22 Top-Rated Beaches in California
We may earn a commission from affiliate links ()
California offers an incredible array and variety of beaches, more than many countries. Beach-goers can choose from wide, well-developed beaches like Santa Monica or Santa Cruz, lined with places to eat and amusements, to unspoiled natural beaches like College Cove in Trinidad, closer to Oregon than it is to San Francisco.
Blessed with stunning scenery along the rugged Pacific coastline, California's beaches are places to enjoy nature and outdoor recreation. Sea kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, wakeboarding, surfing, and bodyboarding are all popular water sports, while volleyball, basketball, running, hiking, and, of course, sunbathing are popular beach activities.
There are so many things to do and gorgeous places to visit along the Golden State's sandy shores. Plan your seaside adventures with our list of the best beaches in California.
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
1. Zuma Beach, Malibu
Some of the state's most perfect beaches are found in the city of Malibu in Southern California. It's about 10 miles north of Santa Monica and has a few different beach environments.
Zuma Beach is an expansive, wide shoreline that extends for nearly two miles and covers over 100 acres. This popular beach has lifeguard stands every few hundred yards, along with multiple areas of facilities and snack stands. There are also beach volleyball nets, public restrooms, and showers.
Another favorite spot in Malibu, Paradise Cove is a beautiful sheltered beach that has been used as a film set for many Hollywood movies. This small sandy beach is nestled in a cove, which means the waves are calm, so it's also great for children and families. The beach is known for its vibrant social scene, but the expensive day-use parking fees tend to keep the crowds away.
The oceanfront Paradise Cove Beach Cafe serves lunch and dinner, as well as refreshments on a pleasant outdoor terrace overlooking the waves. The café also rents out lounge chairs (they can be reserved online in advance).
The upscale Malibu Beach Inn gives travelers a chance to spend the night on the exclusive "Billionaire's Beach" stretch of coastline. This four-star hotel offers luxurious guest rooms and breathtaking Pacific views, as well as a full-service spa, yoga classes, and an oceanfront restaurant that specializes in seasonal cuisine prepared from local ingredients. The hotel is about a 20-minute drive away from Zuma Beach.
2. Pacific Beach, San Diego
Just north of downtown San Diego, right after Mission Beach, Pacific Beach is prized for its expansive sandy shoreline that is both wide and long (about five miles). There is some surf (enough for surf schools to operate on the beach), but mostly the waves are not too big for everyone to enjoy the water.
Typical of Southern California beaches, the weather is balmy, and the water is warm enough for swimming. The ocean conditions are also conducive to surfing, kiteboarding, and windsurfing. The beach and beachfront boardwalk, called Ocean Front Walk, are both used for all kinds of sports and outdoor activities.
Pacific Beach has lifeguards, public restrooms, and showers, and the oceanfront property is dotted with casual restaurants, taco shops, and cafés. There is limited parking in paid lots. If the lots are full, visitors must find street parking.
The beachfront boardwalk is lined with shops and places to eat, including some great sit-down restaurants. The Surfer Beach Hotel stands on the sandy shores of Pacific Beach, with many rooms facing the ocean. There's a very popular snack stand and breakfast spot called Woody's right in front of the hotel.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Diego: Best Areas & Hotels
Read More: Top-Rated Beaches in San Diego, CA
3. East Beach, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is the quintessential Southern California beach town, complete with balmy weather, swaying palm trees, expansive stretches of sandy shoreline, and traditional Spanish Colonial-style architecture. The coastline is known as "The American Riviera" because of its beauty and glamour.
One of the best beaches in Santa Barbara, East Beach gracefully sweeps along the Pacific coastline in a picture-perfect setting, tucked behind the Santa Ynez Mountains and fringed by rows of tall palm trees. Visitors can take leisurely walks to enjoy the scenery and cool ocean breezes.
