California's best coastal walks

From its wild and rocky coast in the north to the south coast’s vast, sandy shores, the California coastline lures many to walk along the edge of the continent to gaze at the ocean. Sweeping coastal views are blocked in many cities, but wide-open hiking spaces abound nearby where anyone willing to leave the car behind can get a closer look at the wild Pacific.

While the California Coastal Trail winds along the 1,200 miles of the state’s coast, not many people have to time to hike the entire distance. Dip your toe in with some of these Golden State coastal trail highlights:

Salt Point Bluffs (10 miles round trip)

Riots of wildflowers, wild coastal bluffs and spouting whales in the distance are bonus elements of Sonoma County’s Salt Point State Park — about 23 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1. Follow the trail north from the Gerstle Cove parking lot. After tracing your route along the rugged shoreline, either continue to follow the trail or take a stroll along Stump Beach (the cliff is high here, so be careful). Then, pass through coastal grasslands, a bishop pine forest and country roads on your way to Horseshoe Point.

Receding Fog
Salt Point bluffs. Photo by Paul Hamilton, CC attribution share-alike licence.

Dipsea Trail (14 miles round trip)

Marin County’s Dipsea Trail may not start at the beach, but it winds through redwood forest and mountain landscapes before finally dipping its way toward Stinson Beach. Start in Mill Valley at the trailhead, head up three flights of steps as tall as a 50-story building and meander through the Muir Woods National Monument, following the well-marked trail to the ocean. Just make sure you don’t take this hike on the date of the annual Dipsea Race in June, America's oldest trail race in which runners brave the sections of the trail named 'Dynamite' and 'Cardiac' to race from Mill Valley to the Pacific Ocean over Mount Tamalpais.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (various trail options)

Just three miles south of Carmel, Point Lobos State Reserve is often referred to as the crown jewel of the State Park System. The Spanish called this area Punta de los Lobos Marinos (Point of the Sea Wolves) for the barks and howls of the resident sea lions. The trail along the dramatic rocky coastline, from Moss Cove to Gibson Beach is about six miles, but shorter walks are available as well. The trail to the Bird Island overlook is a good spot for bird watching, Whaler’s Cove is popular with divers and the Devil’s Cauldron whirlpool bubbles and boils at high tide.

Point Lobos State Reserve - California
Point Lobos State Reserve. Photo by the_tahoe_guy, CC attribution license.

Montaña de Oro Bluffs Trail (3.4 miles round trip)

This easy hike south of Morro Bay in Montaña de Oro State Park offers meadows full of flowers, expansive views from rocky peaks, Pacific Ocean vistas and marine life along the rocky bluffs. Start at the trailhead, on Pecho Valley Road southwest of the town of Los Osos. The trail is well defined and easy for families to enjoy without too much exertion. Follow along over the wooden footbridge toward the ocean, across a grassy meadow and to the tide pools of Corallina Cove. Linger here to look for sea otters just off the shore, or continue on to the end of the trail near Grotto Rock.

Ormond Beach (8-miles round trip)

A wide Southern California beach with fine sand, steep cliffs and the Channel Islands in view off the coast are what you get on a walk along Ventura’s Ormond Beach. Port Hueneme State Beach and Ormond Beach are just south of Ventura and the port. Start at the Port Hueneme Lighthouse (originally constructed in 1874), and head south to the wetlands at Arnold Road. Or, keep walking and turn around when you want. The beach is full of sand dunes and a lagoon often forms in winter—home to a host of birdlife. Don’t forget to take a breather on the pier, with its funky zig-zag shape.

Ray Miller Overlook Trail Loop (7.5-mile loop)

This northwestern Los Angeles County loop trail - best in spring, with full waterfalls and colourful wildflowers - is perched between canyon and ridge in Point Mugu State Park. The trailhead is located about 22 miles west on Pacific Coast Highway, from Malibu Road to La Jolla Canyon. Choosing a clockwise route will allow sweeping Pacific Ocean views toward the end of the hike. Begin on the La Jolla Canyon Trail, which passes over La Jolla Creek and past waterfalls. Merge onto the Overlook Trail, with Big Sycamore Canyon on your left. Head right onto the Scenic Trail, where you’ll get those great ocean views, and then onto the Ray Miller Trail.

Jill K. Robinson’s articles have been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, World Hum, Journey and more. Even when traveling, she can always be found online at Danger Jill Robinson.