Best California Beaches

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 California boardwalks in the south or hikers traversing cliffs along the coast in the north. Either way, California offers more than 420 public beaches to choose from. 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 California beaches. Want to add your two cents? Vote for your favorite California beach below.

SUMMARY

Best California Beaches

  • Laguna Beach
  • Pfeiffer Beach
  • Monterey
  • Carmel Beach
  • Coronado Beach
  • Santa Cruz
  • Crystal Cove State Park
  • Dana Point
  • Newport Beach
  • Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
  • El Matador State Beach
  • Santa Monica
  • Huntington Beach
  • East Beach
  • Venice Beach
  • Natural Bridges State Beach
  • Malibu
  • Half Moon Bay
  • Oceanside, CA
  • Manhattan Beach
  • Pismo Beach
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    Laguna Beach

    #1 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 that 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, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, is also home to an impressive art scene and some pretty top-notch hotels.

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    Pfeiffer Beach

    #2 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 southeast of Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Beach impresses with 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.

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    Monterey

    #3 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 fantastic views of the peninsula, as well as 4 miles of quiet beach, where you'll find relatively few beachgoers. For the best of Monterey, drive along Ocean View Boulevard or the legendary 17-Mile Drive. Both routes travel past pocket-size beaches that will blow you away with their beauty, including the romantic Lovers Point Park and Beach, a popular wedding destination.

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    Carmel Beach

    #4 in Best California Beaches

    Travel to Carmel Beach to experience central California beauty at its best. The beach's nearly white sand, vibrant 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 the beach until sunset for a truly unforgettable evening that only California can provide, or stay even later to enjoy a beach bonfire.

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    Coronado Beach

    #5 in Best California Beaches

    This wide coastline just southwest of San Diego is so dreamy that it starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot." The roughly 2-mile-long Coronado Beach proves popular with families and couples thanks to its calm ocean water, clean sand and legendary sunsets. Plus, the beach sits close to the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, making it easy to reach the popular Gaslamp Quarter (with top hotels and restaurants) in downtown San Diego.

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    Santa Cruz

    #6 in Best California Beaches

    Santa Cruz is probably one of California's most laid-back destinations, 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, take California's state Route 1 roughly 10 or 20 miles northwest of downtown Santa Cruz to Bonny Doon Beach or Waddell Beach.

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    Crystal Cove State Park

    #7 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 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 spread across 2,400 acres of wilderness, allowing travelers to experience the best of Southern California's gorgeous geography in one destination.

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    Dana Point

    #8 in Best California Beaches

    Dana Point is seldom on California tourists' radars, making it the perfect place to explore if you want to avoid crowds. Situated about halfway between San Clemente and Laguna Beach in Orange County, this town is truly breathtaking, offering lots of lovely beaches to write home about. Dana Point is an excellent option for 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, which is known for its proximity to a bevy of waterfront mansions.

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    Newport Beach

    #9 in Best California Beaches

    Newport Beach features a similar vibe to Laguna Beach, though it has a lot more going on. Welcoming millions of people annually, Newport Beach boasts 10 miles of coastline, as well as an array of amenities, including the Lido Marina Village shopping center 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.

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    Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

    #10 in Best California Beaches

    Located about 15 miles northwest of downtown San Diego, Torrey Pines' well-preserved 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 and breathtaking beaches, which are backed by striking sky-high coastal cliffs. North Beach and South Beach divide the reserve's coastline. Both of these traveler-approved beaches offer separate parking lots but often get crowded due to their small sizes, so plan on arriving early.

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    El Matador State Beach

    #11 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 pocket beaches that comprise Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, meaning you'll find more stunning shorelines just a short stroll away.

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    Santa Monica

    #12 in Best California Beaches

    Santa Monica is everything you'd imagine a Southern California beach destination to be. The city's namesake beach stretches 3 miles and covers 245 acres. It features the area's iconic Pacific Park amusement park pier, a paved path 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 Third Street Promenade's various amenities.

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    Huntington Beach

    #13 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. Palm trees flank the long, wide shore of Huntington State Beach, which features an impressive bike trail and a wooden pier that juts far out into the ocean. Meanwhile, Huntington Dog Beach is the beach to visit if you're traveling with a pup (or want to watch the dogs frolic). You'll discover all kinds of amenities in the city center, including restaurants, shops and beachfront hotels.

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    East Beach

    #14 in Best California Beaches

    No visit to Santa Barbara – whether short or long – would be complete without checking out East Beach. The beach is located smack dab in the middle of the city 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 for activities like volleyball and calm water suitable for little ones. Plus, the beach sits alongside a waterfront park, hotels and Stearns Wharf, where you can enjoy incredible views of the beaches and mountains that flank it.

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    Venice Beach

    #15 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.

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    Natural Bridges State Beach

    #16 in Best California Beaches

    Situated 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, where eucalyptus trees and milkweed plants provide a haven for migrating monarch butterflies from mid-October to mid-February.

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    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 between the beaches and nearby mountains that you should allot at least a few days to explore it all.

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    Half Moon Bay

    #18 in Best California Beaches

    If you're the kind of traveler who prefers big, beautiful beaches, check out Half Moon Bay. This beach town about 30 miles south of San Francisco is famous for its stunning namesake beach, which is so big that 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.

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    Oceanside, CA

    #19 in Best California Beaches

    Located about 40 miles northwest of San Diego, Oceanside's beaches are less crowded than those of central San Diego. The Oceanside Strand serves as the main artery for beachgoers, as it runs along the city's coastline. The pretty beaches complement Oceanside's small coastal town vibe, though the area sees an influx of tourists during the peak summer season. Start your visit at Oceanside Pier (one of the West Coast's longest wooden piers) before walking either direction on The Strand. North takes you to the spacious Harbor Beach, while a stroll south leads to Tysons Street Beach, an excellent picnic spot.

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    Manhattan Beach

    #20 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 town and its namesake beach, which are located about 20 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles, still see visitors regularly but rarely feel crowded. At the beach, you'll discover a beautiful stretch of sand with superb waves for surfers, as well as amenities like a paved path flanked by impressive seaside homes, volleyball courts and a pier with incredible views – especially at sunset – of the nearby Palos Verdes Peninsula.

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    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. Don't forget to see the flurry of butterflies at Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove if you're in town between late October and late February.

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