This family-friendly beach has public restrooms, a playground, and lifeguards on duty. Visitors can rent kayaks, lounge chairs, cabanas, and sun umbrellas at the beach. Other amenities include cafés and restaurants overlooking the beach, as well as other restaurants and shops on the Stearns Wharf historic pier.
Accommodation: Best Beach Resorts in Santa Barbara, CA
4. Main Beach, Santa Cruz
For a classic summertime beach experience, Main Beach in Santa Cruz is as good as it gets in Northern California. The beach is appreciated for its wide shoreline of soft, golden sand and reasonably gentle surf. The beach is fronted by a classic mile-long wooden boardwalk, lined with shops, carnival games, and an amusement park (California's oldest surviving one).
Aside from sunbathing, Main Beach is a great place for outdoor recreation: bodyboarding, surfing, and beach volleyball. There is also the chance to see dolphins, otters, sea lions, and whales swimming just offshore.
Main Beach has excellent facilities, including public restrooms and lifeguards on duty during the summertime. The boardwalk and the amusement park (and many tourism businesses) have limited operation from November through February.
The Comfort Inn Beach/Boardwalk Area isn't a new property, but it's reasonably priced and the rooms have been renovated. This hotel is only a few minutes' walk to the beach and boardwalk.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Santa Cruz: Best Areas & Hotels
5. La Jolla Shores, La Jolla
La Jolla is an upscale community (think Beverly Hills by the sea) about 15 miles north of San Diego, and the small downtown area is filled with enticing boutiques and trendy gourmet restaurants.
A dreamy Southern California beach destination, La Jolla Shores is a well-protected mile-long beach with gentle waves, making it perfect for kids and families. There's even a naturally shallow, separated area fronted by an old seawall, called the Children's Pool that is used as a kiddie play area.
La Jolla Shores has public restrooms, showers, and a picnic area. Lifeguards are on duty year-round during daylight hours.
The picture-perfect seaside town of La Jolla is ideal for romantic getaways. For those who would like to spend the night here, the four-star Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa provides plenty of pampering for the price. This luxurious resort property features traditional Spanish architecture and is set on 10 acres of landscaped gardens. The hotel has several restaurants, a café, spa, and an outdoor saltwater swimming pool.
There are also many lifeguard stands, along with ample restrooms and outdoor showers. The beach is right next to a protected aquatic park, the San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which is popular for divers and snorkelers. It also has extremely gentle waves.
6. Stinson Beach, Marin County
Stinson Beach may be the crown jewel in the Northern California coastline, and it's only 20 miles north of San Francisco, although the winding drive through Marin County's rolling hills takes longer than the mileage suggests.
Stinson Beach has been a resort destination since the 19th century. Thanks to the somewhat inaccessible location, the area and the town of Stinson Beach have retained a small-town bohemian vibe, with locally owned shops and homey restaurants and cafés.
Tucked away in a delightful bucolic setting, Stinson Beach dazzles visitors with its expansive stretch of powder-soft white sand. There is plenty of room for sunbathing or playing. Because the beach is sheltered in a cove, the waves are gentle compared to other California beaches. When the conditions are right, it is safe to swim here.
Visitors can count on excellent facilities at Stinson Beach: public restrooms, shower, snack bar, picnic areas. Lifeguards are on duty from July through Labor Day weekend.
The beach of Stinson Beach (also the town name) is a protected part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. This area has wonderful hiking trails, including the spectacularly scenic Dipsea Trail that traverses the coastal hillsides, valleys, and redwood forests. The seven-mile hike begins in Stinson Beach and winds up in the charming town of Mill Valley.
7. Carmel Beach, Carmel by-the-Sea
The charming seaside community of Carmel delights visitors with its fairy-tale ambience. Cute boutiques, hidden lanes, and storybook cottages make for an enchanting feel. The town seems to be inspired by an English country village, an aesthetic that suits the foggy and misty local weather.
