Life's a beach in California, and so much more. When the coastal fog lifts, 840 miles of beautiful shoreline truly earn the Golden State its gilded moniker.

Find family fun in La Jolla, gaze upon world-class surfers in Huntington Beach, mingle with eccentrics in Venice Beach, cuddle at sunset in a Big Sur cove or find yourself on the stunning Lost Coast Trail.

Whether it’s your first visit to California or your twentieth, chances are you will be visiting one of the state’s countless beaches – and luckily, local access to all beaches is enshrined in state law. There’s a perfect strip of sand out there for everyone, but to help you get your visit started, here are 10 of the best beaches in California for sea, surf, sand and sun.

A humpback whale diving in the waters of Monterey Bay
Some California beaches are all about the wildlife © Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

1. Seacliff State Beach

Best for wildlife spotting

California’s Central Coast has more than 100 named beaches, varying from hidden coves perfect for quiet contemplation to long stretches of sunny sand backed by boisterous arcades and amusements, but some lure wildlife spotters as well as sunseekers.

The northern star of the incredible sweep of sand that curves around Monterey Bay is Seacliff State Beach. It’s a perennial local hangout and swimming and jogging spot. Offshore, the crumbling remains of a freighter built of concrete once served as a fishing pier, and the deeper waters of the bay are known for being a great white shark breeding ground.

In fact, Monterey Bay is home to an extraordinary bounty of sea life, above and below the water. It’s easily the richest natural habitat on the entire California coast. Even just standing on the shore you can see some of its wildlife, from gray whales to sea lions, seals and otters. If you see a great white, stick to the land!

Local tip: Central Coast water temperatures hover in the brisk 50s°F, so it’s only natural that the modern wet suit was invented here by Jack O’Neill in the 1950s. If that’s too chilly for you, head to Monterey for its chart-topping aquarium.

Watching the sun set through Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, California.
Pfeiffer Beach is known for its huge rock formations © Chris LaBasco / Getty Images / iStockphoto

2. Pfeiffer Beach – Big Sur

Best beach for photography and long walks

Cradled by mossy redwood forests, the rocky Big Sur coast is a mystical place. Search out hidden waterfalls and hot springs and watch for endangered California condors while scrambling along sea cliffs. Pfeiffer Beach’s phenomenal crescent-shaped slice of sand is one of the most beautiful beaches in California, known for its huge rock arch – Keyhole Rock – through which waves crash with life-affirming power. 

Dig your toes into the wet sand – it’s purple! That’s because manganese garnet washes down from the craggy hillsides above. It’s often windy, and the surf is too dangerous for swimming, but it’s a beautiful spot for a walk.

Local tip: Don’t rush. Traffic, road closures and detours due to heavy weather, forest fires and even falling rocks slow progress on Hwy 1. Plus there are all the diversions along the way that will tempt you to stop for a spell or two.

Waves breaking on Huntington Beach in Orange County, Southern California
Huntington Beach gets packed on summer weekends © TraceRouda / Getty Images / iStockphoto

3. Huntington Beach

Best beach for surfing & people-watching

One of SoCal’s best beaches, this sand-sprinkled surfing hot spot has a lively and walkable promenade near the pier. It gets packed on summer weekends with surfers, volleyball players, swimmers and families. 

Grab a taco and watch pro surfers put on a clinic! Or rent a board if you’re feeling adventurous. It’s a great place to learn how to surf.

Local tip: If you want to build a bonfire or have a barbecue, stake out one of the thousand cement fire rings early in the day, especially on holiday weekends, when you should plan to arrive when the beach opens.

People on the pathway to the beach at El Matador State Beach in Malibu
El Matador State Beach sums up the wild beauty of the California coast © Smaks K / Getty Images

4. El Matador State Beach – Malibu

Best beach for Instagram & sunbathing

Arguably Malibu’s most stunning beach, El Matador is famous for being the spot where swimsuit-model photo shoots take place. Park on the bluffs above and stroll down a trail to reach sandstone rock towers rising from emerald coves. 

Sunbathers make the most of one of California's warm beaches by bodysurfing in the tides and watching for dolphins as they breech beyond the waves. 

Detour: Make the 5.5-mile jaunt to Point Dume for absolutely stunning views of this dramatic shoreline. You may have to wait half an hour to find a parking spot, but it’s worth it.

Empty beaches and rocky outcrops at Sonoma Coast State Park
Empty beaches and rocky outcrops at Sonoma Coast State Park © Grant Faint / Getty Images

5. Sonoma Coast State Park 

Best beach for hiking & photography

Stretching 19 miles, Sonoma Coast State Park is a chain of wave-lashed sandy pockets separated by dramatic rocky headlands. Some beaches are tiny, hidden in little coves and stuffed with rock formations, while others stretch wide. Most of the beaches are connected by vista-studded coastal hiking trails that wind along the bluffs. 

