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With 840 miles of scenic coastline, California has some of the best beaches on the West Coast. The beaches, views and amenities vary greatly from SoCal to northern California. This guide can help you plan and make the most of your California beach getaway.
People come from all over the world to enjoy California beaches. And no wonder. With 840 miles of scenic coastline, the Golden State boasts some of the best beaches for sunbathing, swimming and water sports. Part of the appeal is that the beach scenery and beach vibe vary along the coast from southern California to Northern California.
Typically, California beaches from San Diego to Los Angeles are sunny with many wide, white sandy beaches. Central and Northern California beaches are more rugged, with pictures bluffs and forests. Temperatures at these beaches are usually mild.
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The beautiful drive along Pacific Coast Highway (better known as PCH) follows the sunny coast and becomes Highway 1 in Central California. There, beaches tend to be less populated. Jagged cliffs, bluffs, and redwood forests distinguish Northern California beaches. Not all beaches are visible from the road. In fact, some of California’s best beaches are hidden gems.
TravelingMom Tip: Wear shorts, flip-flops and sunscreen for Southern and Central California beaches. Heading north to cooler temps and rugged terrain, wear long pants, sweaters, and sturdy shoes.
Best California Beaches Include Good Water Quality
It’s important to check out water quality. Bays, harbors, and marinas, where the water gets less flushing to clear out contaminates, can be the most dangerous. This is especially true after a heavy rain.
Always check water quality reports before you head out. The non-profit Heal The Bay produces an annual beach report card to inform beach-goers about water quality at various beaches.
Here are my personal choices of best California beaches, which are quality in almost every way!
Best California Beaches: San Diego
San Diego alone has 70 miles of coastline with a variety of beaches. In fact, locals like to say they have a 70-mile sandbox for lots of outdoor play. Boogie boarding, sandcastle building and swimming are among things to do in La Jolla with kids.
Visiting Sacramento with kids? Here are some ideas for fun things to do.
Located across from San Diego Bay, Coronado Beaches are among the best beaches in California for many reasons. Coronado Beach North is especially great for surfers, and those who enjoy beach volleyball. Dogs are allowed to run free. Showers are located on Central Beach.
Meanwhile, Coronado South has one of the widest, white sand beaches in the county. The beaches have lifeguards, and a set of ramps for wheelchairs part way out to the beach at the main lifeguard station.
Parking: You’ll find parking all along the beaches, which include residential neighborhoods in front of gorgeous dream homes.
TravelingMom Tip: Enjoy a meal or stay at the iconic Hotel del Coronado. Bike rentals are available at the Coronado Ferry Landing.
A one mile-long sandy beach, La Jolla Beach Shores has small waves ideal for younger kids to play in the shallow water. Activities for older kids include surfing, body boarding, and kayaking to the ecological preserve, sea caves and cove. A wide cement boardwalk separates the beach from a large grassy park that’s popular for picnics and volleyball games.
Pacific Beach and Mission Beach
Families with teens flock to bustling Pacific and Mission Beaches where older kids can enjoy activities and independence. The beaches are connected by a three-mile boardwalk ideal for skating, bicycling and people-watching. Beach-goers will also find boutiques, surf shops and cheap eats. More activities include fishing off the jetty at South Mission Beach Park. Adjacent to Mission Beach is Belmont Park featuring the vintage “Giant Dipper” roller coaster.
Both Pacific and Mission beaches are among nine beaches that have permanent lifeguard stations patrolled by San Diego lifeguards.
Parking: Parking is tricky, but there are public lots around Belmont Park, Santa Clara Point and South Mission Beach Park. Pacific Beach has a few small paid parking lots.
TravelingMom tip: If you’re staying in San Diego, you might consider riding a bus or bike to the beach.
Best California Beaches: Orange County
Rocky bluffs, canyons and cove beaches define posh Laguna Beach. Though the coastal city has 36 beaches, many are closed off by gated communities or are difficult to reach. However, Main Beach and Crystal Cove State Park are easily reachable – and great choices for a beach day.