A sublime sandy beach is the centerpiece of Carmel by-the-Sea and the raison d'etre for this upscale resort destination. The wide expanse of sparkling white sand, the deep blue sea, and the windblown Monterey cypress trees give this beach a distinctive appearance that's unique to the Northern California coastline.
Set in a sheltered cove, Carmel Beach is one of the best places to visit in California for a romantic walk. There is a scenic path that winds along the ocean bluff above the beach. It's also pleasant to stroll along the shoreline.
Visitors should keep in mind that swimming is not recommended at Carmel Beach. Besides the fact that the water is cold (around 50 degrees), the ocean conditions can be dangerous due to rogue waves and rip currents. Lifeguards do not survey this beach.
The beach has public restrooms and a small parking lot on Ocean Avenue that is free of charge.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Carmel: Best Areas & Hotels
8. Butterfly Beach, Montecito
Travelers can soak up the lifestyle of the rich and famous at Butterfly Beach. This pristine stretch of sandy beach is located in Southern California, in the posh seaside community of Montecito, where many celebrities have homes. The beautiful city of Santa Barbara is just five kilometers away.
Butterfly Beach offers a picturesque setting to enjoy while sunbathing and relaxing. Other things to do include swimming, surfing, and kayaking. This west-facing beach is known for its gorgeous sunsets.
Butterfly Beach does not have any public facilities. Those willing to splurge can enjoy refreshments at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. This five-star hotel provides romantic accommodations in Spanish Colonial-style bungalows and villas. There is an upscale spa, two gourmet restaurants, and a poolside café.
9. Pismo State Beach
Popular among surfers and sand volleyball players, Pismo Beach exudes fun-loving vacation vibes during the summertime. The downtown caters to the crowds of visitors with its many hotels, casual restaurants, café, and surf shops.
Pismo State Beach comprises a three-mile stretch of coastline in Central California, with multiple beach areas, including a section of sand dunes. This expansive stretch of sandy beach provides welcome space for relaxation and recreational activities. From sunbathing and sailing to bird-watching and building sandcastles, there's something for everyone.
The beach has a long pier, which is used for ocean fishing. Picnic tables on the pier provide views of the sea and the beach. Other facilities include a boardwalk, public restrooms, and campgrounds. Lifeguards are on duty during the high season.
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Pismo Beach, CA
10. Avila Beach
With rolling hills as a backdrop and a palm-fringed waterfront plaza, Avila Beach looks like the image on a postcard. The pleasant downtown area includes a small boardwalk/pedestrian street that is lined with restaurant terraces and outdoor cafés.
Avila Beach is nestled in a sheltered cove on the Central California coast. Hillsides block the wind, creating a microclimate of sunshine and mild ocean breezes. The weather is balmier here than at Pismo Beach just seven miles away. Seals, otters, and dolphins frolic in the protected environment of Avila Beach.
The wide sandy shoreline at Avila Beach is prized for its spaciousness. Sunbathers have plenty of room to stretch out. The relatively gentle waves are ideal for beginning surfers. Other things to do include fishing, paddleboarding, bodyboarding, kayaking, and sailing.
Well designed for visitors, Avila Beach is equipped with well-maintained public restrooms, a playground, and a picnic area. Steps away from the beach is the Central Coast Aquarium.
A haven of tranquility is found two miles from the beach at the historic Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, nestled in a valley of oak groves. This three-star resort has natural mineral hot springs and offers pampering spa services.
11. Capitola Beach, Capitola
The charm of Capitola Beach is its idyllic waterfront village. This lovely Northern California town features colorful houses and a lush Mediterranean landscape, reminiscent of fishing harbors on the Italian or French Riviera. The downtown area is just steps away from the beach. Visitors enjoy the easy access to cafés, restaurants, and shops.
Capitola Beach is one of the smaller beaches on this list, but the pleasant environment makes up for what it lacks in size. Framing the beach, Esplanade Park provides benches for visitors to admire the vibrant seaside scene.
