Anywhere you go along the iconic Golden State coastline, the beaches work their magic. Some are rugged and inaccessible; others are crowded with people and activities. The beaches here play a role in the California lifestyle that inspires generation after generation to seek their fortune, follow their bliss and get in touch with nature. Travelers who are lucky enough to visit California will find a beach to fit their personality and their dreams.
A historic coastal city due west of Los Angeles, Santa Monica is justly famous for its beach and pier. Palisades Park, Muscle Beach, Pacific Park amusement park—these locales crop up again and again in pop culture depictions of LA and Hollywood. The beach itself stretches for 3.5 miles of rolling surf and is popular with volleyball players, surfers, and cyclists riding the Marvin Braude Beach Trail.
Dana Point has more than one beach. Seven beautiful seasides sprawl around the dramatic headlands and secluded coves of this coastal region between LA and San Diego. Beaches such as Salt Creek, Monarch Bay, and family-friendly Dana Point Harbour beach—aka Baby Beach—offer wide shallow shorelines and a much less touristed version of the California beach experience. Dana Strand is great for gawking at the million-dollar mansions just past the sand, and Capistrano Beach Park is popular with surfers at certain times of the year when the wind kicks up.
This storied playground of the rich and famous is suitably stunning and far from the urban jungle of LA. The Malibu series of beaches run along the Pacific Coast Highway below cliffs dotted with Hollywood mansions. Beachfront homes are equally exclusive. Wide and sandy Zuma Beach, Point Dume, Malibu Colony, Surfrider—these are iconic beaches for surfing and sunning. Although the area has been hard hit by wildfires in recent years, the Malibu coastline continues to anchor a cohesive community heavily invested in an active outdoor lifestyle.
A beach community just south of San Luis Obispo, Pismo is an off the beaten track Pacific coast wonder. Besides tanning, surfing or exploring the region's wineries, sea kayaking to Dinosaur Caves Park will appeal to adventurous types. Here hiking trails follow steep bluffs up to incredible lookout points. Pismo is also an annual stopping point in the monarch butterfly migration south. You can photograph the orange beauties as they shelter at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove in the fall and early winter months.
Lined with cypress trees, Carmel Beach is an iconic central coast white sand beach. Head to or from the beach via the charming town of Carmel-By-the-Sea, which is filled with scenic bluff trails and a series of boardwalks and stairways. Dogs-friendly areas and nightly beach fires add a laid back vibe to the town. The area is well served by inns and restaurants that cater to the surf crowd and those visitors seeking the California good life.
The Monterey Peninsula, located south of San Francisco, is an especially scenic part of the California coastline. Rugged and wild, the area is dotted with pocket beaches tucked amidst the cliffs. One of the most popular is next to Fisherman's Wharf in the town of Monterey proper. End your sun-filled beach day with a seafood dinner, as locals have for centuries. Golfers should note that the area is also notable for the quality of its courses, including the famous one at Pebble Beach.
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, the artist's colony of Laguna Beach is nestled within a 7-mile protected swathe of the California coastline. A surfer's paradise, beaches such as Treasure Island and Thousand Steps feature natural tide pools and sea caves, making it fun to explore on foot or by kayak. It doesn't hurt that the seaside town itself is well resourced with lots of galleries, restaurants and chic shopping.
Also known as Surf City USA, this branded series of beaches are a draw for surfers seeking the perfect break. In nearby Huntington town, the International Surfing Museum and Hall of Fame pays tribute to the region's hang ten legacies. Non-surfers will appreciate the wide shorelines, the famous Huntington Beach pier, and boardwalk that connects the town and its beach.
Hikers will appreciate the beach rewards at the end of some of the best backcountry trail systems in the country. Part of Crystal Cove State Park, south of San Francisco, Moro Beach and Pelican Point are pristine and protected from development. Head for nearby Newport Beach if you're looking for more organized activities and amusements.
An iconic American beach better known for its eccentric surf-side bodybuilding culture than the quality of its sand, Venice Beach is in a class of its own. If you're not into pumping iron and posing, stroll along the legendary palm-lined boardwalk and soak up the bohemian meets amusement park vibe. This is beach living at its most vibrant.