Centrally located Main Beach offers fun in the sun with shopping and dining at your fingertips. Situated in a broad cove, the wide, sandy beach has a grass park with a boardwalk, basketball courts, and sand volleyball courts. In addition, there’s a children’s play area. Lifeguards keep watch near the middle of the beach. Amenities include picnic tables, showers, and restrooms. And, shops and restaurants are steps away.
Parking: Lots and metered street parking are available.
In contrast, Crystal Cove State Park is a rustic beach with open space and over three miles of natural coastline. Pack food and wear sturdy shoes for hiking and tidepooling. In addition, a unique feature is the historic district anchored by 46 vintage beach cottages. Built in the 1930s and ’40s, they book up quickly so make reservations well in advance.
Parking: Options include the ocean side of PCH (Reef point and Newport Coast). Also, there’s inland inland parking near El Morro Elementary School.
Ten miles of coastline for swimming, surfing, kayaking, and paddling rank Newport among the best California beaches. For example, Corona del Mar State Beach is a mecca for many water sports including scuba diving, snorkeling, and surfing. Or try your hand at volleyball on the flat, sandy beach. Rock jetties provide protection from rough surf, allowing for safe swimming. In addition, if you arrive early enough you may snag a fire ring for a beach cookout.
Parking: There are numerous public parking lots, parking meters and on-street parking available. You can also download and use the free Park Mobile parking app to pay. An alternate free entrance is at the east end of the park at Ocean Boulevard and Orchid Avenue where there is a small blufftop park called Inspiration Point.
TravelingMom Tip: Feed your family at the casual, beach-side Tackle Box eatery.
Huntington Beach: Surf City USA
Five beaches and 10 miles of pristine coastline make this a prime spot for active families. In fact, Huntington Beach is among the best places to surf or take a surf lesson. After all, this is Surf City USA. And if you’re traveling with your furry friends, check out Huntington Dog Beach. Dogs can learn to surf too!
Huntington City Beach is a great all-around family beach for surfing, volleyball, and people-watching. Stroll along the 1,850-foot long Hunting Beach Pier for panoramic views and to watch surfers. At the end of the pier, enjoy burgers and shakes at Ruby’s Diner. Find parking at First Street, Huntington Street and Beach Boulevard.
Huntington State Beach is the classic California beach with miles of silky sand, volleyball nets, a paved biking trail and fire pits. Bring food for a cookout and claim your spot early for a beach bonfire. Amenities include restrooms, outdoor showers, and wheelchair accessibility. Paid parking lots run the entire length on Pacific Coast Highway with four entrances.
Best California Beaches: Los Angeles Area
The L.A. area’s quintessential beaches run the gamut from tranquil to lively.
South Bay Beaches
Cabrillo Beach is comprised of two beaches (one inside the harbor breakwater and the other outside, facing the ocean). Located on a peninsula, it has much to offer families. In addition to swimming, surfing and volleyball, there’s a fishing pier. Besides fishing, it’s a good location for whale watching. But what it makes it unique are grunions. During grunion season (about March – August), people try to catch the small sardine-size fish by hand.
Amenities include a snack bar, children’s play area, picnic tables, fire pits, outside showers and restrooms.
Parking: The main lot is adjacent to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, and a smaller lot is located toward the fishing pier.
TravelingMom Tip: Be sure to visit nearby Cabrillo Marine Aquarium’s interactive exhibits, and tidepool touch tanks.
Manhattan Beach has piles of soft sand, a historic pier, and palm trees. In addition to swimming and beach volleyball, you can bike or stroll along The Strand, a 22-mile paved coastal trail. Shops and restaurants are located near the pier.
Parking: Pay lots and metered street parking.
TravelingMom Tip: Walk along the pier to the Roundhouse Aquarium, which houses marine animals in glass tanks and touch tanks. Free admission.
This funky beach has a unique reputation for its lively beachfront boardwalk home to cafes, shops, and quirky street performers. There’s also a skate park and the famous Muscle Beach. Some people like the wacky ambiance, others find it off-putting. But the beach itself is nice and consistently ranks an “A” for water quality by Heal the Bay. You can also walk on the boardwalk to Santa Monica Beach. While in Venice be sure to walk along the nearby canals surrounded by pretty homes.
