Driftwood Beach, black sand beach.

The Best Beaches in California

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California is often referred to as the Golden State, and for good reason. From the iconic shores of San Francisco to the sandy havens of Southern California, the state offers a wide variety of beach experiences.

Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach. Photo Credit: Deposit Photos.

California boasts a diverse and stunning coastline that can give Hawaii a run for its money. Here are 11 of the best beaches in California that are sure to make you question your allegiance to the Hawaiian Islands.

If you’re looking for family-friendly beaches on the East Coast, check out New Smyrna Beach or Daytona Beach.

Pfeiffer Beach, Central Coast

Venture along the winding roads of Big Sur, and you’ll discover the hidden gem of Pfeiffer Beach. Tucked away from the beaten path, this Central Coast paradise enchants visitors with its unique rock formations and untouched beauty. The purple-hued sands, a result of manganese garnet deposits, add a surreal touch to the landscape. Pfeiffer Beach is a retreat for those seeking tranquility amidst the rugged cliffs and crashing waves. Nature enthusiasts can explore the nearby trails, while photographers capture the magic of this coastal haven. With limited signage and a sense of seclusion, Pfeiffer Beach remains a well-kept secret, offering an authentic and awe-inspiring experience for those who make the journey.

Accessible only via a narrow, winding road and often overlooked by tourists, it offers a tranquil retreat away from the crowds. Visitors can marvel at the iconic Keyhole Rock formation, capturing breathtaking sunset photos or simply basking in the serenity of the crashing waves. Adventurers can explore the tide pools teeming with marine life or hike along the scenic trails nearby. After a day of exploration, picnicking by the shore with local delicacies like Monterey Jack cheese and fresh seafood provides a delightful culinary experience. No visit is complete without stargazing and a bonfire.

Baker Beach, San Francisco

Nestled beneath the iconic silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco’s Baker Beach unveils a rugged beauty that captivates both locals and visitors. The golden sands stretch along the rugged cliffs of Marin County, providing a serene escape from the bustling city life. With the iconic bridge as a backdrop, the beach offers prime sunset views, making it a favorite spot for photographers and romantics alike. Despite its proximity to downtown San Francisco, Baker Beach maintains a tranquil atmosphere, inviting beachgoers to unwind at this Northern California gem.

Baker’s Beach with red bridge
Baker’s Beach. Photo Credit Deposit Photos.

Laguna Beach, Orange County

Nestled along the picturesque coastline of Orange County, Laguna Beach stands as a haven of art and nature. Renowned for its artistic community, this beach destination offers more than just sandy shores. Visitors can explore hidden coves, tide pools teeming with marine life and intricate rock formations that add to the coastal charm.

The town itself is dotted with art galleries and boutique shops, creating a seamless blend of creative expression and natural beauty. Laguna Beach is a coastal gem where visitors can escape into the embrace of both artistic inspiration and the tranquility of the Pacific waves.

Huntington Beach, Orange County

Huntington Beach is not known as Surf City USA for nothing. A haven for surfers and beach enthusiasts alike, this vibrant coastal community along the Pacific Coast Highway exudes the laid-back California lifestyle. With a sprawling sandy coastline, Huntington Beach provides the perfect conditions for surfing, attracting both beginners and seasoned wave riders. Beyond the waves, the beach boasts a lively atmosphere, featuring beach volleyball courts, a bustling Main Street and the iconic Huntington Beach Pier.

After a long day, stroll along the iconic Huntington Beach Pier, taking in panoramic ocean views and perhaps indulging in fresh seafood at Ruby’s Diner. Visitors can explore the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, home to diverse bird species and scenic walking trails. Biking along the Ocean Strand or picnicking at the picturesque Central Park offers a serene escape.

Venice Beach, Los Angeles

Venice Beach in Los Angeles is a vibrant fusion of eclectic energy and coastal charm. Beyond its iconic boardwalk and sandy shores, this beach is a melting pot of diverse cultures and artistic expression.

Street performers entertain passersby as they stroll along the bustling promenade, while the famous Muscle Beach showcases the strength and agility of fitness enthusiasts. The beachfront bike path and basketball courts add to the lively atmosphere, making Venice Beach a dynamic and unforgettable destination.

“Both Northern and Southern California beaches have their unique beauty. I love the tranquil atmosphere of Northern California beaches with its cool foggy weather and rugged cliffs. There’s plenty of hiking along the coast and seeing an abundance of wildlife. Meanwhile, Southern California has its long sandy beaches and it’s warm and sunny which promotes a fun beach culture, of surfing and parties”

— Jere’ Cassidy, One Hot Oven
Venice Beach with a palm tree
Venice Beach. Photo Credit: Deposit Photos.

Haskell’s Beach, Santa Barbara

Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara’s beaches are considered some of the best beaches in California due to their sophisticated charm. With palm trees lining the shore and a Mediterranean-style downtown, this coastal city is a perfect place to unwind.

