U.S. News Best Vacations Badge

Best California Beaches

U.S. News Best Vacations Badge

When first-time visitors imagine California, one of the first things that comes to mind is the beach. One might envision bathing suit-clad beachgoers sashaying down sunny Southern California boardwalks or hikers traversing cliffs along the coast in the north. Either way, California has it all (more than 420 public beaches, to be exact). To help you decide which coast to travel to next, U.S. News considered traveler sentiment and factors like aesthetics, atmosphere and convenience to determine the best stretches of sand in California. Want to add your two cents? Vote for your favorite California beach below.

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#1 Pfeiffer Beach

#1 in Best California Beaches

One of the few accessible beaches in Big Sur is also one of the most photogenic in all of California. Located about 10 miles south of Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Beach stands out for its stunning surrounding cliffs and collection of rock formations. Travel to this secluded gem – preferably at sunset when lighting is best – to snap pics of its iconic Keyhole Rock. Keep in mind, though, that the beach is not safe for swimming.

Pfeiffer Beach
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#2 Laguna Beach

#2 in Best California Beaches

Laguna Beach is filled to the brim with so many beautiful beaches known for their tide pools, superb surfing conditions and more, it would be a disservice to visit just one during your stay. Crescent Bay Beach, Thousand Steps Beach, Main Beach and Picnic Beach are several of the many standout shorelines this Orange County town offers. The area is also home to some pretty top-notch hotels.

Laguna Beach
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#3 Carmel Beach

#3 in Best California Beaches

Travel to Carmel Beach to experience central California beauty at its best. Its nearly white sand, rich blue water and unspoiled cypress trees make it perfect for a long, romantic stroll, while its dog- and drink-friendly policies keep the atmosphere laid-back and fun. When you need a break from surfing or sunbathing, head to the adjacent town of Carmel, which is awash with locally owned eateries and boutiques. Stick around until sunset for a truly unforgettable beach experience that only California can provide.

Carmel Beach
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#4 El Matador State Beach

#4 in Best California Beaches

Tucked between the mansions and luxury hotels of Malibu, El Matador's low-key location and craggy, coastal terrain will make you feel as if you've happened upon someplace special. This Pacific Coast Highway pit stop is a local favorite for its secluded feel, multiple tide pools and striking ocean caves. The best part? El Matador is one of three beaches that comprises Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, meaning you'll find more stunning shorelines just a short stroll away.

El Matador State Beach
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#5 Monterey

#5 in Best California Beaches

What Monterey lacks in swimmable shorelines it more than makes up for in scenery. Fort Ord Dunes State Park is an underrated stunner, offering sky-high dunes with unreal views of the peninsula, as well as a beach so endless, you'll find just a few fellow beachgoers during your visit. For the best of Monterey, drive along Ocean View Boulevard or the legendary 17-Mile Drive. Both travel past pocket-size beaches that will blow you away with their beauty, including the romantic Lovers Point Park and Beach. Read More »

Monterey View 19 photos
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#6 Coronado Beach

#6 in Best California Beaches

This expansive San Diego coastline is so dreamy, it starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like it Hot." It's popular with families and couples for its calm ocean waters, clean sands and legendary sunsets. Plus, the ocean is only a short distance from the popular Gaslamp Quarter (with top hotels and restaurants) in downtown San Diego. 

Coronado Beach
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#7 Santa Cruz

#7 in Best California Beaches

Santa Cruz is probably one of the most laid-back destinations in California, and its 29 miles of beaches are no different. Do as the locals do and take things slow while hitting up top beaches like Pleasure Point Beach, Twin Lakes State Beach and Main Beach, the latter of which features the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and its amusement park. For a quieter atmosphere, drive several miles northwest of the city to Waddell Beach or Bonny Doon Beach. Read More »

Natural Bridges State Beach View 18 photos
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#8 Newport Beach

#8 in Best California Beaches

Newport Beach features a similar vibe to Laguna Beach, though it has a lot more going on. Home to thousands more residents, Newport Beach boasts miles of beaches, as well as an array of amenities, including the Lido Marina Village and the Balboa Fun Zone amusement park. While here, hit up favorites, such as Corona del Mar State Beach, Newport Municipal Beach and, for experienced surfers, The Wedge.

Newport Beach
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#9 Crystal Cove State Park

#9 in Best California Beaches

Crystal Cove State Park is considered one of the largest remaining natural seashores in Orange County. The park is made up of multiple beaches, including the popular Moro Beach and Pelican Point, and features plenty of tide pools in between. In addition to offering scenic shorelines, Crystal Cove State Park is home to 18 miles of hiking trails across 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness, giving travelers the opportunity to experience the best of Southern California's gorgeous geography in one destination.

Crystal Cove State Park
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#10 East Beach

#10 in Best California Beaches

If you're going to Santa Barbara – even for a few hours – you're likely to run into East Beach. The beach is located right smack dab in the middle of the city, situated at the tail end of State Street, Santa Barbara's main drag. This beach is a great introduction to the city's beautiful shorelines, offering plenty of room to sink your toes in the sand and calm water suitable for little ones. Plus, the beach sits alongside a waterfront park, hotels and Stearns Wharf, the latter of which offers incredible views of the beach and mountains that flank it.

