The 10 Best Beaches in Southern California

From Santa Barbara to San Diego, we’ve narrowed down hundreds of miles to 10 magnificent beaches for your next sunny getaway.

Rocky arches at low tide on El Matador State Beach

During low tide at El Matador State Beach, you’ll be able to walk through the rocky arches.

Photo by Shutterstock

It doesn’t matter where you’re from in Southern California; when you tell people from outside of the Golden State that you hail from its sunnier side, they invariably imagine the same scene: a warm, glowing beach, complete with surfers, oiled-up sunbathers, skateboarders, and boardwalk visitors.
But not all SoCal beaches are created equal, and with some 300 or so miles of coastline to choose from, selecting a beach destination for your trip can be daunting. No matter what kind of beach day you’re looking for, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to the 10 best beaches in Southern California.

Tidepool at Carpinteria State Beach

Carpinteria State Beach has plenty of tide pools for spotting starfish and sea urchins.

Photo by Kris Clifford/Shutterstock

Carpinteria State Beach

  • Closest city: Santa Barbara

About 15 minutes south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria State Beach is a dream for families and anyone interested in small aquatic creatures. The beach is known for its many tide pools, which give visitors a peek at starfish, crabs, sea urchins, and even octopuses in the wild. The coastal city of Carpinteria has major small-town charm, with its many antiques shops and locally owned microbreweries, such as Island Brewing Company and Apiary Ciderworks.

El Matador State Beach

  • Closest city: Los Angeles

El Matador State Beach is easy to miss from the road, but keep your eyes peeled as you drive north of Malibu. The tiny beach is striking, with building-sized natural rock tunnels covered in seaweed, sand caves, and exotic-looking birds like loons and cormorants. A rickety set of stairs leads you down to the shore. When the tide is low, you’ll be able to walk through most of the rocky arches—and you may run into an engagement photo shoot or two. Parking is limited in the area (the beach’s only lot accommodates just 20 cars), so go early to snag a spot and you’ll have the beach practically to yourself all day long.

Zuma Beach

Trek up the hiking trail at Zuma Beach for full views of Santa Monica Bay.

Photo by R Scapinello/Shutterstock

Zuma Beach

  • Closest city: Malibu

This beloved Malibu beach is somehow blissfully clear of crowds. At the southern edge, Point Dume is a destination for whale-watching from December until mid-April. A slow ascent up the nature preserve’s hiking trail offers full views of the Santa Monica Bay and even a glimpse of Catalina Island in the distance. The best part? There’s free parking along the Pacific Coast Highway right across the street from the secluded beach—something you definitely won’t find anywhere else in Los Angeles.

Will Rogers State Beach

  • Closest city: Los Angeles

Will Rogers State Beach was often used as the setting for the original TV series Baywatch, before the show relocated to Hawai‘i. It’s located in Los Angeles’s ritzy Pacific Palisades neighborhood across the street from the striking Getty Villa museum and gardens, and there are plenty of beach activities to enjoy here, including fishing, windsurfing, and pickup games of volleyball. Palisades Village (from the same people who run the Grove in West Hollywood) is less than 10 minutes away and has ample dining options (Blue Ribbon Sushi, the Draycott, McConnell’s Ice Cream) as well as high-end shopping (Diptyque, Aesop, Chanel).

Santa Monica Beach

  • Closest city: Santa Monica

Santa Monica is perhaps Southern California’s most iconic beach. There’s a lot to love; the lively atmosphere, beachside bars such as the Bungalow, and the many oceanfront cafés and restaurants all make it a must-hit spot. The pier, with its famous Ferris wheel, hosts a free autumn concert series with up-and-coming as well as well-known artists (previous performers include Khalid, Lemaitre, Rufus du Sol, Borns, and Mavis Staples). The beachside parking lots are $2 for two hours.

Pier at Huntington Beach

The city of Huntington Beach has five beaches to choose from.

Photo by Alice Sverker/Shutterstock

Huntington Beach

  • Closest city: Huntington Beach

This stretch of uninterrupted coastline is every surf and skate amateur’s dream, with five different beaches in 10 miles. Huntington City Beach is home to the pier and hosts all types of events throughout the year, from skate competitions to the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing. At Huntington State Beach, a little further south, there are one-off events and festivals throughout the year featuring acts like Toby Keith and Blink-182.

If you’re new to surfing but want to learn, Bolsa Chica State Beach is the place to go, with calmer swells that are more suited for beginners. Bringing your pooch? Huntington Dog Beach—home to a dog surfing competition and one of the largest corgi beach parties in the United States—is great for dog owners and lovers. Main Street goes through all the restaurants, bars, and shops of downtown and leads straight to the Huntington City Beach pier.

Torrey Pines coastal hiking trail

The Torrey Pines hiking trail follows the coast and overlooks the beach.

Photo by Chad McDermott/Shutterstock

Torrey Pines

  • Closest city: San Diego

About 20 minutes north of San Diego in Del Mar, Torrey Pines State Reserve and Beach has a hiking trail that snakes along the coast and overlooks Southern California’s coastline and Pacific Ocean. If you’re looking to sunbathe, there are plenty of opportunities to hike down to the beach as well.

Because Torrey Pines is a nature reserve and not a state park, food and beverages other than water are limited to the beaches and dogs aren’t allowed in the area. At the southern end, a secluded spit of land called Black’s Beach is a must-see but notoriously difficult to reach. Look for a small trail to the left of the main lot off Torrey Pines Drive, and ignore the “no beach access” sign. Black’s Beach has some of the best surfing in the area and never has loads of tourists or families.

Note: This slice of Torrey Pines used to be a nude beach, and parts of it are still clothing optional.

Seals at La Jolla Cove

Grab some scuba gear and head into the water with the seals at La Jolla Cove.

Photo by Shutterstock

La Jolla Cove

  • Closest city: San Diego

Part of a marine reserve and thus rich in marine life, San Diego’s La Jolla Cove is the ideal place to view sea turtles, dolphins, and seven-gill sharks. The animals are best seen in the water, so bring your scuba or snorkel gear or rent it from one of the shops along the beach. The sapphire water and surrounding cliffs make for a dramatic backdrop that give this spot the vibe of a Fijian island.

Coronado Beach

  • Closest city: San Diego

Cross the Coronado Bridge from downtown San Diego onto Coronado Island, which is home to suburban-style homes, the Naval base, and a beach view that belongs on a postcard. Here, the flat beach, distant cliffs, and shining mica in the sand combine to make this beach literally sparkle.

Catalina Island

  • Closest city: Los Angeles

Catalina Island, off the shore of Los Angeles, is accessible only by boat and a perfect destination for a weekend getaway. An hour-long ferry ride from San Pedro (around $84 round-trip) will get you to Two Harbors (one of the Catalina’s two cities, along with Avalon). From there, explore the beaches by renting a kayak (available from Two Harbor Dive & Recreation Center, Wet Spot Rentals, and others) and paddling out for the day. Or go all out and boat in with weekender supplies, including camping basics, which you can rent from Two Harbor Visitor Services. If you decide to camp, a ranger will check you in on site. As summer approaches, it’s a good idea to book your reservation ahead through Two Harbors Visitor Services.

Other options for beach camping in California include Scorpion Ranch in Channel Islands National Park and Kirk Creek Campground further north in Big Sur.

This article was originally published in March 2019 and was updated in November 2022 with new information.

Sarah Purkrabek is a Los Angeles-based travel writer.
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