The 10 Best California Beaches

From San Francisco to San Diego, these are the 10 best shorelines the Golden State has to offer.

By Hannah Cheney, Staff WriterMarch 14, 2017
By Hannah Cheney, Staff WriterMarch 14, 2017, at 9:00 a.m.
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Beach with row of luxury homes facing the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, California.
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Find out how we picked the top beaches in California.

California boasts more than 420 public beaches, meaning it's not difficult to stumble across a prime stretch of sand. But not all of the state's shorelines are created equal. Each one of these 10 beaches stand out for their epic views, unique geography, pristine sands and unbeatable people-watching, among other factors. Before you start planning your next California vacation, keep reading to see which beaches top U.S. News' Best California Beaches list.
Seagull walking through at Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz, California, United States.
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(Getty Images)

10. Natural Bridges State Beach

Santa Cruz's Natural Bridges State Beach is home to an abundance of wildlife, including seals, birds and otters, as well as migrating whales. The beach also houses a monarch butterfly preserve, not to mention the rock formation for which it gets its name. The beach is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, and offers guided nature walks year-round, as well as parking, picnic tables and a visitor center.
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Find out how we picked the top beaches in California.

California boasts more than 420 public beaches, meaning it's not difficult to stumble across a prime stretch of sand. But not all of the state's shorelines are created equal. Each one of these 10 beaches stand out for their epic views, unique geography, pristine sands and unbeatable people-watching, among other factors. Before you start planning your next California vacation, keep reading to see which beaches top U.S. News' Best California Beaches list.

10. Natural Bridges State Beach

Santa Cruz's Natural Bridges State Beach is home to an abundance of wildlife, including seals, birds and otters, as well as migrating whales. The beach also houses a monarch butterfly preserve, not to mention the rock formation for which it gets its name. The beach is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset, and offers guided nature walks year-round, as well as parking, picnic tables and a visitor center.

9. Baker Beach

While San Francisco's fickle weather might not make this an ideal place to sunbathe, Baker Beach earns a spot on this list for its iconic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the craggy cliffs of the Marin Headlands that rise up just beyond the bridge. Picnic tables, grills and restrooms are available here too, so feel free to bring a packed lunch and make an afternoon out of it. If you're lucky, you might even see harbor porpoises playing in the water.

8. El Matador State Beach

El Matador State Beach is worth a visit for its tidal pools, caves and craggy coastline. You'll find this secluded beach nestled among the mansions of Malibu, California. El Matador is actually part of Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, which also includes the El Pescador and Le Pieda beaches. You can reach El Matador by following a steep trail and stairs down from the top of the bluffs. Once you get to the bottom, you'll be greeted with sea caves, pristine sands, large rocks and swells that appeal to surfers. There are portable restrooms, but no dining facilities, so bring your own food and water.

7. Pfeiffer Beach

While many of Big Sur's natural wonders are popular, Pfieffer Beach stands out thanks to its unique purple sands, striking rock formations and picturesque photo ops. Pfeiffer Beach is located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after a highly regarded pioneer woman from Big Sur. If you have time to spare, check out one of the many hiking trails throughout the park, some of which lead to a waterfall and benches where you might be able to spot migrating whales. For more information on what to do and see, visit the ranger station, which is located about a quarter-mile south of the beach.

6. Venice Beach

Along with the classic California sand and surf, LA's Venice Beach boasts a mile-and-a-half-long boardwalk packed with stores and food joints. Sand sculpture artists, flea markets and street performers also take center stage here, making it a unique, entertainment-filled alternative to your typical beach day. In fact, Venice Beach's boardwalk has an average of more than 10 million visitors per year, making it the second-most visited destination in Southern California. You'll also come across a fishing pier, a skateboard rink, sport courts and the renowned Muscle Beach gym, where bodybuilders workout in front of daily crowds.

5. Huntington Beach

Home of the International Surfing Museum and the US Open of Surfing, "Surf City USA" – this beach's apt nickname – is popular with sunbathers of all ages. Volleyball players, surfers and even rollerbladers call this beach home thanks to its 3 miles of shoreline, its famous waves and its paved boardwalk known as "The Strand." Volleyball courts are available, and there are also restroom facilities, showers, food stands and a parking lot. For those that want to bring their furry pals along, dogs are permitted on a mile-long, dog-friendly beach area.

4. Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach is a heavy hitter, as the area is made up of many beautiful shorelines, including Crescent Bay Beach, Thousand Steps Beach, Main Beach and Crystal Cove State Park. Other highlights include the Laguna Beach Dog Park, a 2-acre grass park and the Main Beach, which offers prime swimming conditions, tide pools and volleyball courts. What's more, Laguna Beach features Aliso Beach Park, which is home to The VIC, a world-renowned annual skimboarding competition (a sport that's similar to surfing, where a shorter, more agile board is used) that occurs in July.

3. Carmel Beach

Located in central California, Carmel Beach comes in at No. 3 this year for its laid-back atmosphere (it's one of few shorelines that allows alcohol on the beach) and pristine, cyprus tree-lined sands. It's also a popular spot for surfers, volleyball players and pet owners thanks to its dog-friendly policy. Free street parking is also available, along with a paid lot, but spots are limited. If you want to stretch your legs, climb one of the eight stairways from the beach to the Scenic Bluff Path, a gravel trail that takes you to Carmel Point, where you can admire panoramic vistas of the craggy coastline.

2. Coronado Beach

Known as the home of the iconic Hotel del Coronado, which is featured in several famous films, including the Marilyn Monroe classic, "Some Like it Hot," Coronado Beach runs for nearly 2 miles along Ocean Boulevard. The area is popular with pet owners and families alike thanks to its designated Dog Beach located at the beach's north end and its gentle surf. Free parking and other facilities including restrooms are available near the hotel along Ocean Boulevard, and you may spot sandcastle-builders creating their next masterpieces in front of the property.

1. Santa Monica Beach

Home of the Santa Monica Pier, this 245-acre shoreline is popular with beachgoers of all ages. There's a boardwalk, an amusement park, a playground, biking and walking paths, surfing lessons, outdoor showers and food stalls and casual eateries, not to mention gorgeous sunsets and views of the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. Visitors should also check out Muscle Beach, located south of the pier, where bodybuilders used to perform in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Today, the equipment is available for free.
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Hannah Cheney, Staff Writer

Hannah Cheney is a Senior Editor for the Travel section at U.S. News, where she manages the ...  Read more

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