Seeing that the weather in California is pitch perfect most days out of the year, it makes sense that their beaches are some of the most popular in the country. But it's more than just sunshine that makes these oceanfront destinations so desirable (though it definitely doesn't hurt): The Golden State's coastline is exceptionally beautiful as well, with its rugged bluffs and nestled inlets.
The beaches in California are incredibly diverse, meaning that the scenery will change as you drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from south to north. Down south near San Diego and Malibu, you'll find wide yellow sandy beaches and palm trees, whereas up in Humboldt County you'll be more likely to discover black sand beaches and sweeping redwood forests. All of which makes California's beaches perfect for exploring all year long, but especially during the hotter months.
Here are 11 of the best beaches in California for lounging, surfing, playing in the sand, and soaking up all that summer sun. (But there are many more, so please add your favorites in the comments below!)
Three miles of beachfront boardwalk, plenty of surf-only spots, and life-guarded swim areas (oh, and lots and lots of delicious burritos) await you on Pacific Beach in sunny San Diego. There's also plenty to do at night, with bonfire sites available on the beach and a fair amount of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs just a stone's throw away.
This family-friendly beach in Encinitas—a laid-back beach town just 25 miles north of San Diego—offers up plenty of activities, from tennis and volleyball courts to picnic tables and firepits. Its wide shoreline makes it a popular spot for sunbathing and swimming, so make sure to get there early if you want to snag a good spot during peak season.
Set in the heart of Orange County and known as the "Spanish Village by the Sea," the city of San Clemente is known for its Spanish colonial-style architecture, sweeping hills and mountains, and surfing culture. At San Clemente State Beach, there are of course great spots to catch some waves and even snorkel and scuba dive, as well as a few short hiking trails and camping areas.
One of the largest and widest beaches in Los Angeles County, Zuma Beach is located right off the Pacific Coast Highway in the picturesque town of Malibu, which is slowly recovering after devastating wildfires in 2018. There are plenty of lifeguard stations dotted along the beach for swimmers, plus volleyball courts, picnic tables, and concession stands along the main two-mile stretch.
Referred to by Santa Barbara locals as "Hendry's Beach," Arroyo Burro Beach is surrounded by picture-perfect bluffs and is known to be a great spot for whale watching. If you'd prefer something a little more adventurous, the nearby Elings Park is a popular launch pad for hang gliders and paragliders to take off.
About an hour and a half's drive from Santa Barbara is Pismo Beach in California's Central Coast. Once you're there, you won't want to miss the historic 1,200-foot Pismo Beach Pier, which was built in 1928 and makes for a great fishing spot (don't worry, you don't need a license here). Just off the beach, make sure to visit Splash Café for a cup of award-winning clam chowder and the area's many charming shops.
A trip to Santa Cruz wouldn't be complete without a bike ride to Capitola Beach, which is just a short drive from the city's famous board walk. Although Capitola might not be as big or popular as the area's main beach, its colorful cottages, gentle swells, and tasty beachfront options make it a must-visit.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a better view of San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge than the one at Baker Beach. You won't want to try and swim here—the water's too cold and rough—but you will want to take a stroll along the sand (if you have kids, make sure to check out the 1904 Battery Chamberlin) or maybe even have a picnic if the weather is particularly nice. Whatever you do, don't forget to take lots of pictures.
Just an hour or so north of the city of San Francisco is the Point Reyes National Seashore in the vast and beautiful Marin County. There's lots to do here—from hiking and kayaking to camping and exploring tidepools—but one of our favorites is making the 13-mile trek to Alamere Falls, a rare type of waterfall (called a "tidefall") that flows directly into the ocean.
Even further north in Mendocino County, known for its majestic redwood forests, is the Caspar Headlands State Beach. While generally safe for swimming, the water is exceptionally chilly and prone to rip currents, so you might want to stick to the shore here. That said, there are stunning hiking trails that wind their way to coastal viewpoints and an RV campground just across the street from the ocean.
Located in a part of Humboldt County often referred to as the "Lost Coast," Black Sands Beach is home to—you guessed it—beautiful black sand beaches and rugged terrain. The waves here are massive and dangerous (making it a popular spot for daring surfers), so you won't want to do more than dip your toes in the icy water. Even during the summer months, the weather can be brisk and foggy, so you'll want to bring layers should you decide to take a leisurely beach walk.