The sandy shoreline is great for sunbathing, beach volleyball, and building sandcastles, while the sheltered waters are ideal for beginning surfers. The waves are gentle, since the beach is tucked away in a small cove.
Facilities at Capitola Beach include public restrooms and outdoor showers. During the high season, lifeguards survey the beach.
There is also a fishing pier in the Capitola Bay. Fishing bait, gear, and boats, as well as paddleboards and kayaks can be rented from shops at the wharf.
12. Coronado Central Beach, San Diego
Coronado Central Beach is on an island in San Diego Bay, and it's one beach that is truly eye-catching. The fine white sand has a high mica content, which makes it more reflective than sand at other beaches. The brightness of the soft sand is enhanced by this effect, making it great for selfies. The effect was one of the reasons the beach was used as the setting and for some of the filming of the movie Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe.
Like most Southern California beaches, this long stretch of sandy shoreline has mild waters that are suitable for swimming, boogie boarding, and surfing. The beach has public restrooms and showers. During the high season, lifeguards are on duty.
The best place to stay in Coronado is the historic Hotel del Coronado, which was also pictured in the film. This legendary resort occupies a Victorian-era landmark right on the beach and has been an exclusive beach destination for more than 100 years.
13. Santa Monica State Beach, Santa Monica
Santa Monica is the ultimate Southern California beach city, complete with a pier, boardwalks, and trendy restaurants and shops just steps away from the shore. This is the place to soak up the sunny SoCal lifestyle.
The city of Santa Monica has 3.5 miles of beautiful sandy shoreline fronted by a bike path. There's a historic wooden pier, topped with an amusement park featuring an aquarium, an old-fashioned carousel, and roller-coaster rides. The paved boardwalk and bike path continues from San Monica to Venice Beach next door. The water is cold, but the waves are usually calm.
Santa Monica State Beach tends to have calm waves, and there are many lifeguard stands. Facilities include multiple areas of bathrooms and showers. There are also a few snack stands along the beach.
Originally an apartment building, the Huntley Santa Monica Beach is a luxury boutique hotel located a few blocks from the beach. The rooms are large, and the design is modern and elegant. Try for a room on a higher floor for the best views, and don't miss the rooftop restaurant.
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Santa Monica, CA
14. Main Beach, Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is in Southern California's Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. The main beach area is aptly named Main Beach Park, and it has a few miles of wide, gently sloping beach on either side. To the north are beachfront homes and a few hotels, right on the sand.
The main beach area has plenty of sports facilities, including volleyball courts; basketball courts; and of course, a long, winding beachfront bike path. The sand is a light tan color, and parts of the beach are bordered by rocky sections designed to break up the energy of the waves at high tide.
The Ranch at Laguna Beach is a newly-opened luxury resort right across Pacific Coast Highway from the ocean. It doesn't have ocean views but sits in a rustic canyon with its own golf course.
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Laguna Beach, CA
15. Navarro River State Beach, Mendocino
The first thing visitors notice when arriving in Mendocino is the invigorating fresh air. Mendocino County has only been developed on a small scale, despite being a popular weekend getaway destination in Northern California, just three hours' drive north of San Francisco. A paradise for those who appreciate wild, unspoiled scenery, Mendocino County has 10 state parks, as well as several nature preserves.
To arrive at the southern end of Mendocino County, travelers take a scenic winding drive through rolling hills and redwood forests on Highway 128. At the end of this route behind a dense grove of redwood trees is the meeting point of the Navarro River and the Pacific Ocean. Here in this pristine environment is Navarro Beach within the Navarro River Redwoods State Park.
This rugged, windswept beach is an ideal place to walk along the seashore, fly a kite, or build a beach bonfire. The beach is strewn with driftwood, which is a reminder that this beach and its strong tides are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Navarro River Redwoods State Park is popular among outdoor sports enthusiasts. The river offers opportunities for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. The park has picnic areas and camping sites.
Read More: Top-Rated Things to Do in Mendocino, CA
16. Huntington City Beach, Huntington Beach
One of Southern California's first beach resorts, Huntington Beach is now an internationally renowned destination, with a focus on surfing and beach life. Just over the border from LA County in Orange County, it has two miles of wide, well-maintained sandy beaches.
There's a pier that's good for walking, fishing, and sightseeing, and a thriving restaurant scene near the beach, providing a nice range of dining options.
Right across the street from the beach, the four-star Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort offers stylish accommodations and a relaxed surfer vibe. The hotel provides amenities such as beach towels, lounge chairs, and umbrellas. Other highlights are the fitness center and the upscale "surf shack"-style restaurant, which has a patio with views of the pier.
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Huntington Beach
17. Sand Dollar Beach, Big Sur
The 90-mile stretch of coastline in Central California known as Big Sur awes visitors with its breathtaking landscapes and ocean views. This dramatic coastline is framed by the densely forested Santa Lucia Mountains that soar high above the Pacific.
The mountains slope into coastal bluffs along Highway One, which makes for an incredibly scenic (and challenging) drive, rewarded by vistas of the dazzling azure-blue waters. In some places, sheer cliffs plunge from dizzying heights into the crashing waves.
Sand Dollar Beach is found in this magnificent landscape, entered by a short hike along an ocean bluff and staircase down to the sandy shore. It's quite a ways from the road (Highway One), and a small cove shelters the beach, which creates a secluded feel.
Surfers flock to this beach, but it is also popular with anyone who wants to relax and appreciate the natural splendor. Other things to do include saltwater fishing and picnicking.
The beach is the property of Los Padres National Forest. There are facilities located above the beach: public restrooms, a paid parking lot, and picnic tables. The beach itself is undeveloped.
Accommodation: Best Hotels in Big Sur, CA
18. Trinidad State Beach, Humboldt County
Nature seems to smile on this picturesque spot in the far north of California in Humboldt County about an hour-drive south of Oregon. Trinidad State Beach includes s small secluded beach in a tiny bay (College Cove), surrounded by verdant hillsides and a long oceanfront stretch backed by a grove of spruce trees. Both parts of the beach have a sandy shoreline.
Although most beaches in this part of Northern California are windy and wild, the beach at College Cove benefits from a sheltered environment, which ensures gentle waves and mild weather. This section of Trinidad State Beach features a lush Mediterranean landscape that resembles the seaside bluffs and coves of the Italian Riviera.
Trinidad State Beach is far enough away from the highway that there is no traffic noise, only the relaxing sounds of nature. Dolphins, sea otters, seagulls, and other shorebirds thrive in this delightfully serene setting.
Outdoor sports enthusiasts love Trinidad Beach. There are opportunities for kayaking, fishing, hiking, and camping. Amenities include a hiking trail, parking, public restrooms, a picnic area with tables and barbecue pits, fishing pier, and a bayside restaurant.
Trinidad State Beach is found in the quaint coastal community of Trinidad, which is built on the hillside and bluffs overlooking the bay. The town is quite small but does have a decent selection of restaurants and hotels. A top-rated hotel is the Trinidad Bay Bed & Breakfast Hotel, which has stunning views of the bay and ocean.
19. Jug Handle Beach, Mendocino
Mendocino Coast is a rugged shoreline surrounded by farmlands and forests. Rocky headlands, sheltered coves, and ocean bluffs define this spectacular Northern California landscape. Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a wonderful example of typical Mendocino Coast scenery.
Protected in this nature reserve is a hidden gem, Jug Handle Beach, located halfway between the towns of Fort Bragg and Mendocino. This secluded spot wows with awe-inspiring ocean views and a spectacular sandy beach with gentle crystal-clear turquoise waters.