Parking: Street parking fills up quickly, but there are three paid lots.
Perhaps the best known and most visited L.A. beach, Santa Monica is a lively spot with wide beaches and many activities. So, expect crowds. People come from all over to take a dip in the frothy surf, and lounge on the toasty golden sand. Water sports include boogie boarding, surfing and swimming. Ride bikes along The Strand paved trail (also known as the Marvin Braude Bike Trail). An assortment of restaurants and food stands are steps from the ocean.
The iconic 1,600-foot Santa Monica Pier is home to the Pacific Park amusement park. In addition, there’s the historic Looff Hippodrome Carousel and the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. From the pier, enjoy drinks and dinner while watching the sun dip into the Pacific.
Parking: Eight main parking lots are available along the length of Santa Monica State Beach, with on-street parking available nearby.
TravelingMom Tip: At Perry’s Cafe and Beach Rentals, you can enjoy a meal with your feet in the sand, and request beach butler service.
Zuma Beach is one of the largest and most popular beaches in L.A. County, attracting families of all ages. If you’re looking for a classic California beach with good surf, lifeguards, and lots of amenities, then Zuma is for you. Volleyball nets, food stands, showers, restrooms, and beach wheelchairs are among the amenities. During winter you can see gray whales make their migration. Parking: There are eight pay parking lots with about 2,000 parking spaces.
Located 28 miles north of Santa Monica, Leo Carrillo State Park has a rugged coastline with sea caves, tidepools and hiking trails. The park is named after the actor Leo Carrillo, a preservationist who served on the California Beach and Parks Commission for 18 years. North Beach is a family-friendly and dog-friendly beach with lifeguards and restrooms. The park also has hiking trails and a campground.
Parking: Enter at the main state park entrance to the parking lot (fee).
TravelingMom Tip: While there, take a few minutes to peruse the small visitor center, which has interpretive displays. In addition, guided nature walks and campfire programs are available.
Best California Beaches: Ventura
Just north of Los Angeles beaches are Ventura County beaches. It would be easy, but a shame, to drive past Ventura’s beaches, which are not easily seen from the freeway. These under-the-radar beaches are natural and beautiful. Bring a picnic and spend a relaxing day at these uncrowded beaches.
A California hidden gem, Hollywood Beach is tucked away on the south end of the peninsula that separates Channel Islands Harbor from the ocean. The quiet Oxnard neighborhood once attracted stars like Clark Gable and Rudolph Valentino. Today, homes line the back of the wide, white sand beach. Amenities include free public volleyball courts, and restrooms. In addition, lifeguards are on duty between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Parking: It’s a breeze! Access is via many streets between West Channel Islands Boulevard and the harbor channel. Parking is available along Ocean Drive and the side streets, and also in the huge free harbor parking lots along Harbor Boulevard.
Oxnard Beach Park is about three miles from Hollywood beach and has a different vibe. It’s great for families seeking beach and park activities. The large grassy park has palm trees, picnic tables, BBQ grills, walking paths, and a pirate-themed playground.
TravelingMom tip: While in Oxnard, check out the new “Oxnard Taco Trail,” which highlights 14 of the city’s taco trucks and restaurants.
Marina Park and San Buenaventura State Beach
Along this coastline are two miles of sparkling beaches in laid-back residential neighborhoods. It’s a great place to get away from crowds and noise, and just soak up California sunshine.
San Buenaventura State Beach is a lovely stretch of beach stationed and patrolled by lifeguards. The beach between Marina Park and the Ventura City Pier is a wonderful place to boogie board, body surf, kayak, build sandcastles and watch sailboats.
Young families like Marina Park for the grassy picnic area, small playground, sandy beach, and a pirate ship. No lifeguard stations, although lifeguards patrol the beach in summer. Amenities: small restroom.
