California’s beautiful Pacific coast is home to some incredibly diverse shores. See the 10 best beaches in California, from cool, rocky coasts that are perfect for a stroll to warm and swimmable sandy beaches!
Whether you’re looking to enjoy a romantic walk down the shore, surf California’s best waves, or enjoy a scenic beach day with tons of attractions nearby, there’s a Californian beach for you.
What Are the Best Beaches in California?
The best beaches in California span the state’s entire Pacific coastline, from the cooler northern shores down to sunny and warm Southern California.
Discovering the California beach that will be just right for your visit starts with considering what kind of activities and experiences you’re looking for in The Golden State.
For the classic California beach experience, head to the popular beach areas with wide, sandy coastlines and a variety of beachfront attractions, shops, and restaurants.
Nature lovers seeking something secluded and rugged can head to some of Cali’s lesser-known hidden gems, tucked away in national and state parks without the tourist trappings some of the most popular beaches are known for.
Those who want something in between can discover beaches in California that offer the best of both worlds, with a few attractions nearby balanced with scenic beauty and land formations visible from the shore.
With so many diverse beaches in the state, it’s impossible to choose the single best beach in California. So we came up with a list of the top 10!
The best beaches in California are:
- Crescent Bay Beach, Laguna Beach, CA
- Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, CA
- Santa Cruz Main Beach, Santa Cruz, CA
- Bolsa Chica State Beach, Orange County, CA
- El Matador Beach, Malibu, CA
- Asilomar State Beach, Pacific Grove, CA
- Goat Rock Beach, Bodega Bay, CA
- Baker Beach, San Francisco, CA
- Seacliff State Beach, Aptos, CA
- South Mission Beach, San Diego, CA
Keep reading to learn more about each of California’s most stunning beaches and what makes each one ideal for a visit.
The 10 Best Beaches in California
The 10 best beaches in California are diverse with each one offering something different in terms of views, scenery, attractions, and ocean conditions.
Take a look at the top California beaches below to see which one is the best fit for your trip!
Crescent Bay Beach, Laguna Beach, California
Located in famous Laguna Beach, Crescent Bay Beach is one of a kind and easily one of the best beaches in California. Clear, blue water, soft, sandy shores with scenic views, and abundant marine life make it truly special.
Spot sea lions and seals at Seal Rock on the north end, kayak or scuba dive in the surf, or skim board on the coast to enjoy the beauty half-surrounding you in the unique crescent shape.
Waves 12-15 feet high come crashing onto the shores at times, making it a favorite spot for surfers seeking a consistent swell. Strong swimmers enjoy taking to the water, but rip currents should always be considered!
Consider the secret to be out – thousands come to the beach in search of sand, sun, and fun daily during the peak season – and parking can be tough to find on crowded days.
That’s only further evidence that Crescent Bay is one of the best Californian beaches to visit!
Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California
Named one of the best beaches in the USA, Pfeiffer Beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park easily takes one of the top spots for the best beaches in California.
Uniquely purple sand in spots (manganese garnet gives it the color), cool ocean breezes, and gorgeous scenery surrounding you will make it one of your favorite beaches in the state.
Nearby, waterfalls, sea caves, keyhole rocks, and rugged cliffs help lend Pfeiffer Beach the secluded, natural feel it’s known for. Wildlife is everywhere and you’ll be able to see deer, birds, squirrels, and more when you visit.
Make your way down the craggy hillside to access the soft stretch of sand between huge rocks where the waves lap the shore. Entering the park costs $10 per car and people enjoy biking around the park to see more!
Santa Cruz Main Beach, Santa Cruz, California
Santa Cruz is where you’ll find the quintessential California beach experience, complete with a bustling boardwalk, vast stretches of soft sand, and big waves that bring life to the shoreline.
Santa Cruz Main Beach is more than worth a visit if you’re in Northern California and only an hour and a half from San Francisco. The water is chilly, peaking at 63F in summer, but it’s great for short swims.
Palm trees tower over the shore, where you can enjoy relaxing on the sand, swimming in the summer, and surf fishing. It’s not a serene beach, but if you’re seeking fun and attractions, this is the place.
Head to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk just a few feet away for the amusement park, games, shops, food, and drinks. This is a beach the entire family can enjoy for hours!
Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington Beach, California
Bolsa Chica State Beach is the crowning jewel of Huntington Beach, offering 3 miles of uninterrupted sand stretching out to the powerful Pacific Ocean.
This is a popular but quiet beach, where people love surf fishing, bonfires, volleyball, and absolutely gorgeous sunsets. The water is shallow here, making for excellent curled waves and surf breaks.
The weather is amazingly temperate and comfortable here with summer highs in the 70s and 80s and winter lows around 60F. The park’s visitor center has tons of exhibits and learning opportunities when you’re ready to head off the shore.
Park entry fees are $15 per car for day use and there are 200 fire rings arranged around the beach for public use. A campground in the park makes it a great place for a family vacation!
El Matador Beach, Malibu, California
Located in Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, El Matador Beach is known as one of Southern California’s cleanest, most enjoyable beaches. It’s scenic, natural, and somewhat secluded.
Make your way down a narrow staircase to descend the rocky hillside to El Matador Beach. Stretches of soft sand await you, along with massive rock formations and sea caves.
It feels like a hidden paradise and is rarely crowded. North is La Piedra State Beach and Lechuza Beach is just to the south, with both in walking distance to make a full day of it.
Unlike most state beaches in California, El Matador has no entrance fee (you’ll just pay for parking in the small lot above the beach). The beach is a favorite place to watch sunsets.
Asilomar State Beach, Pacific Grove, California
On the Central California coast is Asilomar State Beach. It’s been named one of the best beaches in the U.S., so of course it deserves a spot as one of the best beaches in California!
This ruggedly natural beach is the perfect destination for nature lovers, photographers, and water sports enthusiasts. Look for the Historic Point Pinos Lighthouse in the distance!
The tide pools here are amazing, with tiny marine life existing in these miniature microcosms scattered around the shore. Even at high tide, some of the pools are visible.
Water shoes are essential if you plan to wade into the water due to the uneven, rocky bottom. But for a long stroll down the shore, catching waves, and kayaking, you can’t beat Asilomar.
Goat Rock Beach, Bodega Bay, California
One of the best and most scenic beaches in Bodega Bay, the stunning Goat Rock Beach is located inside the Sonoma Coast State Park in Northern California.
The brown, sandy shore has a rugged and natural beauty with rock arches and keyholes, scenic coves, and steep hillsides surrounding the stunning Goat Rock Beach.
The famous namesake for the beach, Goat Rock, is a favorite spot and challenge for climbers. Harbor seals congregate around the rock (but don’t get too close).
Full restroom facilities and covered picnic areas make it an ideal place for spending a day with family and friends. The scenery brings out the photographer in everyone, so take plenty of pictures!
Baker Beach, San Francisco, California
Known for its unmatched views of the Golden Gate Bridge and craggy hillsides all around, Baker Beach lands among the best beaches in California for locals and tourists alike.
Located in the Presidio National Park in San Francisco, Baker Beach is down below the western shoreline and stretches out with a mile of soft, sandy coastline dotted with large boulders.
From the beach, you can get the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lands End, and the Marin Headlands. The water is chilly and not good for swimming, but this scenic spot has lots more to offer.
Just north, Marshall’s Beach is clothing-optional. Follow the Sand Ladder nearby to the rugged California Coastal Trail for a beautiful hiking experience. There are tons of other things to do in San Francisco, too!
Seacliff State Beach, Aptos, California
Just south of Santa Cruz is the must-see Seacliff State Beach, known for its calmer surf, long sandy shoreline, and famous “concrete ship.”
That ship is the SS Palo Alto, an old concrete freighter located just past the pier where great white sharks now congregate. A storm destroyed the pier in early 2023, but it still makes an impressive sight.
This dog-friendly beach is a place where locals enjoy hanging out, surf fishing, walking, biking, and jogging along the beach, and looking for fossils and seaglass.
The bluffs that Seacliff State Beach backs up to are where you’ll find the best marine fossils. A covered picnic pavilion is perfect for lunch or dinner on the shore. There’s a $10/car day use fee to enter.
South Mission Beach, San Diego, California
On the coast of sunny San Diego in Southern California is the popular South Mission Beach. It’s a natural haven among the hustle and bustle of the city and warmer than beaches in Northern Cali.