A short hiking trail leads through a grove of pine trees, down a staircase to a stretch of white sand in a sheltered cove. The environment here is completely natural, complete with seaweed and driftwood strewn across the beach. Although it's not wide, the shoreline extends back to Highway One where a graceful arched bridge crosses the Jug Handle Creek.
Above the beach is an ocean bluff covered with coastal prairie. The half-mile Headlands Loop trail leads through the tufted grass, blackberry bushes, and other low-growing shrubs out to the edge of the bluff. At this lookout point, the coastal views are astonishing.
Past the beach is a 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase hiking trail that traverses a redwood forest and a pygmy forest. This trail is renowned for its unique landscape of wave-cut terraces that have been formed over hundreds of thousands of years.
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve includes hiking trails, public restrooms, and a picnic area with several tables located beneath a grove of shady pine trees.
20. Mandalay Beach, Oxnard
Oxnard is a picturesque seaside town with a "fun in the sun" SoCal vibe. Visitors love the area's gorgeous coastline: five miles of pristine sandy beaches (and a nice harbor, too). The lively Southern California town is located 65 miles north of Los Angeles (a 90-minute drive).
At the northern end of Oxnard, the Mandalay State Beach delights nature lovers with its pristine stretch of coastline. This beach and its coastal sand dunes is the property of California State Parks. At certain times of year, portions of the beach are closed to protect the nests of western snowy plover birds, a threatened species.
A big draw for visitors is the proximity to the town of Oxnard, a quaint community that is brimming with restaurants, cafés, and ice-cream shops. It's also a fun place to browse boutiques, such as locally owned shops that sell fashionable jewelry or artisan craft items.
For those seeking upscale accommodations, the three-star Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Resort is a good choice. This beachfront resort hotel boasts ocean views and easy access to Mandalay Beach. The property features a large outdoor swimming pool, spa, tennis courts, and a casual California-style restaurant. Some rooms have terraces overlooking the beach.
21. The Great Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore
Also known as Point Reyes Beach, The Great Beach is part of the vast Point Reyes National Seashore, and it's only an hour from San Francisco. The Great Beach lives up to its name, with 11 miles of raw, rugged beach – no houses, no restaurants, nothing but beach. The wild scenery is typical of the undeveloped stretches of coastline in Northern California.
It's great for exploring, walking, and hiking but not for water sports or swimming. The waves here are big, and the water is very cold.
If you want to stay nearby, Olema House is a cozy rustic-chic lodge set on four acres of gardens adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore. The three-star property has 22 guest rooms and a restaurant that serves seasonal cuisine prepared from locally sourced ingredients. There are also two cottages, one of which is ideal for families.
22. Centerville Beach County Park, Ferndale
Closer to Oregon than it is to San Francisco, Centerville Beach County Park is a secluded stretch of windswept coastline surrounded by dairy farms. Centerville Beach has a desolate feel because of its wild, undeveloped landscape and out-of-the-way location in Humboldt County, a remote area of Northern California.
Centerville Beach is nine miles long and surrounded by high cliffs. Except for a parking area, there are no facilities at the beach. Instead of lawn chairs and umbrellas, visitors will see driftwood strewn across the shore.
This beach is very animal-friendly, with both dogs and horses allowed. Besides horseback riding, other things to do include picnics, beach bonfires, beachcombing, bird-watching, and whale watching. Visitors will enjoy breathing in the invigorating ocean air and taking a scenic walk along the beach.
At this exposed, unsheltered section of the Pacific coastline, the ocean is cold, the waves are enormous, and the current is strong. There are no lifeguards, and it is not advisable to enter the water.
About five miles (a 15-minute drive) from the beach is the quaint Victorian-era town of Ferndale, which is renowned for its restaurants and hotels. The Gingerbread Mansion Inn is a four-star bed-and-breakfast hotel in an opulent, exquisitely renovated Victorian house, right in the heart of Ferndale's historic downtown area.