Our Best Beaches: California
Perhaps there are as many songs written about California as there are grains of sand on the beaches there. Where does that inspiration come from? Witness the Golden State’s natural beauty firsthand and it’s hard to contain your awe.
The 31st state is probably best known for her beaches from San Diego to the Oregon border. Here’s our list of California’s best beaches, and the federal lands and recreation opportunities that beckon you west.
Ocean Beach - San Diego County
The beach side community of OB is a laid back, funky and eclectic gem—which some might call “vintage.” The beaches boast one of the longest piers in Southern California, a dog beach where you’re encouraged to bring your four-legged friends and plenty of other sandy options.
Visit the Cabrillo National Monument, where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on what we now know as the West Coast.
Dive into Californian history at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The museum is dedicated to teaching and preserving the natural history of Southern California and the Baja California peninsula.
And when you want to explore a bit of nature, the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge is one of southern California’s largest remaining uninterrupted salt marshes.The San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge is a 316-acre urban refuge located on the San Diego Bay. Its wetlands provide a safe haven for birds and vegetation unique to the California coast.Learn more...
Seal Beach - Orange County
This is your quintessential, southern California town. Located in North Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, Seal Beach is all about palm trees, white sand, and standing on the pier watching the sun set over surfers in the Pacific. But beyond skateboards and bikinis, many don’t realize that the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge contains 911 acres of saltwater marsh in the Anaheim Bay estuary.Learn more...
Malibu, California - Los Angeles County
Despite its fame, a trip here brings you to a region that is all at once rural, Western, beachy, glamorous, rugged and scenic. Malibu comes with a rich history—in1542 Spanish explorers reported a large village of the Native American Chumash people living here—long before the 1960s brought Beach Blanket Bingo, the surfing legacy or Hollywood stars.Learn more...
Channel Islands National Park - Santa Barbara County
At Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary you’ll be hard pressed to find a more scenic and adventurous beach getaway, overflowing with an abundance of sea life. The water is so crystal clear that you can see the massive kelp forests beneath the surface and 27 species of whales and dolphins visit the area every year as well—plus flourishing seabird colonies that make their homes here. Camp on one of the islands in Channel Islands National Park.The atmosphere is wild yet peaceful, with gorgeous white sand beaches. Hike, explore tide pools, dive, snorkel, kayak, or stand-up paddle (an ancient form of surfing)…the activities are boundless.Learn more...
Monterey Bay Beaches - Monterey County
The vast area of Monterey Bay was designated the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 1992, and these waters stretch almost 300 miles north to south. It’s your typical central coast shoreline: rocky, grand and beautiful. People flock here for surfing, diving, snorkeling, and camping. For a family beach day, Del Monte Beach in Monterey or Santa Cruz is your ticket. If you want to contemplate nature, the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge encompasses sand dunes, pickle weed salt marshes, river lagoons, riverines and a saline pond—with only limited facilities including a parking lot and footpaths.
Or try the Los Padres National Forest, with nearly 2 million acres of coastal mountains—including some of the Big Sur coastline, where you can also camp.Learn more...
San Francisco – San Francisco County
Though Ocean Beach isn’t really known for its typical summertime beach days, this 3.5-mile, spacious stretch of beach is perfect for strolling, running and hiking around, and includes the Sutro Baths and Presidio. But this part of the Pacific Ocean can get tumultuous, angry and downright life-threatening, with huge swells, cold water and sweeping currents. Skilled surfers tackle the waves here—a thrilling scene in the right conditions. Around the corner, Fort Point once protected San Francisco harbor from Confederate and foreign attack during and after the American Civil War. Now, not only is it a great tourist attraction, but it’s also the site of one of California’s most elusive and infamous under-the-radar surf spots, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. You can even camp in view of the bridge at small-but-scenic Kirby Cove campground.
Just north and west of San Francisco Bay, 1,255 square miles of Pacific Ocean make up the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The Farallon Islands are a national wildlife refuge and breeding ground for a plethora of marine life and bird species.Think twice before you swim here though—the area is known for its extensive Great White Shark research.
Point Reyes National Seashore - Marin County
Here lies 80 miles of some of the most scenic coastline you’ll find in the state—all within an hour’s drive from San Francisco. Parts of this wild National Seashore will make you feel like you’ve dropped out of civilization, but you’re still in Marin;you’ve got all the urban luxuries you need just a stone’s throw away. Drakes Beach, Limantour Beach, the Great Beach, Palomarin Beach and Sculptured Beach are among some of the favorite attractions for camping, tide pooling, exploring, hiking around, and marveling at the scenery.Learn more...
Arcata Beaches-Humboldt County
This is an ocean-loving backpacker’s paradise. Humboldt County boasts almost 30 public beaches with flat sandy stretches, coastal bluffs, hidden coves, coastal dunes,rivers, lagoons and abundant wildlife. Visit the King Range National Conservation Area the Lost Coast’s black sand beaches or the Rocks and Islands Wilderness for extraordinary wilderness, seclusion and adventure opportunities
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is on the only deep-water port on California’s North Coast. Onshore, walk flat trails and check out the wetland habitat and wildlife.Offshore, go fishing and kayaking. Explore the Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge, a14-acre island located less than a mile off the Pacific Coast near Crescent City. It’s got the second largest seabird-nesting colony in California and also hosts a healthy population of harbor seals, northern elephant seals, California and Steller sea lions looking for a place to rest.Learn more...
Redwood National Park - Crescent City
Though Redwood National Park is a designated World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and famous for our planet’s tallest trees, the park also covers about40 miles of rugged coastline. The beaches here are secluded, wild and usually accessed by a hiking trail. From nearby Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, you can access Gold Bluffs Beach, which you might recognize as the backdrop for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World but you may find the area practically deserted. From Gold Bluffs Beach, hike the lush Fern Canyon Trail. Crescent Beach has towering forests, panoramic ocean views and a flat and easy hiking trail. Wildflower-carpeted bluffs surround Enderts Beach and Hidden Beach sits just off the coastal trail. Access Carruthers Cove by an easy, 1.4-mile trail. Keep your eye out for grey whales and elk during the right time of year.Come camp at one of four nearby front country State Park campgrounds, or backcountry camp within Redwoods National Park.Learn more...