This pristine stretch of shoreline, lined with palm trees and kissed by the gentle Pacific breeze, invites beachgoers to indulge in coastal sophistication. Haskell’s Beach is not only a sunbather’s paradise but also offers opportunities for water sports and relaxation. With the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop, visitors can enjoy a perfect blend of serene landscapes and upscale coastal living.

Additionally, indulging in a beachside picnic with local delicacies such as California avocado toast, gourmet sandwiches, and refreshing fruit platters adds to the experience. The spectacular sunset over the horizon offers a fitting end to a perfect day at Haskell’s Beach.

Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, known as the Surfing Mecca of Northern California, boasts the iconic Steamer Lane, a legendary surf spot that attracts wave riders from near and far. Perched on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, Steamer Lane provides panoramic views of surfers mastering the challenging waves below.

The beach exudes a laid-back atmosphere, making it a favorite for both seasoned surfers and spectators. With its proximity to the lively coastal city of Santa Cruz, visitors can seamlessly transition from the thrill of the waves to exploring the vibrant boardwalk and amusement park.

Up for an adventure? Explore Lighthouse Field State Beach for coastal hikes and birdwatching. Families can enjoy picnics on the sandy shores or venture to the Santa Cruz Wharf for fresh seafood dining. For a dose of local culture, visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum housed in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. Cap off the day with a stroll along West Cliff Drive, admiring breathtaking ocean views and stopping for ice cream at Marianne’s Ice Cream.

Driftwood Beach, Northern California

Driftwood Beach is also known as Jenner’s Beach and is a half-mile-long beach in the town of Jenner, California. Driftwood Beach is at the northside of town and is named due to the large amount of driftwood that washes upon shore.

If you’re looking to do some whale watching (the best times are January through May), Driftwood Beach is a good spot to do so. Or you can go to Jenner Headlands Preserve to see whales from a little higher.

While you’re in the area, be sure to check out Sonoma Coast State Park, which is just to the south. Just an hour and a half to your east is Napa Valley, if you’re in the area for a few days, be sure to check out the best things to do in Napa.

Jenner Beach, black sand beach.
Driftwood Beach. Photo Credit: Lara Clevenger.

Newport Beach, SoCal

In the heart of Orange County, Newport Beach stands as a symbol of coastal elegance. This upscale destination along the Southern California coastline offers a blend of luxury and natural beauty. The expansive sandy beaches provide a picturesque setting for sunbathing and water activities, while the nearby piers and waterfront restaurants add a touch of sophistication. Newport Beach is not just a beach; it’s a lifestyle. Visitors can indulge in upscale shopping, savor gourmet dining, or embark on harbor cruises to explore the coastal beauty.

In Newport Beach, visitors can indulge in a variety of activities. Visitors can start by exploring the charming Balboa Island, hopping on the ferry for scenic views, and grabbing a famous Balboa Bar or frozen banana from Sugar ‘n Spice. Enjoy a fun-filled day at Balboa Fun Zone, riding the Ferris wheel and playing arcade games. For a taste of fresh seafood, dine at local favorites like Bluewater Grill or Bear Flag Fish Co.

Pismo Beach, Central California

Along the central coast of California, Pismo Beach epitomizes the laid-back coastal paradise that draws visitors seeking relaxation and simplicity. The expansive sandy shores invite beachgoers to unwind and enjoy the soothing sound of the waves. Pismo Beach is a popular spot for leisurely strolls, beach picnics and watching the sunset over the Pacific horizon. The town exudes a charming small-town vibe, with beachside shops and local seafood joints contributing to the laid-back atmosphere. Whether it’s exploring the nearby sand dunes or simply enjoying the gentle coastal breeze, Pismo Beach offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Coronado Beach, San Diego

A short drive from downtown San Diego, Coronado Beach beckons with its iconic views and timeless allure. The pristine stretch of white sand unfolds against the backdrop of the historic Hotel del Coronado, creating a postcard-worthy scene. The beach offers a perfect place to unwind, whether you’re basking in the sun, taking a leisurely walk along the shoreline or marveling at the architectural beauty of the hotel. Coronado Beach provides easy access to the vibrant Coronado Island, where visitors can explore charming shops, dine in seaside restaurants and experience the rich history of the area.

South Lake Tahoe

When you think Lake Tahoe, you probably think Reno or Carson City, but California actually has more of Lake Tahoe than Nevada. South Lake Tahoe, as the name suggests is at the southern most part of the lake.

Woman standing by a sign that read "South Lake Tahoe"

Think gorgeous sandy beaches with amazing views of the mountains in the background. Insider tip! Visit in mid May to beat the peak crowds when school is out. You can even make this as a pit stop if you’re on an epic California National Park road trip, Yosemite is just to your south.

Deck with chairs on a beach with mountains in the background.
South Lake Tahoe: view from The Beacon Bar & Grill. Photo Credit: Lara Clevenger.

Whether you’re a sunbather, surfer or nature enthusiast, California’s diverse beaches provide the perfect setting for your coastal adventure. So, the next time you contemplate a beach getaway, consider the best beaches in California — it might just make you rethink Hawaii.

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