East Beach
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#11 Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

#11 in Best California Beaches

Located about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego, Torrey Pines' untouched wilderness feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of California's second-largest city. The reserve is famous for its rare Torrey pine trees but is more of a point of interest for its scenic trails, incredible vistas and breathtaking beaches, which are backed by striking, sky-high coastal cliffs. It's important to know that because of its small size and popularity, Torrey Pines can get crowded pretty quickly.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
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#12 Dana Point

#12 in Best California Beaches

Dana Point is seldom on California tourists' radars, making it the perfect place to hang your hat if you want to avoid crowds. Situated between San Clemente and Laguna Beach in Orange County, the city is truly breathtaking, offering lots of lovely beaches to write home about. This is the place to bring families, as many of its popular stretches of sand (think: Doheny State Beach, Salt Creek Beach Park and Monarch Bay Beach) feature long, wide shorelines. There's also the famous Dana Strand Beach, known for its proximity to a bevy of waterfront mansions.

Dana Point
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#13 Santa Monica

#13 in Best California Beaches

Santa Monica is everything you'd imagine a Southern California beach destination to be. The city's namesake beach stretches 245 acres and features the area's iconic amusement park pier, a boardwalk that connects Santa Monica to Venice Beach and incredible views of the nearby Santa Monica Mountains. Plus, the beach sits just a few blocks away from the amenities of Colorado Avenue and the Third Street Promenade.

Santa Monica Beach
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#14 Venice Beach

#14 in Best California Beaches

This iconic Los Angeles shoreline is unique in that it isn't famous for its actual beach, but rather the quirky inhabitants and bodybuilders that congregate there. A stroll along the boardwalk will open you up to the sights and sounds of Venice's eccentric personality. You'll find murals, street performers and shops selling everything from souvenirs to tattoos. Venice Beach also offers a variety of eateries and a good selection of hotels. For a quieter setting, walk a couple of blocks east of the beach to the tranquil Venice Canals.

Venice Beach
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#15 Natural Bridges State Beach

#15 in Best California Beaches

Located in Santa Cruz, Natural Bridges State Beach is favored for its intimate, serene setting and picture-perfect geological formations. The state beach is most recognized for its arch rock, which becomes even more picturesque come sunset. Be sure to explore the nearby tide pools during low tide and the beach's Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve, which is a haven for migrating monarch butterflies from mid-October to mid-February.

Natural Bridges State Beach
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#16 Huntington Beach

#16 in Best California Beaches

If you're looking for the quintessential California beach experience, head to Huntington Beach. Dubbed Surf City USA, Huntington Beach offers all of the charms you'd expect to find at a California beach. The long, wide shore is flanked by palm trees and features an impressive boardwalk and a wooden pier that juts far out into the ocean. Plus, you'll discover all kinds of amenities nearby, including restaurants, shops and beachfront hotels.

Huntington Beach
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#17 Malibu

#17 in Best California Beaches

Malibu is one of Southern California's greatest treats. Here, you'll find beautiful beaches big and small that are perfect for exploring, lounging or both. For lots of room on the sand, head to Zuma Beach or Point Dume State Beach. There are also Malibu Colony Beach and Puerco Beach, which overlook some of the mansions that make up this affluent community. There's so much to see on the sand and in the nearby mountains that you should allot at least a few days to explore it all.

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#18 Manhattan Beach

#18 in Best California Beaches

Beachgoers who don't want to deal with the hordes of tourists that congregate in Venice Beach and Santa Monica should hit up Manhattan Beach. This city and its namesake beach still see a handful of visitors on a regular basis but rarely feel crowded. At the beach, you'll find a beautiful stretch of sand with superb waves for surfers, as well as amenities like a boardwalk flanked by impressive seaside homes, volleyball courts and a pier with incredible views – especially at sunset – of the nearby Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Manhattan Beach
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#19 Oceanside

#19 in Best California Beaches

Situated about 40 miles north of San Diego in North County, Oceanside features beaches that are noticeably different than what you'll find in central San Diego. Although the beaches in this coastal city (which offers a small beach town vibe) will likely be packed, they are still quite pretty and are more commonly filled with residents than tourists. Start your visit at Oceanside Pier (one of the West Coast's longest wooden piers) before finding a spot on the sand to sunbathe or watch surfers catch a wave.

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#20 Half Moon Bay

#20 in Best California Beaches

If you're the kind of traveler who prefers big, beautiful beaches, check out Half Moon Bay. Located about 30 miles south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is famous for its stunning namesake beach, which is so big, there are beaches within the beach. Dunes Beach at the northern end and Francis Beach at the southern end are both great places to visit here. Other can't-miss shores include the beautiful Cowell Ranch, Martins and Tunitas Creek beaches. For the best panoramas, hike the California Coastal Trail or the Cowell-Purisima Trail.

Half Moon Bay
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#21 Pismo Beach

#21 in Best California Beaches

Pismo Beach is the kind of place you go when you want to escape it all. This small beach town less than 12 miles south of San Luis Obispo offers little to do other than beach activities, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. While visiting, rent a kayak to check out Dinosaur Caves Park or hire a dune buggy to zip down to the shore or explore nearby Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. Don't forget to see the flurry of butterflies at Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove if you're in town in late fall or winter.

Pismo Beach
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