A Surf City Native’s Guide to Southern California Beaches

Huntington Beach has evolved from a sleepy surf town into a hopping vacation hub. A born-and-bred AFAR editor offers tips on the best beaches, how to avoid the crowds, and where to get a taste of local favorites old and new.

A Surf City Native’s Guide to Southern California Beaches

Huntington Beach is defined by surfing and by its iconic pier.

Courtesy of Visit Huntington Beach

At the start of each summer growing up, from my vantage point of home a short walk from the ocean’s edge, I witnessed the sad march toward the sand of many an unsuspecting tourist, complete with unnecessary beach umbrellas. Yes, they were in the right place—Huntington Beach, California (aka Surf City USA)—but at the wrong time. Excited to kickstart the summer with a fun beach vacation, they had unknowingly planned their stay in June, known to us natives as the time of June gloom.

Huntington Beach, a city that rests in the heart of Southern California’s Orange County, is known predominantly for two things: its historic pier jutting out 1,850 feet into the Pacific Ocean (one of the longest on the West Coast) and surfing. HB, as we locals call it, becomes the center of the surfing universe each summer during the U.S. Open of Surfing, the world’s largest surfing competition.

The HB of my youth, however, has changed quite a bit. What was once a sleepy, agricultural surf town has evolved into a hopping tourist hub—the city’s scattered strawberry fields are completely gone, and instead a string of resorts have cropped up along the Huntington waterfront. Nevertheless, despite the changes, the essence of Huntington Beach as a quintessential beach town remains. Today, as during my childhood, much of everyday life revolves around the culture of sea and sand.

Thankfully, there are still plenty of places to go to get a sense of the simpler, more vintage charms of Huntington Beach and its surroundings. And there are plenty of new-generation spots that have seamlessly entered the mix that enhance, rather than detract from, the beach-goer’s experience.

There’s no magic formula for escaping the masses that descend on Orange County each summer, but there are some places that not everyone is likely to know about. Here are local secrets, hot spots, beach-going tips, and other knowledge I have collected over the years of having been born and raised in Surf City USA.

When to go

As we have already learned, June is not the best time (although those who love fog and cooler weather might appreciate this time of year; the clouds do often burn off by midday or early afternoon). A local’s warning: If it is overcast or windy, don’t forget to apply sunscreen. This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when it’s cooler. Another warning: The Pacific Ocean veers on the chilly side much of the year.

One of my favorite times in Southern California is around Labor Day and into October. The crowds have mostly tapered off, but the weather typically remains great.

Another fun time is over the winter holidays. While SoCal can get the occasional cold and wet winter, it’s not uncommon for it to be sunny and warm in December and January, which offers a break for anyone coming from a truly cold climate. (Added bonus: Big Bear ski resort areas are a two-hour drive away, meaning you could surf and ski in one vacation.)

If you want that classic summer experience, July and August won’t disappoint. And even the crowd-averse will be able to stake a decent spot in the sand given the miles upon miles of beach.

The best beaches

It’s not simply because I grew up there, but Huntington Beach itself really is an ideal beach for families. It’s flat, uncomplicated, and yet there are enough resources (snack bars, outdoor showers, bathrooms, and trash cans) to make for a delightful day at the beach. I like to stake out a fire pit (which needs to be done early in the day during peak season) and have an evening beach bonfire with friends and family. It is a magical experience and few beaches in Southern California allow fires. The pits are available on the southern end of HB, but the beach scene is definitely livelier closer to the pier and Main Street.

There’s even a surf competition for pooches at Huntington Dog Beach.

There’s even a surf competition for pooches at Huntington Dog Beach.

Photo by KK Stock/Shutterstock

Those with pooches—and those without who love the idea of dogs frolicking freely in the waves and on the sand—should head to Huntington’s dog beach at the northernmost end of the city. It’s a rare opportunity for canine owners to let their dogs run free on an impressively long stretch of beach. Also good for families is nearby Seal Beach to the north. For a much more intimate beach experience, Seal Beach offers an utterly charming Main Street chockablock with eateries (head to Beachwood BBQ for a solid craft beer selection and barbecue) and cute independent boutiques.

For a short and scenic coastal drive south from Huntington, head to Laguna Beach, a gorgeous stretch of coastline. Traffic and parking there can be maddening during peak summer season. Rather than go during the middle of the day with the masses, I prefer to head to Laguna around mid-afternoon, grab lunch at the hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint La Sirena Grill, and later explore the tide pools to the backdrop of a breathtaking sunset.

Laguna Beach at sunset is worth the traffic and parking trials.

Laguna Beach at sunset is worth the traffic and parking trials.

Photo by Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

For similarly beautiful bluffs but with fewer crowds, head to Corona del Mar. There are some wonderful alcoves tucked away worth exploring and plenty of rock formations to climb. Of course, Southern California is known for its surf. San Clemente has a solid reputation for consistently great waves. Locals tend to head there for its reliability and to escape the crowds of more well-known beaches in Orange and San Diego counties. And even this here nonsurfer is familiar with The Wedge, a famous surf spot in Newport Beach where there are often spectators when the swell is particularly impressive.

Further afield, take a two- or three-day side trip to San Diego for its amazing zoo, hopping downtown and yes, its beaches. La Jolla beach is a resident favorite, for its cliffs, seals, and smaller town vibe.

Best places to refuel

Head to Pacific City in Huntington Beach for great coffee, dining, and shopping.

Head to Pacific City in Huntington Beach for great coffee, dining, and shopping.

Photo by Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock

One of my favorite ways to start the day in Huntington Beach is at the newer Pacific City, which is home to one of the best coffee spots in Orange County, Portola. It also houses one of my lunch-time go-tos, Bear Flag Fish Co., which serves up the freshest of seafood and offers unobstructed ocean views. For those with kids, this outdoor food and shopping center has a handy foam block play area that will allow you to drink your brew in relative peace while the kiddos burn off energy building blocks. Other great coffee spots that this third-wave coffee snob has vetted and endorsed include Vacancy on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport and Common Room Roasters in neighboring Costa Mesa.

To get a taste of old-school Orange County, head to Jan’s Health Bar on Main Street in Huntington Beach (conveniently several blocks back from PCH, which means it’s usually not too overrun). Jan’s has been around my entire life, and the healthful piled-high sandwiches, salads, and smoothies (the banana date is a classic) are the original SoCal feel-good food. Secret Spot (it’s actually called that) in northern Huntington Beach is a tasty option for a breakfast burrito before or after riding some waves.

Another worthy throwback is taking the ferry (a fun experience in itself) to Balboa Island in neighboring Newport Beach and getting a frozen banana. Two places claim to be the “original”—Dad’s and Sugar ‘n’ Spice. I’m partial to Dad’s.

For a night out, Lido Marina Village in Newport Beach hits all the right notes. It’s scenically situated on Newport Bay and has recently been revamped with brand-new stores and restaurants. Head to Zinqué for a European-influenced brunch or dinner and Lido Bottle Works for craft beer alongside an elevated bar food menu.

>> Next: The Ultimate Orange County Travel Guide

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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