beach (not to be confused with nearby Alamitos Bay Beach) is a scenic spot to catch to some rays, but if you're feeling active, you can also play some beach volleyball. Long Beach is one of SoCal's top beach volleyball spots (Olympic gold medal-winning player Misty May-Treanor is a longtime resident).