There are few things that exemplify the spirit of California as precisely as its beaches. With a coastline stretching 840 miles, the state is home to over 400 public beaches (and plenty of private ones for those in the know), offering everything from ideal surf conditions to dreamy wedding backdrops. While the stereotypical SoCal aesthetic has become synonymous with the California beach experience (think: year-round sunshine and constant volleyball competitions), there is plenty of diversity to discover throughout the state’s beaches, including hiking trails in the North Bay Area and purple sand in Big Sur. Get to know the best beaches in California and learn what makes each one uniquely special.
- Best for: A unique day that guarantees Instagram-worthy photos
It’s not often you’d find the site of a former trash dump on a list of must-visit beaches, but Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach is one of the most sought-out sea glass destinations in the state. All along the pebbly shore, smooth, flattened remnants of broken bottles pepper the scene with mesmerizing colors and textures. Visitors are discouraged from pocketing the pieces, but that hasn’t stopped many from taking home souvenirs shaped by the sea. Still, even though the beach isn’t strewn with quite as much colored glass as it once was, there is plenty to admire and photograph at this special stretch of coastline.
Bodega Bay Beach
- Best for: Cinephiles and seafood lovers
It’s impossible to extoll Bodega Bay Beach without the obligatory mention of Alfred Hitchcock. The famed filmmaker shot his iconic movie The Birds in the tiny village a few miles from the shore, and Hollywood historians will definitely want to check out the many filming locations in the area. (And yes, there are plenty of bird-watching tours at the beach for those not permanently scarred by the horror flick.) After taking in the local fliers, visitors often seek out the area’s famous seafood, with freshly caught crab, salmon, rockfish, and more featured on the menus of the Tides Wharf Restaurant (featured in The Birds, of course).
- Best for: Dog lovers who can’t bear to part with their pooches
Located on the northern end of Marin County, the beach is home to Dillon Beach Resort (do yourself a favor and grab lunch at its Coastal Kitchen). It’s a private beach and, like many Californian beaches, you’ll need to pay to park. Considered one of the area’s most dog-friendly outdoor destinations, Dillon Beach allows pups to be off-leash between the tide line and the water. The nearby campgrounds and RV parks also make Dillon Beach a prime spot for road-trippers, but the resort itself offers a selection of dog-friendly cottages and cabins for those seeking a cozy stay with their canine friends.
- Best for: Nature-loving hikers seeking memorable views
Located about 20 miles northwest of San Francisco, Stinson Beach is a white-sand stretch of natural wonder for outdoor enthusiasts who prefer to stay active while taking in the sights. While the towns of Stinson Beach and Bolinas are quaint spots for boutique shopping (check out the nearby La Sirena Bo-tique for homemade goods) and local eats (Parkside Cafe is famous for its house-baked breads and pastries), the beach itself is the main attraction for hikers, joggers, and even swimmers (depending on the season; Northern California isn’t exactly known for warm waters). With a variety of trails ranging from easy-peasy to seriously challenging, Stinson Beach is a hiker’s haven. Trails leading from the waterfront to natural beauties like Cataract Falls and Alpine Dam take hikers through woods, meadows, and steep mountains. The most hardcore climbers can tackle a 15-mile loop with more than 3,500 feet of elevation to conquer Mount Tamalpais.
- Best for: Watching whales, butterflies, and birds
If you’re more into the beach scene for the wildlife than the surf or sand, head to Muir Beach for the very best closeup views. Located three miles west of the legendary Muir Woods (one of the Bay Area’s last remaining redwood forests with some 1,000-year-old trees soaring 250 feet high), Muir Beach is accessible via a 450-foot-long pedestrian bridge that offers sights of whales, birds, and butterflies galore. The Overlook is a popular spot to glimpse marine mammals making their winter migration, and a small nearby grove is the perfect spot to see thousands of monarch butterflies make their own migration to the coast during late August and September. And those who are game to stroll the marshy wetlands may spot a variety of shorebirds, including sandpipers, killdeer, and the marbled godwit.
