Our Best Beaches: California
California’s coast stretches 1,100 miles and is home to beaches that range from tranquil to rugged and everything in between. A visit to the Golden State is not quite complete without a sunset view from the beach. Here’s our list of California’s best beaches, and the federal lands with recreation opportunities that beckon you—from San Diego to Redwood National Park.
Ocean Beach - San Diego County
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The beach-side community of Ocean Beach is a laid back, funky and eclectic gem. The beach features 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.
- Cabrillo National Monument is the south end of Point Loma and the most southwesterly spot in the contiguous U.S.
- 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.
- 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.
Seal Beach - Orange County
Seal Beach is the quintessential, southern California town. Located in north Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, this is the perfect spot for beautiful white sand, palm trees and a stellar view of the sunset over the Pacific. Beyond skateboards and bikinis, the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge contains 911 acres of saltwater marsh in the Anaheim Bay estuary.
Malibu - Los Angeles County
National Recreation Area (NPS)
A visit here brings you to a region that is rural, glamorous, rugged and scenic. Malibu comes with a rich history—in 1542 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.
While excellent waves are certainly part of the attraction, a short trip to the hills will reward visitors with a refreshing hike in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Channel Islands - 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. Whales and dolphins visit the area every year, plus flourishing seabird colonies that call this area home. You can also 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.
Monterey Bay Beaches - Monterey County
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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 features 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.
San Francisco – San Francisco County
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Though Ocean Beach (not to be confused with Ocean Beach San Diego) 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 National Historic Site once protected San Francisco harbor from Confederate and foreign attacks 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 County. The Beaches of Point Reyes are among some of the favorite attractions for camping, tide pooling, exploring, hiking and experiencing the scenery. Enjoy the view from a different vantage point by touring the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
Arcata Beaches - Humboldt County
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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, a 14-acre island located less than a mile off the Pacific Coast near Crescent City. It has the second largest seabird-nesting colony in California and also hosts a healthy population of harbor seals, northern elephant seals, and California and Steller sea lions looking for a place to rest.
The California Coastal National Monument is located along the entire length of California's shoreline including 1,100 miles from Mexico to Oregon, and extends 12 nautical miles (13.8 land miles) from the mainland. The Point Arena-Stornetta Unit near Fort Bragg is the first mainland unit adding 1,665 acres to the monument. Try a visit to the Point Arena Lighthouse or simply stroll along this spectacular shoreline - the bluffs and coves offer fantastic wildlife viewing and whale watching opportunities.
Redwood National Park - Del Norte County
Though Redwood National Park is famous for our planet’s tallest trees, it also covers about 40 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 Redwood National Park.