Bring binoculars and your camera – the views of mini islands, inlets and shifting tides are stunning. Exploring this area makes an excellent day-long adventure, but facilities are nonexistent, so bring water and food as well as a fully charged cell phone. 

Local tip: Bring sundowner cocktails and a picnic, or visit the gorgeously positioned restaurant-bar River’s End at the mouth of the Russian River to watch the area’s glorious sunset.

People running and fishing on Baker Beach close to Golden Gate bridge.
Baker Beach serves up picture-perfect Golden Gate Bridge views © ibsky / Getty Images

6. Baker Beach – San Francisco 

Best beach for nudists, city-slickers & bridge views

Escape San Francisco's busy buzz at mile-long Baker Beach, fronting the Pacific with picture-perfect Golden Gate Bridge views. It’s on the western shore of the Presidio, so you get an unparalleled perspective of the famous apan and the Marin headlands beyond from its caramel sands.

It’s perfect for picnicking, though it can crowd up on weekends, especially on fog-free days. For nude sunbathing, head to its northern end; families in clothing stick to the south.

Hiking surfers on the Lost Coast, California
It takes a bit of effort to explore the dramatic Lost Coast © Corey Rich / Getty Images / Aurora Open

7. The Lost Coast

Best beach for remoteness

To visit the Lost Coast is to discover volcanic beaches of black sand and ethereal mist hovering above roaring surf as majestic Roosevelt elk graze the forests.

The King Range boldly rises 4000ft within 3 miles of the coast, between where Hwy 1 cuts inland north of Westport to just south of Ferndale. The coast became "lost" when the state’s highway system deemed the region impassable in the mid-20th century.

The best way to see the Lost Coast is to hike. In autumn, the weather is clear and cool. Wildflowers bloom from April through May and gray whales migrate past the beaches from December through April. The warmest, driest months are June to September, but days are foggy and the weather can change quickly.

Detour: Tackle an epic backpacking route through the area. Overnighters will need a bear canister and backcountry permit, both available from the Bureau of Land Management – the latter best acquired weeks in advance at recreation.gov.

Young male surfer surfing a wave, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, USA
The coastline near San Diego is a great place to learn to surf © Yew! Images / Getty

8. Tourmaline Beach – La Jolla

Best beach for learning to surf

You can fight the crowds and learn to surf at San Diego’s renowned Ocean Beach or Pacific Beach, but Tourmaline Beach in La Jolla has some of the best (slow!) waves for longboarders and beginners. Its long, sandy beach has one of the chillest local vibes in San Diego.

You’ll be sure to catch a few rewarding waves here even on a small day, and if you luck into a monster day, you’re in business. Local surfers can get territorial over the waves near Black’s Beach up to the north, but at Tourmaline the mood is always mellow. Enjoy the sand, surf and free showers. If you’d rather beach comb, head north to the quiet tide pools at Bird Rock.

Local tip: Grab some of the best Mexican food in town up on the bluff at Oscar’s, where you can try fish tacos – a San Diego staple – or killer ceviche.

The idyllic coastline at Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach is home to some very desirable residences © Ron and Patty Thomas / Getty Images

9. Laguna Beach

Best beach for sunsets, solo travelers & the arts

Welcome to Laguna, a grand array of quiet coves, blue waves and seaside parks, all with an artistic flair. With 30 public beaches sprawling along 7 miles of coastline, Laguna Beach is perfect for do-it-yourself exploring – there’s always another stunning view or hidden cove just around the bend.

Although many of the coves are blocked from street view by multimillion-dollar homes, a sharp eye will take you to stairways leading from the Pacific Coast Highway down to the beach. Just look for the "beach access" signs and be prepared to pass between people’s backyards to reach the sand.

Laguna Beach is prolifically creative – the local Festival of Arts stretches over July and August, featuring art shows and demos by 140 artists in media ranging from scrimshaw to furniture. The festival culminates with a reenactment of famous paintings by costumed actors, accompanied by an orchestra.

Detour: Nearby Crystal Cove is great for camping, plus it’s an underwater park where you can go scuba diving or tide-pooling, and fish, kayak and surf along the undeveloped shoreline.

A paddleboarder goes for a morning cruise around the shore of Lake Tahoe
A paddleboarder goes for a morning cruise around the shore of Lake Tahoe © hale Irwin / Getty Images

10. Lake Tahoe

Best beach for beaches at altitude

Lest you get complacent, combing only the ocean shores, remember the inland marvels that is Lake Tahoe. In summer, it’s California’s favorite high-altitude escape: a sparkling diamond tucked in the craggy Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In South Lake Tahoe, the nicest strands are Pope Beach, Kiva Beach and Baldwin Beach. Elsewhere, beaches dot the rim, like always-busy Zephyr Cove with its sandy, mile-long shoreline. Sheer granite cliffs and a jagged coastline hem glacier-carved Emerald Bay State Park, a teardrop cove of viridian water. You can take a small boat to the lake’s only island, just offshore.

This article was first published January 2021 and updated September 2023

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