- Best for: Impressing out-of-towners visiting the City by the Bay
San Francisco’s Ocean Beach is beautiful in its own right, but its nearly perpetual fog makes it a tough sell as a tourist attraction. But just a short drive through the city’s Richmond District brings residents and visitors to the mile-long Baker Beach, which offers a picture-perfect panoramic view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. The slightly warmer microclimate makes the sand a little more hospitable to sun worshippers and those brave enough to dunk in the waves on a rare hot day, but the perspective is really the main attraction. The north end of the beach has historically (and unofficially) been recognized as clothing-optional, so be aware before venturing too far toward the bridge.
Ocean Beach (San Francisco)
- Best for: Advanced surfers to practice their skills and devoted spectators to watch the action
While the generally frigid conditions at San Francisco’s famed Ocean Beach are enough to keep sunbathers away most days (average temperatures stay between 40° and 65°F year-round), experienced surfers rave about the board-friendly water. The 3.5-mile stretch of sand means there’s never too many wave riders in one spot, but the intensity of the rip current and extra-long distance to paddle out generally make the waves expert-only territory. But that doesn’t mean the beach isn’t suitable for everyone. Plenty of spectators park their cars and post up along the sidewalk above the sand to observe the pros. And both the advanced crowd and their viewing audience are all about it, showing up in their weather-appropriate hoodies, puffer jackets, and long pants with the surfers switching to mandatory wet suits in the parking lot.
Santa Cruz Main Beach
- Best for: Old-school amusement park vibes
Anyone who grew up as far north as Marin and as far south as Santa Barbara likely remembers a steady rotation of Santa Cruz Beach Bordwalk commercials set to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Since 1907, the seaside amusement park has been a California family staple, with free admission, summer entertainment, and a variety of roller coasters. Two of the park’s rides are even considered National Historic Landmarks: the wooden Giant Dipper from 1924 and the nostalgic Looff Carousel built in 1911. The site has also been upgraded throughout the years and now features everything from a two-story miniature golf course to a laser tag arena, so kids (and let’s face it: grown-ups) are in for a full day of fun at the beach, even if they don’t dip a toe in the ocean.
- Best for: Seaside weddings and milestone events that call for scenic backdrops
There are plenty of picturesque wedding venues throughout the state, but for couples craving an oceanfront ceremony and anyone looking to throw an epic party, Carmel Beach is considered a top-tier venue. Not only is the mile or so of fine white sand the perfect setting for barefoot nuptials and memorable birthday blowouts, but the location also offers uninterrupted sunset views and plenty of nearby venues like Grasing’s and Little Napoli for dinners, receptions, and celebrations of all sorts. The Mediterranean- and Spanish-style architecture throughout the surrounding town of Carmel-by-the-Sea also means that your album and Instagram feed will be full of one-of-a-kind photo ops and dreamy, dramatic shots, whether you’re here for a wedding or just passing by.
- Best for: Completely unplugging
If the majestic rock arches and stunning purple sand aren’t enough to pull visitors away from their phones, the tranquil atmosphere at Pfeiffer Beach will make it easy to completely unwind and unplug. Located in Big Sur, the famed beach features an array of natural spectacles, like the Keyhole Arch, a rock formation that allows waves (and sunset rays) to pass through. And of course, the purple sand is a spectacular sight, taking its hue from the nearby cliffs’ manganese garnet rocks. Bring along a high-quality camera if you can, but silence your notifications and sign out of your email for the duration of your visit.
- Best for: A possible celeb sighting
Anyone planning a beach day for the people-watching alone will want to check out Santa Barbara’s famed Butterfly Beach, located in the chic, celebrity-filled village of Montecito. Oprah Winfrey famously owns a compound in the area and calls Prince Harry and Meghan Markle her neighbors. But aside from a potential run-in with an A-lister, visitors to Butterfly Beach can partake in a variety of activities ranging from the athletic (stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking are popular) to the sophisticated (the nearby Four Seasons Biltmore serves up Italian-inspired fare with a panoramic ocean view).
El Matador State Beach
- Best for: A really rugged beach experience
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.
Will Rogers State Beach
- Best for: Fun in the sun with a famous backdrop
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
- Best for: Combining beach life with big city attractions
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 Independence, 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.
- Best for: Watching surfers and skaters—with your dog if you have one
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 made 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.
La Jolla Cove
- Best for: Kayaking among an abundance of marine life
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.
Michelle Konstantinovsky wrote about all the beaches from Glass Beach to Butterfly Beach. Sarah Purkrabek covered those from El Matador to La Jolla Cove.