A few sandy steps north are lifeguard stations and the Ventura City Pier (popular for fishing). Here you’ll find a snack shop (great tacos!), casual seafood restaurant, bait shop, and restrooms. There’s also a really nice paved pedestrian/bike path that leads to an estuary. Relax on one of the many benches on the path to enjoy ocean views and breezes.
Parking: There’s a parking lot near Marina Park, and a parking structure by the pier. Fees for both. But if you get there early, you can find free street parking. Get your parking structure ticket validated if you eat at a pier eatery.
TravelingMom Tip: In summer, arrive early to find parking on side streets by Pierpont Elementary School. Small markets and eateries are within walking distance of the beaches.
Best California Beaches: Santa Barbara County
Situated about 12 miles south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is a low-key California beach town with some of the best California beaches. The main drag, Linden Avenue, ends at the ocean and Carpinteria State Beach. Just north is Carpinteria City Beach and a stretch of sand locals call the “fourth beach.” From shore, look for dolphins playing in the ocean. Amenities include lifeguards, restrooms, and outside showers. There’s also a ramp to launch kayaks.
Parking: It’s usually easy to find free parking on surrounding residential streets. If you park on Ash Avenue, you’ll see Marsh Park, which has trails meandering through native plants.
Carpinteria State Beach has volleyball courts and a campground. Lifeguards patrol the beach year round and lifeguard towers are staffed roughly from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Amenities include restrooms, outdoor showers.
Although dogs are not allowed on beach, there’s a picnic area where they are allowed to enjoy the outdoors. It’s a short walk to downtown Carpinteria to eateries and shops.
Parking: There’s a large public parking lot (for a fee) on Palm Avenue.
TravelingMom Tip: The Spot, a casual food stand on Linden Street, serves up tasty burgers, fries and shakes.
Fun for families with older kids, West Beach is adjacent to Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wood wharf in California. The historic wharf anchors shops, restaurants, a museum and a fish market. Best suitable for active families, West Beach offers water sports including sailboats, kayaks, and paddleboards. Although swimming is not recommended because of its proximity to the harbor, volleyball is popular here. In addition, a paved bike path connects West Beach to other beaches. Street and lot parking.
Tucked away from the city hub, Arroyo Burro Beach County Park, AKA Hendry’s Beach is a public beach that welcomes dogs. Play fetch, swim, and enjoy a family day with kids and dogs. Seasonal lifeguards patrol the beach. There’s also a grassy area with picnic tables. Amenities include restrooms, and a self-serve dog wash station by the parking lot.
Parking: There’s a small lot and street parking.
TravelingMom tip: The oceanfront Boathouse Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s also happy hour.
Best California Beaches: Central Coast
Central California has a long coastline with varied terrain that stretches between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Along this scenic drive are more than 250 named beaches.
San Luis Obispo
A longtime favorite beach with families, Pismo is a long, wide beach conducive for many activities. These include surfing, swimming, surfing, fishing, bird watching, and camping. From late October through February, the Pismo State Beach’s Monarch Butterfly Grove is the place to see the beautiful orange- and black-winged butterflies.
TravelingMom tip: The rugged, bluff-top Dinosaur Caves Park has trails with ocean views and a playground.
A stunning, dramatic beach, Moonstone Beach stands out from others with gray sand, towering pines, brown sandy coves, and rocky beaches. Look closely at the rocks and you’ll probably see several sea lions blending in with the color scheme. Fun family activities include exploring tidepools, and walking along the wooden boardwalk. Steps lead to the rocky shoreline. Dogs are allowed on the boardwalk but not on the beach.
Parking: Free parking along Moonstone Beach Drive.
TravelingMom tip: Grab a bite to eat at the cozy Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill.
For adventurous families, Pfeiffer Beach is an off-the-beaten coastal area with unique features. People make the trek to see the purple sand. In addition, Keyhole Rock is a natural arch where the ocean swishes through. To access this hidden beach, drive south of Big Sur Station on Highway 1 to Sycamore Canyon Road, which winds its way down to the shore.
Parking: Pay parking.
Carmel Beach is a long, dog-friendly white sand beach that’s fun for families of all ages. Bundle up, it gets chilly. However, if you’re lucky, you can claim a fire pit to warm up. More amenities include volleyball courts, and restrooms. No lifeguards.
