California has 840 miles of coastline that's divided into a collection of sandy stretches and rounded coves that are as diverse as the state's residents. Want to find one to take your dog for a swim? Or to take your family for a picnic? What about nature peeping? Charming beach towns? Here are our favorite destination beaches—and don't forget your sunscreen.
The 11 Best Beaches in California—and What’s Special About Each One
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Best Beaches in California At A Glance
- Best Overall, Southern: Laguna Beach
- Best Overall, Northern: Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
- Best Beach Café: Paradise Cove, Malibu
- Best Beachcombing: Glass Beach, Mendocino
- Best Swimming: Newport Beach
- Best for Families: Coronado Beach
- Best for Wildlife: Children's Pool Beach, La Jolla
- Best Camping: Refugio State Beach
- Best Sports Beach: Manhattan Beach
- Best Surfer's Beach: Rincon Point, Carpinteria
- Best Dog Beach: Rosie's Dog Beach, Long Beach
1. Laguna Beach
Best Overall, Southern California
Laguna Beach's main stretch has a wide stretch for sunning, lifeguards to watch over you when you're swimming or body surfing—and it connects to miles of alternating rocky and sandy coves backed by a undulating, lushly landscaped boardwalk.
Best Overall, Northern California
Accessible via a twisty two-mile-long unmarked road off Highway 1, this beach is notable for Keyhole Arch, its rock formation in the wave break to one side, and at the other end of the beach, a patch of purple sand painted by a natural deposit of manganese-rich garnet rock. This beach is totally worth the trip, if for nothing else than to catch the last rays of sunset peeking through the rock arch.
Best Beach Café
This stretch of sand in Malibu has for decades been a fisherman's stop and community gathering place. Now it's an indoor-outdoor restaurant set directly on the sand where you can enjoy an iced seafood plate or burger and a fresh pineapple boba rum drink indoors overlooking the water or drop $250 to rent a couple chaise longues right on the sand to enjoy the cafe's to-go oniony burger and fries. It's a bit pricey to rent a chair, but the sand never gets too crowded and the enclosed area makes a useful perimeter for smaller kids to run around in safely.
Talk about a silver lining—from 1906 to 1967, townspeople pushed their garbage over the cliffs above this stretch of sand in today's Fort Bragg. Now all those auto tail lights and apothecary bottles have been ground into soft-edged chunks of sea glass in red, blue and the rainbow; but remember, it's look but don't collect at Glass Beach.
One of the few downsides of Pacific Ocean beaches is that the water temperature is COLD—no Atlantic Ocean Gulf Stream warmth here. But the Balboa Peninsula shelters the water on Newport Beach from the greater Pacific swells, so it allows the beach sand and water to star warmer than surrounding beaches well into fall.
Best for Families
This mile-and-a-half stretch in front of the Hotel Del Coronado has calm water, gentle waves and lifeguard stands, making it a safe place for kids. The wide flat stretch of sand is great for little kids to build sandcastles, while teens can paddle board and skim board. Plus, there's that big resort to feed everyone.
Best for Wildlife
In the 1930s, a wealthy local built a sea wall to create a calm cove for children to use. In the 1990s, a harbor seal population discovered the spot and use it as a place to rest and, between January and April each year, give birth to their pups. (There's an especially good This American Life episode detailing the resulting wildlifer-versus-local beach lovers controversy around this entitled Beaching and Moaning). In my experience, it's well worth a visit to stand along the sea wall and gaze down at the seals from a safe, respectful distance.
Palm trees planted on this beach give it a distinctive, tropical vibe that's unique to mid-coast Cali beaches. Located about 20 miles west of Santa Barbara, this beach has slots for more than 50 campers; see a lifeguard to borrow a free beach wheelchair that has wide inflated wheels that don't get stuck in the sand. Kayak tours, coastal fishing and surfing are also popular on the beach.
Best Sports Beach
Dozens of volleyball nets line the sand at this SoCal beach where the competition ranges from friendly pick-up games to a once-a-year Olympics-level tournament. After your exertions (or just sunbathing) the sweet little town of Manhattan Beach awaits with boutiques, dining and day spas.
Best Surfer's Beach
Widely known as one of the state's top surf breaks, "Rincon" straddles the border of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties three miles south of Carpinteria. The right hand break attracts a line-up of experienced surfers, so get ready to angle for waves, or just enjoy spectating.
Best Dog Beach
Imagine a crowded dog park shared by people in swimsuits and dogs, and you've got the rollicking atmosphere of Rosie's Dog Beach. This four-acre span doesn't have fences, so if your pooch is a runner this might be a problem. But otherwise you'll enjoy off-leash canine mingling and swimming between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily.