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California is one of the most scenic, eclectic, and diverse states in the nation. A global vacation destination and home to the movie capital of the world, the Golden State is best known for its stunning scenery, celebrity sightings, world-class wineries, and chic shopping. But the real stars of the west coast state are the beaches.
Stretching from Imperial Beach on the Mexican border to Pelican State Beach, 3 minutes from the Oregon border, hundreds of beaches line the Pacific coastline.
From family-fun Santa Monica and quaint Catalina to the stretch of many OC surf spots, California beaches are truly golden.
Blessed with a year-round mild climate and miles of beautifully rugged Pacific coastline, the beaches in Southern California are iconically American. Perfect for relaxing, enjoying nature, and playing in the sunshine, endless water adventures abound.
Sea kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, wakeboarding, surfing, fishing, and bodyboarding are only a few of the many popular water sports dotting the coast, with volleyball, basketball, running, and hiking more beachgoer favorites.
With so many things to do and gorgeous places to visit along these sandy shores, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite beaches in So Cal. (Look for our upcoming posts on the best beaches in Malibu, NoCal, and the OC.)
Just take one look at Laguna’s stunning 7-mile coastline and you’ll understand why people flock to this artsy So Cal beach town.
North of San Diego and south of Los Angeles, Laguna Beach is one of the most spectacular sites in the nation. The only marine reserve in Southern California, Laguna Beach is renowned for its pristine waters, abundant sea life, and perfectly-kept beaches. A vibrant community, Laguna is a great place to get centered, unwind and enjoy the convergence of art, nature, relaxation, and adventure. It’s a year-round retreat for art lovers, outdoor adventurers, beachgoers, families, and couples.
By land, Laguna Beach is one of the only SoCal destinations where you can stay at a hotel right on the beach with more beachfront and oceanfront lodging than any other city in the state of California.
Full of rocky reefs and craggy outcroppings to explore, the town's underwater landscape is a star attraction. The zoning for Marine Protected Areas that went into effect in 2012 has led to dramatic increases in the size and quantity of fish and larger mammals like seals and dolphins.
Visible rocks that jut out of the water provide endless options for undersea exploration. Snorkeling, scuba diving, paddleboarding, and surfing are all Lagna Beach standouts. Because of the beach’s angle, wave heights can vary from one extreme to another within the same block. Some smaller swells will miss the town entirely, but when a huge wave hits, it hits big, so use precaution when exploring the Laguna Beach surf.
Scuba: Cleo Street Beach
Swimming: Main Beach
Skim Boarding: Aliso Beach Park
Surfing: Brooks Street, Rockpile
Stand-up Paddleboarding (SUP): Diver’s Cove, Shaw’s Cove, Cleo, Pearl Street Beach
Snorkeling: Shaw's Cove, Diver's Cove, and Thousand Steps
A dreamy Southern California beach destination, La Jolla Shores is a well-protected mile-long beach with gentle waves, making it perfect for kids and watersport newbies.
The largest stretch of flat sand in San Diego, with plenty of space to spread out even on busy days, La Jolla Shores is more than just a beach, it’s a complete vacation destination.
Be sure to pack your snorkeling gear and wet suit when you head out to La Jolla Shores and be prepared for water adventures galore. Kayakers can cruise out to the many sea caves; boogie boarders can ride the gentle surf; and snorkelers can spot unusual marine life like sheep crabs and leopard sharks. One of the best places to take surf lessons in San Diego, La Jolla Shores’ reefs cause the waves to break gently.
Kids will love the huge playground adjacent to the beach and the 6,000-acre La Jolla Underwater Park. Everyone will enjoy the wide variety of eateries and shops within walking distance.
La Jolla Shores is a dog and kid-friendly place to kick back, relax, and enjoy the warm California sunshine; a not-to-miss SoCal beach where the weather is always mild, the surf is always gentle, and the sun is (almost) always shining.
If you want to leave the hectic city-life behind, a ride up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to the beach towns of Malibu is a must. The beach community of Malibu is home to many jaw-dropping celebrity homes with front row seats of the ocean.
With over 21 miles of Pacific Ocean hugging coastline, Malibu is the perfect escape from LA’s urban chaos.
There are a wide variety of beaches lining Malibu’s magnificent coastline, but if we had to pick one, it would have to be Point Dume. (Look for our upcoming post for more about the Best Beaches in Malibu.)
Malibu's broad, pearly beaches stretch along 25 coastal miles, but Point Dume, with just one mile of ocean frontage and 34 acres of sand, is a tiny gem that shouldn’t be missed.
Public beach stairs at Dume Cove in Malibu, California
A promontory that forms the northern boundary of Santa Monica Bay, Point Dume, popular water activities include swimming, diving, surfing, and scuba diving. Famous for the rusty staircase that connects Point Dume to East Beach, those seeking a truly chill Malibu vibe can walk all the way to a serene isolated beach with fine tide-pooling opportunities.
After an awesome day at the beach, head to town to explore this opulent, but quintessentially Southern Californian beach town with funky fooderies, cool shops, and a vibrant art community.
Look one way on Newport Beach, and you’ll see oceanfront mansions and a yacht-lined harbour. Look another, and you’ll find historic cottages, dive bars, and ice cream bars. Centered around the town’s 8 mile-beach and harbor, Newport’s eclectic blend of opulent living and world-class waves gives the water-centric town a vibe all its own.
The city’s heart and soul revolve around the harbor, which comprises two bodies of water: Upper Newport Bay, an ecological reserve ringed by a 10-mile loop trail that attracts bird watchers, joggers, equestrians, and cyclists, and Lower Newport Bay, featuring chic little shops and fine dining spots. A thriving surf scene with the best bodysurfing spots and raucous waves that can easily reach 20 feet in height.
When visiting Newport Beach, be sure to visit charming Balboa Island. With a vibe that speaks more to a quaint East Coast harborfront village, complete with a 1.6-mile boardwalk that surrounds the island, filled with cute mom-and-pop shops, arcades, and rides, Balboa is distinct from the rest of Newport’s upper crust Southern Californian settlements.
Known as the American Riviera, Butterfly Beach is located along Channel Drive in the upscale community of Montecito. Popular with locals and celebrities who walk their dogs at the water’s edge, one of the coolest things about Butterfly Beach is the natural staircase that makes it possible to walk all the way to East Beach at low tide.
Butterfly Beach is a great destination for watersport enthusiasts with ocean kayaking, whale watching cruises, and high-speed catamaran rides. After the beach, the activities are endless with horseback riding, wine tasting tours, bike rentals, art galleries, fine dining, and beachside concerts.
Santa Barbara is a great place for families with playgrounds, parks, boat rides, and museums just for kids throughout this popular California beach town.
Because Butterfly Beach is one of the few beaches in Santa Barbara with a west-facing orientation, it’s an idyllic spot to watch the sun go down over the Pacific.
Otherwise known as Surf City, USA, Huntington Beach has long been popular for being one of the best beaches for surfing in California.
Located south of Los Angeles in Ocean Country, Huntingdon Beach begins at Beach Boulevard and stretches two miles to the Santa Ana River Channel, an amazing place for sunbathing, surfing, paddleboarding, and chilling just after the midday heat.
One of the biggest attractions of this beach, besides to wild waves, are the bonfires and fire rings that allow visitors to BBQ on the beach.
When heading to the beach, don’t forget to pack the essentials!