Parking: Free parking lot on Ocean Avenue as well as free, on-street parking on Camino Real and a along Scenic Road.
Located on the Pebble Beach Peninsula, Asilomar State Beach consists of small coves and rocky points with some sandy spots along the shore. Families can walk along a trail to all the coves and points, and explore tidepools. There’s also a bike trail to pedal around the peninsula. Leashed dogs are allowed on trails and the beach. There are no restrooms on the beach. However, there are restrooms open to the public at the Phoebe Hearst Social Hall inside the Conference Grounds.
Parking: Free parking at designated lots. Friday nights, there is typically a live band.
Home to diverse wildlife, Natural Bridges State Park is a waterfront parkland sure to thrill junior naturalists. The star attraction is the natural bridge just offshore, where you’ll see and hear dozens of flapping pelicans and cormorants. More things to explore include tidepools, and a Monarch butterfly migration preserve. In fact, over 100,000 butterflies pass through between October and February. A sandy beach, hiking trails, picnic areas, and an accessible boardwalk round out family fun. Onsite lifeguards. Amenities: picnic tables, BBQs, restrooms.
Parking: Fee for parking in the park. Free parking at an overlook lot on Cliff Drive.
Best California Beaches: Northern California
Over 300 rugged beaches and coastal forests adorn the coastline from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Oregon border.
Half Moon Bay
About 45 minutes south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is a small city with several pretty beaches. The most popular is Half Moon Bay State Beach with four miles of coastline. Things to do in the area include biking, horseback riding and hiking. A walk along the Coastside Trail leads north to Pillar Point, near the huge waves of the Mavericks surf spot.
A few miles north of Half Moon Bay is serene Rockaway Beach in Pacifica Beach, also a small town. Things to do include hiking on coastal trails, and fishing. Pacifica Pier is the only place in the Bay Area where you can crab for free. Eateries are located nearby across the highway.
TravelingMom Tip: About halfway between Half Moon Bay and Pacifica Beach is the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, home to tidepools.
Tomales Bay State Park
Situated in a hidden sandy cove, Heart’s Desire Beach is a family-friendly beach on the eastern side of the Point Reyes National Seashore. With a long, sandy shore sloping gently into the water, it’s a safe place for kids to wade and swim. Also, there’s a freshwater, seasonal stream that runs through the bay. In addition, short hiking trails lead to Indian Beach and Pebble Beach.
Amenities: Heart’s Desire Beach has a grassy area with picnic tables and restrooms.
Parking: Entrance fee. The beach is next to the main parking lot.
TravelingMom Tip: Dress in layers for any weather changes.
Ten Mile Beach, Fort Bragg
About 18 miles north of Mendocino, Ten Mile Beach is a wild stretch of unspoiled coastline brimming with wildlife. Nature-loving families will delight in seeing a variety of birds, spouting whales, seals and river otters. In addition, dunes and wetlands comprise the terrain. And with the area’s windy conditions, kite flying is a breeze!
Trinidad, Humboldt County
Located 80 miles below the Oregon border, the seaside town of Trinidad sits on a bluff. Locals refer to Humboldt as the “lost coast,” an undeveloped, rugged area with raw beauty. The main draw is wildlife, hiking, and exploring beaches and coves.
At Moonstone Beach, kids will have fun scampering on the north side of the Little River mouth near Trinidad. Along the edge of the river and ocean, big rocks shelter tide pools. Little ones can splash in the Little River and examine creatures in tidepools. On the far side, families can explore hidden caves, big sea stacks, and the iconic two-humped Camel Rock.
Situated in a secluded cove, dog-friendly Trinidad State Beach is accessible via a short, cozy hike through the woods. Seasonal wildflowers make this a magical walk to a sandy beach with a cove and tidepools. Amenities include restrooms, parking, and a small picnic area with tables and stoves.
TravelingMom tip: Low tide is the best time to explore the beach and tidepools.
Read More About It: Plan ahead for your family beach vacation.