California is home to 1,271 miles of shoreline, with expansive state beaches, reserves and local beach hot spots along its coast. Whether your idea of a beach day involves swimming, surfing, hiking, sunbathing or just people-watching, there’s a beach for you.
But with so many developed and undeveloped beaches to explore, narrowing your options can be daunting. If you’re visiting the Golden State, or just want to discover more of the state’s sand and sea, these are the best beaches in California to visit.
1. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
You’ll find Point Lobos State Natural Reserve along California’s central coast. It’s accessible on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) 1, a few miles south of the quaint community of Carmel-by-the-Sea.
It’s been described by artists as “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world” because of its picturesque cliff sides and seascapes. Point Lobos SNR offers rich scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities due to its 70-foot-tall kelp beds.
If you’d rather stay dry, stop by for a daytime hike, picnic or just stroll through this ecological gem. Chances are you’ll leave with plenty of fresh air and breathtaking pictures as a lasting memento.
2. Baker Beach
Baker Beach is nestled at the base of San Francisco’s Presidio shoreline. It offers an iconic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, with miles of Pacific Ocean between Baker’s shore and the Marin Headlands across the way.
The 1-mile beach is a popular destination for locals and visitors so don’t expect to feel secluded. Still it lends itself to sunbathers or picnickers who want to catch a glimpse of local sea life, like dolphins. The Sand Ladder also offers beach-accessible hiking trails to the California Coastal Trail or the winding Batteries to Bluffs Trail.
Even when San Francisco’s infamous fog rolls through, visitors can appreciate the atmospheric mood it creates.
3. Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach is one of the best California beaches near PCH 1. For many, just appreciating Pfeiffer’s iconic views from the lookout point along the highway is enough. But if you want to get your toes on the sand and are willing to drive over 2 miles down the very narrow Sycamore Canyon Road, you can access the shore.
At the end of the forested road, you’ll find a small parking lot where you can foot it the rest of the way to the beach. There you can discover sand dunes, active tide pools and gorgeous photo-worthy rock arches and caves for wandering, including Keyhole Rock.
Get here early to grab one of only four picnic tables that are first come, first served. Pfeiffer is also dog-friendly, but leashes are required.
4. Pismo State Beach
Pismo State Beach is in the central California town of Oceano. This beach has a little bit of everything — it’s popular for on-beach camping (reservations required), swimming, bird-watching and more. It also has abundant walking trails through the sand dunes.
If you visit between late October and February, you might be able to observe Western monarch butterflies. This species migrates into the Monarch Butterfly Grove shelter, which is just a half-mile south of Pismo Beach.
5. El Matador State Beach
El Matador is one of three pocket beaches within the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beaches cluster. It’s just off PCH in Malibu and is more intimately sized compared to other beaches on this list.
There’s a small parking lot on the bluff, or you can park along the PCH (just pay attention to parking restrictions on signage). A somewhat steep dirt path from the bluff leads down to the sand.
Despite its smaller footprint, El Matador rewards visitors with stunning rock formations and sea caves. It’s the perfect location for taking photos, snorkeling, swimming or just to sunbathe and relax. There are many bold seagulls looking for their next snack so keep unsupervised food hidden.
6. Venice Beach
If you’re looking for the best beach in California purely for people-watching, and nothing else, head to Venice Beach in Los Angeles. The area is known for its quirkiness, and you’ll spot all walks of life along the Venice Boardwalk. It doubles as a busy tourist area, but — coming from a native Angeleno — it’s an essential California beach experience nonetheless.
Watch street performances, stop by the skate park or check out the historic Muscle Beach Gym, which California’s very own ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once frequented. You’ll also find crafts and wares by local artists, and don’t forget to grab an elote or fresh fruit from a local street vendor while you’re there.
If the boardwalk isn’t your scene, bring a bike or rent one and ride along the dedicated winding paved path through Venice Beach. Or you can just roll out a blanket on the sand and get vitamin D while having restaurants and restrooms within reach.
7. Manhattan Beach
If a quintessential sandy, swimmable beach is what you’re after, head to Manhattan Beach in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. It offers 115 acres of beach with ample parking along its 2-mile stretch.
Compared to other beaches along the westside of L.A., Manhattan Beach offers an expanse of sandy shores and cleaner water for avid swimmers. At the northernmost point of Manhattan Beach is El Porto, a popular destination for local surfers. There are also public volleyball nets throughout, and fishing is welcome on the pier.
8. Crystal Cove Beach
Located in the city of Laguna Beach in Orange County, Crystal Cove Beach welcomes visitors with a sun-drenched belt of sand. Here, you can explore the tide pools in the area, dip in the water, bird watch or scuba dive off the edge of the shore.
The beach is hugged by dramatic bluffs and offers access to the area’s 18 miles of hiking trails. You can find high and low trails that offer impressive vista views as well as sweeping California’s backcountry with native flora and fauna.
9. Windansea Beach
Windansea Beach, named after “wind and sea,” is in La Jolla, San Diego. It made the list of best California beaches for its scenery, soft sand and large waves that are popular among the surfing community.
It’s well maintained and not very crowded compared to some of the aforementioned beaches. If you’re looking for a quiet beach to enjoy the sea breeze and an extraordinary sunset, Windansea is a local favorite.
The bottom line
If asked what is the best beach in California, any local might be hard-pressed to point to just one. California’s diverse coastline is home to hundreds of magnificent beaches, but no matter what kind of beachgoer you are, you’re sure to find one that speaks to you.
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