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.
Near 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.
Near Los Angeles . . .
El Matador State Beach
El Matador State Beach is easy to miss from the road, but keep your eyes peeled as you drive toward Oxnard. 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.
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
Will Rogers State Beach was often used as the setting for the original TV series Baywatch, before the show relocated to Hawaii. Located in Los Angeles’s ritzy Pacific Palisades neighborhood across the street from the striking Getty Villa museum and gardens, there are plenty of beach activities to enjoy here, from fishing and windsurfing to a pickup game of volleyball. The newly opened Palisades Village (from the same people who run the Grove in West Hollywood) is less than 10 minutes away and has plenty of dining options (Blue Ribbon Sushi, the Draycott, McConnell’s Ice Cream) as well as high-end shopping (Fleur du Mal, Alo, Chanel).
Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica is perhaps Southern California’s most iconic beach. There’s a lot to love: The lively atmosphere, constant opportunities to catch talented buskers, 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). You’ll have to RSVP online as the show gets popular—60,000 people turned up to see Khalid—but the event itself is free. There’s also a dedicated (but very informal) slackline community that practices on the beach. The beachside parking lots are $2 for two hours, while the public parking lots scattered around downtown Santa Monica are free for 90 minutes and a few dollars per hour for anything over that.
The city of Huntington Beach and its 10 miles of uninterrupted coastline are every surf and skate amateur’s dream, with five different beaches. 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. Parking near any part of this stretch will run you about $15 for the day, but if you’re willing to walk a little, you can find cheaper metered parking or free parking a little further into town. Main Street goes through all the restaurants, bars, and shops of downtown and leads straight to the Huntington City Beach pier.
Near 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. One noteworthy detail: This slice of Torrey Pines used to be a nude beach, and parts of it are still clothing optional.
Part of a marine reserve and thus rich in marine life, San Diego’s La Jolla Cove is the ideal place to see sea turtles, dolphins, and seven-gill sharks. The animals are best viewed 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, while restaurants like the family-owned Crab Catcher (and its ocean-facing oyster bar) lend a dash of upscale dining.
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. Stick around for sunset—you might be tempted to capture it, even if dusk photos aren’t typically your thing. Here, the flat beach, distant cliffs, and shining mica in the sand combine to make this beach literally sparkle.
Further Afield . . .
Catalina Island, off the shore of Los Angeles, is accessible only by boat. An hour-long ferry ride from San Pedro ($75 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 onsite. As summer approaches, it’s a good idea to book your reservation ahead through Two Harbors Visitor Services.
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