Come for a brief swim (the water temperature peaks around 75F in July), enjoy a beach bonfire, or play a game of volleyball with nets for public use.
South Mission Beach boasts a wide, roomy stretch of sand that doesn’t feel crowded, even in the peak summer months. Enjoy the pristine beach and views of the Pacific, then head to the boardwalk.
The boardwalk stretches for 2.3 miles, filled with restaurants, bars, shops, and an amusement park with a roller coaster. Try to plan your visit in June – it’s one of the best times to visit San Diego and a great time to experience South Mission Beach!
Things to Consider
Visiting the best beaches in California means you’re in for a real treat. Here are some helpful travel tips to keep in mind as you start planning your trip!
- If you want to swim, head to SoCal in the summer. Swimming is possible along the Northern and Central California coast, but the water is much warmer in Southern California and you won’t need a wetsuit. The Pacific is about 10 degrees warmer along the southern coast, making it the best for swimming.
- Branch out beyond the beach. Heading to California to visit some of its most incredible beaches will give you a great experience, but there’s a lot to do beyond the shore! Head out to nearby hiking trails, take a boat tour or cruise, make your way into town for shops and restaurants, and venture into national and state parks to see more of this scenic state.
- Pack the essentials. California beaches call for plenty of sunscreen, light layers in case it’s chilly, an umbrella or pop-up canopy, and plenty of snacks and drinks for a full beach day. Many beaches have tons of food and drink options right along the shore or nearby, so it pays to do your research before going!
- Check before bringing your dog. Many of the best beaches in California are dog-friendly, but some are protected habitats for seals and sea lions and don’t allow dogs. Check online to see if your preferred beach allows dogs before planning your visit. The state beaches always include this information on their website.
- Consider parking in your plans. Parking for most of the best beaches in California is plentiful and free or inexpensive. Before you head to your favorite beach, check on the parking situation – lot size, overflow parking areas, shuttles, parking meters, etc. – to make your beach trip seamless with no surprises.
Frequently Asked Questions
Wondering what else you should know about the best beaches in California? Take a look at the most frequently asked questions to learn more and start making your vacation plans.
What is the prettiest beach in California?
The prettiest beach in California depends on what you're looking for. Crescent Bay Beach in Laguna Beach and Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur are often considered two of the prettiest beaches in California.
Crescent Bay Beach has a wide, crescent-shaped coastline surrounded by green hills with soft, golden sand where the waves lap the shore.
Pfeiffer Beach features unique purple sand and towering rock formations that make it one of the most scenic beaches in California.
What beach has the clearest water in California?
Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur is where you'll find some of the clearest water along California's Pacific Coast. This secluded area features rock formations with cliffs and waterfalls that add to the scenic beauty.
What is the prettiest beach near LA?
El Matador is often considered the prettiest and cleanest beach near Los Angeles, making it one of the best beaches to visit in the area. Visitors descend a steep staircase down a hillside to access this beautiful beach.
What are the best warm beaches near California?
Southern California's beaches are about 10 degrees warmer than Northern California's beaches, making the best warm beaches those that are further south.
Head to beaches along the Central California coast down into SoCal for the warmest water that won't shock your system when you swim.
Are California beaches swimmable?
Yes, many of California's beaches are swimmable! The water of the Pacific Ocean is chilly, especially the further north you go in the state.
Look for beaches in Southern California for the warmest water, and mind the surf and currents.
The Pacific Ocean is known for big waves, rogue waves, and rip currents that call for strong swimmers with knowledge on escaping rip currents.
So, Planning to Visit the Best Beaches in California?
It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for the quintessential California beach experience or hoping to spend quiet time strolling the shore in a secluded cove – California has a beach for every type of trip.
States like Hawaii and Florida may be the first beach destinations you think of, but there’s something truly inspiring and breathtaking about the diversity and scenery of the beaches in California.
Keep your trip goals in mind as you consider the best beaches in California and narrow the list down to the shores you’re most excited to visit.
With swimming, fishing, biking, surfing, bonfires, kayaking, picnics, and more waiting for you on the California coast, you’re going to gain a whole new appreciation for the scenic Golden State once you visit.